For the US Army, everything is on the table.
During the service’s yearly senior leader seminar Nov. 20, the Army’s top uniformed leadership for the first time called for a look at cutting the size of the squad from nine soldiers to as low as six, while reminding subordinates that the service is shrinking and likely won’t be able to afford new leap-ahead technologies in the near future.
And briefing slides referenced vehicles half the weight of the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), which enjoys dwindling support among the brass.
Going smaller while focusing investments on increasing the combat punch a small unit can bring to bear will “make us more affordable, yet as capable” as the service is now, one leading general said. A key point is also to become faster and more expeditionary.
One senior leader said that in coming years, the Army will have to “reduce the size of our formations but increase the capability of our formations. ...If we can be more effective with less people it will make us more expeditionary.”
A handful of reporters were allowed to sit in on the briefing under the condition that names not be used.
This talk about moving faster comes in response to the fact that the Army will primarily be a domestically based force in the coming years. The idea that rapid deployability to hot spots around the world will be a key to future conflicts is one that the Army is taking very seriously.
This new push has generated a new Army catchphrase: “Speed that matters.”
The thinking goes that speed can act as a deterrent to adversaries. The idea was also floated during the seminar that having a rapidly deployable force provides civilian leadership with more leverage and “decision space” in which to politically exploit an adversary’s weakness.
While leadership has “latched on to this idea that we need speed to buy time for decision makers, I don’t see the policy makers saying the reason I can’t make decisions is because the Army isn’t moving fast enough,” said Maren Leed, a frequent Army adviser and analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
One general complained that “our Army is too heavy and reliant” on the other services for lift to other parts of the globe. The answer for the future, he said, is to “tailor our heavy forces into smaller, more capable force packages. ...The Navy and Air Force are both reducing strategic lift.” Without upgrading heavy lift capabilities, it will take the Army weeks to get all of the necessary gear overseas.
But getting to the fight only means so much. It’s what you bring to the fight — and the way you fight — that worries the service.
“We have about a five-year gap in our modernization” plan on the horizon, one four-star estimated, and the coming gap “means we have no choice: We have to go to the innovative approach. Our budget is driving us that way.”
The “innovative approach” will lead the Army away from simply building on existing platforms and technologies and toward a search for new armor and other technological advances that may pan out in coming years as the service pinches its pennies by placing some key modernization programs on hold.
Chief among them is the GCV program, on which the Army has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars but can’t reduce the vehicle’s weight to less than 70 tons — a weight that would make it heavier than a fully loaded Abrams tank.
For comparison, the Bradley fighting vehicle, which can carry about seven soldiers — less than a full nine-man squad —weighs about 33 tons, while the 19-ton Stryker can carry a squad.
One GCV-unfriendly slide sketched out the path that the Army wants its heavy troop carriers to go. Tellingly, the vision for 2030 showed a platform that weighed 30 tons, less than half of the GCV, which has been scheduled to go into production at the end of this decade.
The Army has publicly walked back its support for the program in recent weeks, saying that it will likely continue work on the GCV for several years longer than it had originally anticipated in order to get the requirements right.
The seminar at Fort Lesley J. McNair was not only to hash out future operating concepts but also for senior leadership to be briefed on the latest iteration of the yearly Unified Quest war game, which pits the projected Army of the near future against a problem.
Last year’s fight was against a nuclear-armed failed state that was a thinly veiled stand-in for North Korea. The 2013 version looked much like Syria, with the fight taking place in the failed state of “Sasani,” which had lost control of its chemical weapons. Terrorists smuggled the chemicals out of the country and attacked the mainland United States with them, causing several divisions of American troops to invade in order to secure the remaining weapons, while providing humanitarian assistance to the civilian population.
The Army gamed the fight out in two ways.
One was to use the current investment approach to project what technologies would exist in 2030, and the other was to follow a path that would lead to leap-ahead technologies, like the 30-ton protected ground vehicle and huge advances in tilt-rotor vertical lift and “significant investments in joint strategic mobility.”
It’s no surprise that the team that represented the vision the Army would like to sketch out for itself performed superbly, while the fiscally constrained force faltered.
The less modernized force took seven weeks to begin ground operations, while the “innovative” force was on the ground in two weeks, with the opening assault involving a Stryker brigade being airdropped into the country.
But one general took exception to some of the assumptions under which planners labored. He made one briefer stop in the middle of his presentation, complaining that there simply won’t be enough money in coming years to invest in big advances in new cargo airplanes and helicopters that would get troops to a hot spot as quickly as the game allowed.
“Let’s assume we’re not going to get a significant investment in joint strategic power projection,” he said. Instead, planners should focus on “making ourselves smaller.”
The Army can’t control how the Navy and Air Force spend their money, he argued, and in the coming years the other services will be focused on their own combat capabilities and will not invest in getting the Army to where it needs to go. “Like it or not that’s not their priorities. ... We have to control our own destiny, and to control our own destiny, we have to reduce the amount [of troops and equipment] that has to be moved.”
It was a moment of clarity from a general who, two years after the passage of the Budget Control Act, which made sequestration the law of the land, still has to remind Army planners that the new normal will be messy and may blow apart some long-held assumptions of resetting the force.