Washington — The US Army may adopt a British-style regimental structure to solve a longstanding problem that could weaken it in the future war: Soldiers don't stay together long enough to develop "unit cohesion."
"Over time we have loosed many of the ties which helped bind one's loyalty and service to the unit," the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Edward Meyer, conceded recently.
Accordingly, he is considering the introduction of a regimental system, akin to Britain's. The Change would serve to focus soldiers' loyalties and allow them to wear distinctive accouterments. But it also would permit the rotation of units, rather than individuals, between US and overseas bases.
Poor unit cohesion has long worried the Army's high command. Some observers contend that it had a deleterious, if not disastrous, effect on the Army's performance in the latter stages of the Vietnam war.
William Darryl Henderson, author of the recently published monograph "Why the Vietcong Fought," observers that unit cohesion "makes armies impervious to all sorts of things." He declares: "One of our Biggest shortcommings . . . is the turbulence in personnel policy that in many cases creates units of strangers."
In an attempt to eliminate this problem, General Meyer is studying a plan to keep companies together for their three-year tours, rotating them to and from Europe as a body, instead of drawing on their ranks as individual replacements are required.
To weld units together more firmly he also is considering issuing distinctive berets and shoulder boards. The later, sometimes called epaulettes or shoulder loops, would bear insignia denoting a soldier's specialization, rank, and unit. In addition, General Meyer is known to be pondering the granting of insignia to soldiers in basic training as soon as their future unit assignments are known.
Appreciating that it is difficult to generate cohesion is depleted units, the Army already has begun to ship noncommissioned officers back to this country from Europe and Korea to swell the ranks of understrength formations. In all, some 7,000 are to be reassigned to the United States. Moreover, the practice of "topping off" such understrength units with borrowed personnel during exercises is to be halted, according to General Meyer.
The Army also is attacking its unit cohesion problems by introducing extended tours for brigade, battalion, and company commanders. "That's a major wrench in the Army," General Meyer admitted recently, pointing out that there will be fewer commands as a result. "I have had more complaints from wives of lietenant colonels and colonels on that issue than any other because they say, 'Why are you trying to stabilize the Army with my husband?'"
General Meyer seems to be most concerned with the current rapid turnover of personnel in US Army units. "The division in the states turns over a just a little under 1 1/2 years," he noted recently, adding that there is a 15 to 20 percent turnover each month in squads, platoons, and companies, "and that has a big impact upon small unit leadership, upon cohesion, upon teamwork."
As far as cohesion is concerned, the biggest change has occured in the company, according to the Army chief of staff. "When I was a company commander at Fort CAmpbell, less than 10 percent of the company was married. I was responsible for giving them some sort of recreation on the weekend. I fed the in my mess hall. . . . I paid them. The platoons stayed together, worked together, lived together, and so you had built-in elements that gave you small unit cohesion."
Much of this has disappeard today, he says. "Prideful service does not come from being a digit in a large organization, however well-managed it may be," he notes.
The Army's campaign for unit cohesion largely has been well received by defense analysts. "It would be hard to find a person who would think it not a good idea," says Martin Binkin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "As long as the cost is small, it's worth doing." He believes that the introduction of berets and shoulder boards will help Army morale, but cautions that General Meyer's measures should be viewed as "one part of a large mosaic."