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Military 'transformation' may not mean smaller forces

To some, Iraq war shows need for more troops in special units, and little room to cut.

By Seth SternStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 2003



A swift victory in Iraq has bolstered the notion that America's military prowess now hinges as much on high-tech brains as on explosive brawn.

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But for all the focus on speed and Special Forces, the victory in Iraq will not necessarily translate into momentum for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to slice US combat strength.

Before the war, Mr. Rumsfeld floated the idea of eliminating 20 percent of the Army's combat units to pay for modernization and new weapon systems. Now, however, his staff is talking about realigning America's military toward smaller fighting units, not about deep cuts.

"The Army is about as stretched as its ever been," says one senior defense analyst inside the federal government.

Although just two Army combat divisions and one Marine division were used to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, the Army is deploying more than one-third its combat troops to occupy and help keep order in Iraq.

At the conflict's peak, the Marine Corps had half its 170,000 personnel deployed outside the United States.

This represents an enormous ground-troop commitment, when rotations are taken into account. Regarding a 2001 peacekeeping operation in the Balkans, Rumsfeld explained: "It takes not just the troop that's there, it takes three to four, five times the troops - the ones getting ready to go in, the ones coming out; the people have to go through training...."

The upshot: On the question of transforming the size and shape of US ground forces, both sides in the debate can find justifications in Iraq to support their arguments.

In terms of fighting style, mobility and air-ground coordination are now at a premium. But heavy Abrams tanks also proved their worth in Iraq - and they are anything but light and easy to move.

Leaner Army in cold war's wake

In terms of troop strength, the US has committed at least 12 of its 32 combat brigades to occupying Iraq including the 3rd and 4th Infantry divisions, the 101st Airborne Division, two independent cavalry regiments and a third of the 82nd airborne Division. (One division is composed of three brigades).

Last week, the Pentagon floated plans to draw that force down to a single division (the 1st Armored, based in Germany) by year's end, supported by a contingent of foreign troops led by Britain and Poland.

This buildup in Iraq is only half the size of Desert Storm, when 23 Army brigades were deployed at once. But this operation eats up a far larger proportion of the smaller post-cold-war Army. In fact, not since the Korean War has the US committed as large a share of its combat troops and National Guard units needed to support them to a single operation.

Retired Army leaders seize upon the massive deployment as well as the incompetence of the Iraqi Army as evidence that the US can't afford to reduce the size of its combat forces.

"Where are we going to find anyone as stupid as Saddam?" asks retired Lt. Gen. Charles Otstott. "We don't often go up against guys like that who fire a few shots and give up."

Gap of specialists

Even with such a large deployment, analysts say the biggest strain of the deployment isn't on the US combat capacity. Instead, the most overstretched units are a small number of specialty units that are heavily in demand.

These include civil affairs, psychological operations, military police, and Patriot missile battery operators. Recognizing the gap, the Army plans to double the number of its 'psy ops' specialists this year.

There is widespread consensus among both transformation's supporters and opponents that the Army must adjust the mix of active and reserve forces.

Many of the functions most in demand are reserve units that might be transferred into the active military. "We've got to do some rebalancing," Thomas Hall, the Assistant secretary of Defense for reserve affairs, said in a telephone interview.

What remains unanswered is whether such a shift of units to the active Army would require an increase in total troop strength or the conversion of combat units to support roles.

Secretary Rumsfeld called on Congress last month to give the Pentagon greater flexibility about how it assigns active and reserve units. He also asked to free more troops for combat by shifting to civilians 300,000 jobs currently performed by soldiers.

Retired Vice Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, who heads Rumsfeld's transformation office, said in a telephone interview that he doesn't foresee reducing the number of combat troops but does envision restructuring them into smaller units.

In the recent war, the Iraqi Army never faced an entire 15,000-strong US division rolling into a single engagement. Rather, he said, US forces fought in battalions of a few thousand troops or even a few dozen Special Operations forces.

"One of the features of the information age is the emergence of the small, the fast and the many," Admiral Cebrowski said. "That's exactly what we saw in Iraq."

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