WASHINGTON — A US Army force of 980,000 is "minimally sufficient" for maintaining national security and the National Guard should keep some attack helicopters, the National Commission on the Future of the Army declared in a new report.
These are among 63 recommendations the commission made in a major report released Thursday ahead of its congressionally mandated Feb. 1 deadline.
The findings partly aim to settle friction between the Army and the Guard and many of the recommendations attempt to ensure the reserve components are used regularly and are equipped appropriately, which can be seen as a win for the Guard. Yet, some are arguing that the report doesn't offer up enough tangible recommendations to heal the rift between the active and reserve forces.
The report also recommends more funding is needed to meet the missions expected of the Army now and in the future, a tall order considering re-institution of full sequestration looms in just a few short years.
Eight commissioners appointed by Congress and the White House examined the Army's structure and policies relating to its size and force mix between the active, Army National Guard and the Army Reserve.
In part, the commission was created to settle a dispute between the active Army and the Guard over a 2013 decision to restructure its aviation fleet. That plan would retire all of the Army's OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters and take all AH-64 Apaches out of the National Guard and places them in active units. The Guard pushed back, saying it should mirror the active force in capability. If implemented, the Aviation Restructure Initiative would save about $12 billion.
The Army plans to take the recommendations very seriously and the commission's considerations won't be analyzed in isolation, defense officials said. All three components will be at the table and all opinions will be included in the analysis, they said.
Here are some highlights from the report:
A total force of 980,000 is "minimally sufficient" to meet the demands placed on the Army, the commission found. Within that construct, the commission recommends 450,000 troops for the active component, 335,000 for the Guard and 195,000 in the Reserve.
The commission called the all-volunteer Army a "national treasure" and said it should be maintained instead of implementing some form of a conscripted service.
The Army is in the process of reducing 158,000 soldiers across all three components by the end of fiscal year 2018. If sequestration remains, the total Army will have to fall to 920,000. The active component has already lost 80,000 soldiers and is in the process of losing another 40,000. The Guard has lost 8,000 and is shrinking 15,000 more while the Reserve has lost 5,000 and will lose 10,000 more.
After the reductions are complete, the Army will have shrunk 14 percent from the 1.1 million force it had at its height in 2012.
The full-time Army has also already reduced its brigade combat teams from 45 to 32 and plans to take out two more BCTs. The National Guard had 28 BCTs and is now cutting its structure to 26.
Aviation Restructure Initiative
While the Aviation Restructure Initiative planned to take all 192 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters out of the National Guard, the commission is recommending the Army provide four battalions worth of Apaches to the Guard.
The active Army will have 20 attack helicopter battalions.
The commission said that ARI is a well-thought out plan in a time of drastic budgetary constraints. But it also decided the National Guard Bureau's plan that would have kept six Apache helicopter battalions (two would be multicomponent aviation brigades) provided deeper capability. Yet, the plan was more expensive.
The commission suggests the Guard's battalions be somewhat smaller with 18 aircraft instead of the typical 24 required for operations. Yet, Ham said the Guard would not deploy with just 18 aircraft and would need to pull six aircraft from elsewhere in the active or reserve component if a battalion were preparing to deploy. The battalion would be given enough notice to put together a complete unit, he said.
The group recommends regularly activating the Guard's Apache battalions for steady state operations as well.
To offset new Apaches for the Guard, the commission's plan would add only two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter battalions to the Guard instead of the four planned under ARI. The Army originally planned to provide 111 L-model Black Hawks to the Guard while taking away the Guard's attack capability. The thinking goes that the Guard generally needs more lift capability than attack, especially in stateside duties.
"The reason we recommend 18 versus 24 in the Army National Guard battalions is simply one of cost," Ham said.
Commission recommendations were made within the constraints of President Obama's fiscal year 2016 budget request levels, which is about as low as the Army can go with its budget, they determined.
"It would be absolutely better if the battalions were equipped and manned identically. In an ideal situation the Army National Guard battalions would mirror the regular Army battalions," the commission's chair ret. Army Gen. Carter Ham told Defense News.
Apaches are one of the most expensive items the Army buys at $40 million each.
The commission calculated that to provide supplemental Apaches for the Guard, the Army would need to remanufacture 24 D-model to E-models, resulting in a one-time cost of $420 million to convert the helicopters. Operating costs per year are estimated to be about $165 million.
This is one area where the Army and the Guard agree — more is better — but the current fiscal constraints make it impossible.
One defense official noted that if the commission were to recommend keeping some Apaches in the Guard, it shouldn't be seen as a compromise. In the official's view, the restructure initiative would be kept intact with additional Apaches going to the Guard. "Who is going to argue with more, more is better, especially with the operational tempo that we have today?" the official said.
"I think about it in terms of ARI Plus," the official added.
But if the Army has to buy more Apaches, other modernization efforts will be affected, the official said, and the low-hanging fruit is the Black Hawk and CH-47F Chinook accounts.
As an offset to provide Apaches to the Guard, the commission recommends slowing the procurement rates of Black Hawks under a multi-year contract. The slowed rate doesn't drop the planned buy per year to the minimum required, but it comes close, Ham said.
The Army is well underway with implementing ARI. To date 24 Apaches have been transferred from the Guard to the regular Army and fielded with the first unit equipped at Fort Riley, Kansas. The 25th Infantry Division will get 24 in March and 24 are scheduled to be fielded over the summer to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York. Another 24 National Guard aircraft are scheduled to be inducted in Boeing's remanufacture line in Mesa, Arizona.
The transfer of the aircraft should be complete by the end of fiscal year 2018 should ARI continue as planned.
The 'Total Army'
The Army is properly constructed as a total force, Ham said. The reliance upon the regular Army, the Guard and the Reserve is "a good, sound construct," but "unfortunately the total force policy has not been implemented as fully as we think that it should be," he said.
Therefore, the commission recommends ways to strengthen the policy in how active forces can deploy or participate in operations with the reserves and how the reserves can deploy with the active.
"You will find a theme all the way through our report promoting the total force policy, a one Army, operational total force policy," the vice chairman of the commission, Thomas Lamont, said prior to the report's release. "Obviously, an encouragement of additional multi-component units strongly favors and enhances that total force policy."
Multi-component units include a mix of both active and reserve soldiers.
The commission determined that the reserve components — due to global unrest and uncertainty as the Army must shrink — be employed more frequently to provide "operational capability and strategic depth," Ham said.
"One of the most negative things you can say about a guardsman or reservist is to refer to them as a 'weekend warrior,'" Lamont said. "They do want to be a greater part of the Army, they want to be considered a real part of the total force and to do that you've got to use them."
One of the recommendations is that the Army set up a pilot program to look more closely at multicomponent units.
Commission member former DoD comptroller Robert Hale noted that providing Apaches to the Guard will provide "one more area of connective tissue" between the regular and reserve components.
Posture for Deterrence, Assurance
The commission is recommending the Army should forward station an Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) in Europe as Russia continues to antagonize Eastern Europe.
The ABCT would also be closer to other volatile contingencies where it could deploy more quickly than if it were stationed in the United States, Ham explained. The commission believes adding it makes absolute strategic sense.
The Army already has a Stryker brigade in Germany and an airborne brigade in Italy.
"We recommend for a variety of reasons — deterrence, assurance, posture for other global contingencies, particularly in Soutwest Asia — that an armored BCT should be forward stationed in Europe," Ham said. "There is obviously a bill, there is diplomatic work that has got to be done in order to occur as well."
The commission does not believe adding an ABCT to Europe would need a large amount of additional staffing and the cost would not be significant. But it also acknowledges the political pushback that might occur if the Army chooses to take an ABCT from a lawmaker's district stateside.
A forward-stationed Combat Aviation Brigade should also stay in Korea, the commission recommends.
The Army plans to go from 11 CABs down to 10, cutting the one in Korea, and meeting the country's needs through a rotational basis beginning in 2019.
Additionally, the commission is so serious about keeping a CAB in Korea, it notes that if the Army does go down to 10 CABs, the service should find another CAB to cut.
While the commission advocates for a forward-stationed CAB, it is recommending the Army keep a rotational armored BCT in Korea instead of a forward-stationed one. The commanders in Korea "get a fully manned, fully equipped, at the peak of readiness BCT when they show up, when they land in Korea," Ham said, "and they are able to sustain that throughout the year-long rotational deployment that they have."
Keeping an 11th CAB in the Army doesn't come cheap and would likely cost the service around $1.9 billion.
The commissioners expect more pushback on a few of their recommendations, according to Ham and Lamont. The commission recommends that the Army consider divesting two regular Army infantry brigade combat teams to find the manning to address other shortfalls in places like short-range air defense, other missile defense, tactical mobility, and the military police, Ham said.
"I suspect that there will be significant resistance to doing that," he added.
Because end-strength increases are unlikely and knowing the Army will be forced to make some hard decisions going forward, the commission decided to make such a recommendation, Ham explained.
But it's far from a perfect solution.
"Even if the Army were to make the decision to inactive the two IBCTs from the regular Army, that yields you a fair number of manning spaces — somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,000 or 7,500 — that you can distribute for other needs but it doesn't give you much money," Ham said. "IBCTs are not very equipment-intensive and the equipment that they have is not hugely expensive."
The Army has a modernization problem, the commission finds.
By placing a priority on readiness and force capacity, modernization has suffered, and that limited investment is "a source of significant long-term concern, the report states.
Mounted Soldier Systems programs, aviation, communications and ground combat vehicles are "vulnerable" to further reductions, the commission warns. And there are "unacceptable" shortfalls in aviation survivability; short-range air defense artillery (SHORAD); chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN); field artillery; and Army watercraft," the report lists.
The shortfalls "cause major concerns" in the homeland and other contingencies like Europe and the Korean Peninsula and are fleshed out more in classified annex.
Reducing the Army by two IBCTs would help free up manpower to shore up some of these shortfalls, the commission believes.
Capitol Hill Reacts
There was muted reaction from lawmakers ahead of the report's official release. Only a few members of Congress had been briefed by early Thursday afternoon.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., had been briefed on the report early Thursday, but he said he had to study it further.
"Tentatively, I am very much in agreement with their conclusions," he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., co-chairman of the Senate National Guard Caucus and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, voiced support for a Army on Thursday morning, ahead of a staff briefing on the findings.
"The future of the Army for me is the best and the biggest," Graham said. "I want it to be the best and the biggest because I want it to deter war, I want it to be able to operate nimbly. That's the perspective I view this report from and any other reform of the military.
"If we can save money great, but I want to have capabilities no one else possesses," Graham said. "I want a nimble outfit that can hit you with steel and hit you in the dark when you don't even know they're there."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the other co-chairman of the Senate National Guard Caucus, said he had not read the report, but has previously voiced opposition to the Aviation Restructure Initiative .
"The wars we were in, they couldn't handle them without the Guard, and the cost of training is far less with the Guard, so keep that alive," said Leahy, D-Vt. "You want to encourage people to learn these skills in the Guard."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, when told of the report's conclusions on end-strength, said he was "comfortable" with 450,000 as a floor for the active-duty Army. Though there have size comparisons with the Army of 2001, he said, the Army of today is better equipped and more battle-hardened.
"The numbers don't have to be a lot higher," said Sessions, R-Ala. "Maybe we can get away with not a lot higher numbers because what we have is better better configured, its more combat oriented."
Though his home state contains the Army aviation school, Sessions offered no definitive position on the Apache transfers and said he preferred to "let it play out."
"I don't think it demeans the Guard, but there are some good arguments for the Guard maintaining [Apaches]," he said.
Joe Gould contributed to this report.