Twenty-five years ago, late in the afternoon of Feb. 26, 1991, 260 American soldiers with 19 tanks and 26 Bradley fighting vehicles in the two lead cavalry troops of an 1,100 man armored cavalry battle group charged out of a sandstorm and caught the rear guard of Iraq’s Republican Guard Corps in the open desert along the North-South grid line referred to as “73 Easting.”
Taken by surprise, the numerically superior, full-strength, 2,500-man Iraqi brigade with T-72 tanks in defensive positions supported by mines, artillery and infantry with anti-tank weapons was swept away in a battle of annihilation. Attacking American soldiers lost one dead, six wounded and one destroyed Bradley.
Americans in Washington were surprised. A chorus of television pundits, academics and retired Army generals had warned that American soldiers would suffer heavy casualties. Retired Army Chief of Staff Gen. Edward Meyer actually declared that war with Iraq would produce 10,000 to 30,000 US casualties.
The generals commanding Army forces in the Middle East worried that Meyer was right. They had not seen action since Vietnam and they irrationally inflated the Iraqi Army’s fighting power. They should have known better.
The courageous and intelligent performance of American soldiers in battle of 73 Easting was testimony to the superior combination of training, technology and human capital that the US Army’s post-Vietnam leadership, Gens. William DePuy, Paul Gorman and Donn Starry, began building in the mid-1970s.
DePuy, the commander of Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), was the principal force driving change. DePuy saw warfare through a different lens. He had led an infantry platoon from Utah Beach through the Battle of the Bulge in WW II.
DePuy acknowledged the US Army’s defeat in Vietnam, but he knew the US Army had to change its focus to fight a capable opponent like the Soviet armed forces. Israel’s sobering experience in the 1973 war with Egypt and Syria reinforced DePuy’s conviction that the Army needed a new warfighting doctrine to guide investments in human capital, organization, and technology. The battle of 73 Easting was DePuy’s crowning achievement.
Sadly, war often makes victorious armies stupid and Desert Storm was no exception. Twenty-five years later, DePuy’s Army is in ruins. Thanks to a series of multibillion-dollar acquisition failures like the sprawling $20 billion Future Combat System, the Ground Combat Vehicle and Armed Aerial Scout, the US Army is caught in a modernization death spiral.
The outcome is an unfocused, single-service acquisition plan designed to upgrade 1980s vintage platforms and weapon systems or selectively replace systems inside the old structure on a one-for-one basis with comparable, more expensive versions of existing aircraft, tanks, trucks and guns.
Any closed system evolves toward a state of entropy and the US Army is very, very closed. Closed systems also breed fear of the kind of change in organization and technology that Gen. DePuy and his successors embraced.
The idea of moving the US Army out of the industrial-age structure based on single-service self-sufficiency into an organizational design based on integrated, joint operations or service interdependency remains anathema to the US Army. The critical need for an Army composed of self-contained independent battle groups that operate on land the way the Navy’s ships operate at sea within the framework of joint, integrated ISR, strike, maneuver and sustainment is stubbornly and myopically resisted.
As a result, the opportunity to pursue full-spectrum rapid prototyping of powerful new operational capabilities — organizing construct, human capital strategy and equipment, not just the technology — is lost. Instead, the Army clings to brigade combat teams, in uneven states of readiness, dependent on division and corps headquarters and support structures.
In 1991, the US Army stripped out several divisions to field full-strength brigades and divisions in Saudi Arabia before engaging the enemy. In today’s come-as-you-are war-fighting environment, this is a non-starter.
Like the other services, the US Army’s organization for combat should not be viewed in isolation from its “corporate overhead.” The fact that four Army four stars — George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower and Henry Arnold— could command and effectively employ 6 million American soldiers in WW II while today’s shrinking Army of 490,000 needs six four stars to manage the force, should alert the politicians in both parties to the Army’s problems.
Breaking open closed systems is never pleasant, but it must be done. The Army’s passion for rewarding officers who reinforce their bosses’ prejudices and beliefs makes the task even more challenging. If nothing is done, Americans will end up much like Mark Baum, the hedge fund manager in the “The Big Short.” Baum was horrified to discover that widespread fraud in the mortgage market would precipitate an economic collapse on a national, even global scale.
If nothing is done, Americans will be equally horrified when they are surprised not by victory, but by defeat.
Douglas Macgregor is executive vice president of BMG LLC, a decorated combat veteran, PhD and author of five books. His newest book, "Margin of Victory," will be available in June 2016 from Naval Institute Press.