Changes Coming: US Army leaders have talked about cutting soldiers from brigades and replacing them with unmanned platforms. (US Army)
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WASHINGTON — Taken separately, several speeches, briefings and interviews conducted by US Army leadership over the past two weeks don’t necessarily look like anything special.
When viewed as a whole, however, one can see a developing strategic narrative at work as the service — which is suffering more under sequestration and Pentagon cutbacks than the other services — tries to adjust to a time of relative scarcity after a decade of big budgets padded liberally with wartime supplemental funds.
When the narrative is pieced together, it holds that in the future the Army will need to get to the battlefield more quickly, with fewer troops — some replaced by unmanned systems — and with lighter, more mobile equipment than available.
To get there, the Army has dropped a few scattershot details in recent weeks, all of which fit into the broader plan being outlined to the public. That includes a proposal to pull all of the Apache attack helicopters out of the National Guard and hand them over to the active component (giving the Guard Black Hawks in return).
Another example: Potentially eliminating up to 1,000 soldiers from 4,000-soldier brigade combat teams and replacing them with technologies such as unmanned ground and air vehicles.
While the Army isn’t about to wither away to nothing, it will likely flirt with being reduced to around 400,000 soldiers for the first time since before World War II. The service’s presumed acceptance of this is reflected in the emerging strategic narrative, which prioritizes speed, agility, small formations and manned/unmanned teaming, both in the air and on the ground.
Indeed, the talking point over the past two annual Unified Quest war games has been the need to make the force faster, lighter and more agile.
Leadership has been vague as to why these requirements are now considered so essential, but it’s easy to see the lessons that Army brass has taken from recent conflicts, such as the 2006 Israeli thrust into Lebanon, the French intervention in Mali and the emerging role of ground forces in places such as South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
In the future, “we have to be expeditionary,” Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said Jan. 23. “We have to be prepared to deploy very quickly. We have to get there in small packages. We have to get there with the least amount of support necessary. We have to be able to go to remote areas.”
In a Jan. 22 conference call with reporters, Maj. Gen. Bill Hix, deputy director, Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), emphasized that in a recent strategic trends seminar, Army planners agreed that the force needs to become “leaner, more expeditionary, more responsive and able to deploy more rapidly” than it is now.
But developing a force to do so is complicated.
“If there’s an implosion in North Korea or in Pakistan you are going to have to move extremely fast,” said Maren Leed of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But the question is how much are we willing to pay” to develop such a force.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have allowed soldiers to get used to deploying to fixed locations for extended tours, and at the same time, the service’s ground vehicles have been weighed down by new layers of armor to protect soldiers from rockets and roadside bombs.
So the key, in the postwar years, is to get back some of that lost mobility, while keeping protection at a maximum. That’s likely behind the service’s decision not to fight too loudly or publicly against the gutting of the Ground Combat Vehicle program.
The chief essentially threw up his hand about the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) during a Jan. 23 speech, saying “do we need a new infantry fighting vehicle? Yes. Can we afford a new infantry fighting vehicle now? No.”
He said the Army will keep working so that “three to four years from now” it can perhaps get back to building a new infantry fighting vehicle to replace the aging Bradley.
But while Odierno insisted that “we have the requirements right” on the GCV, the eagerness of his deputies to reexamine the requirements belies his confidence.
Just the day before, Hix noted that “the GCV is evidence of the fact that we need to make a [science and technology] investment” in the size and weight of ground vehicles. The GCV was set to weigh as much as 70 tons, which would make it difficult to haul across the globe quickly, cheaply or en masse. He promised that “we are going back and looking at all of the components of combat vehicles” to find where they can shave off weight.
In an interview with Defense News, ARCIC chief Lt. Gen. Keith Walker said that the service is going to have to “fundamentally change the nature of the force, and that would require a breakthrough in science and technology.”
During remarks at the Army Aviation Symposium in Arlington, Va., on Jan. 15, Gen. Robert Cone, head of the service’s Training and Doctrine Command, told the audience, “I’ve got clear guidance to think about what if you could robotically perform some of the tasks in terms of maneuverability, in terms of the future of the force.”
This is a lot to undertake, especially for a service still fighting a war in Afghanistan. But the big ideas the Army is floating are perhaps the only way for it to retain the strategic overmatch that it has long boasted it enjoys over adversaries.
During the so-called “procurement holiday” of the 1990s, the Army jealously protected its research-and-development budgets, which laid the groundwork for many of the wartime innovations of the past decade.
Likewise, while the service is being squeezed by personnel accounts, which are taking up almost half of its budget, “we have to make the smart decisions about where to invest,” Hix said. The Army is working with the intelligence community to determine where potential opponents are investing “to see where we may be in a contested space,” he said.
Whether the Army’s insistence on speed and agility pays off in the end — or whether it can truly identify leap-ahead technologies — will be discovered by the next generation of grunts on the battlefield. ■