Transforming the Army

Smaller and faster units are needed for today's duties

The US Army essentially sat out the last war. Kosovo was an air war, and even in that, the United States only won once Russia decided that it would no longer support fellow-Slavic Serbia.

For all the American air power, just 14 Serb tanks were hit. The Army's tanks and helicopters arrived too late, and its land troops were too politically risky to lose.

In the Gulf War, too, the Army took more than six months to mobilize, and its hefty divisions were sitting ducks for Iraq's Scud missiles. Saddam's Republican Guard proved to be a pushover on the ground after American air strikes.

As the Army enters the 21st century with its role diminished, it's looking around for a transformation to keep it relevant across a wider spectrum of potential conflicts and duties - from traditional land wars to police patrols to food delivery to protecting the homeland from terrorists.

A recent survey found the junior-officer corps has low morale, with many lacking confidence in the country's leadership. The lowest-paid soldiers need financial help. In fact, a quarter century after switching over to a volunteer force, the Army is still stuck in a halfway house: relying on citizen- soldiers, but also trying to create a professional force.

And the nation's political leaders, afraid of Vietnam-like casualties, are reluctant to commit land forces to risky areas. The Army, too, often appears reluctant to commit troops to conflicts with dubious popular support. Many of its officers loathe peacekeeping missions.

Last week, a high-level commission faulted the Pentagon strategy of planning to fight two wars at once, such as the Gulf and Korean wars, saying the US is not ready for "varied and complex contingencies now occurring and likely to increase in the years ahead."

In other words, a new-style defense needs more flexibility for the unexpected duties of a sole superpower. Kosovo was a wake-up call to create a global-ready Army.

Last spring, after the war, Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered the Army to become lighter and faster. So last fall, Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki laid out a plan to rely on smaller units of soldiers (brigades of about 5,000) that could be deployed within 96 hours instead of the three months or more that are required to move the cumbersome divisions of some 18,000 troops that have been the Army's basic fighting unit.

And instead of using big Abrams tanks, these more-mobile units would rely on smaller armored vehicles.

But even this reform has run into bureaucratic and funding snags that reflect a basic problem: the Army's long adherence to its basic 20th-century structure of relying on its 10, often-unwieldy, divisions and its top-down linear command and control.

That type of force did well in World War II. But with better-educated, better-trained soldiers these days who can use high-tech communications and weapons, the Army needs to lighten up: smaller units, more autonomy for lower officers, and more integration with the other services.

These smaller units could serve the menu of future military duties, but could also be assembled into large divisions if needed. They'd require less top brass and be cheaper, more flexible, and morale-boosting. They'd also require officers to be tested for competence rather than rely on promotions by cronyism.

A key part of this proposed "combat module" Army is a reliance on the latest communication technology to allow field commanders to keep in touch with each other and with other services - not just with Army superiors. That kind of lateral responsibility would take a culture shift away from today's central-command approach. The units could also be rotated overseas into "theater" commands to get to know a region better.

General Shinseki is moving to have three "interim brigade combat teams" (IBCTs) by 2003. But questions linger over whether the money for them is coming, what ground vehicles to use, and whether these teams will be truly independent of the old divisions.

The Pentagon has long tried to create a rapid-response military. Support is building now to revive the Army by shifting to lighter, more capable teams that better use the training and talent of today's professional corps to fight the battles of tomorrow.

While the nation's nuclear arsenal, warships, and bombers remain the ultimate defense, the US still needs boots on the ground for the many global responsibilities it is taking on and the countries it still defends.

Congress and the Pentagon need to support a transformed Army that will be ready when called.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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