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An army at war getting overhaul

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 2006



FORT RILEY, KAN.

On a bumpy patch of grass blurred by the predawn darkness, Lt. Col. Patrick Frank is building America's new Army one leg lift at a time.

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At first glace, this daybreak workout for the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment looks not at all unusual - full of sweat, stomach crunches, and cries of "hooah!"

But there, exercising with the infantrymen of the 1-28, is a company of cooks and mechanics. The fact that they are even present, puffing alongside 1-28, is part of the most comprehensive overhaul of the force since the end of World War II.

When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld speaks of creating a faster and more flexible Army, this is where it begins. The idea is to emphasize smaller units like the 1-28, pushing materiel and manpower - like these cooks and mechanics - further down the Army's organizational chain.

By giving these smaller units more resources, the Army is making them more self-sufficient - and that gives Pentagon leaders more options. In the past, the smallest unit the Army could send to any global hot spot was a division of nearly 20,000 troops. By pushing its resources downward, now the Army can mobilize individual brigade combat teams as small as 3,500 troops.

It is a fundamental change brought about by a new security environment. During the cold war, the threat was a massive war against the Soviets, so it made sense to organize the Army into a few massive pieces. Today, however, America is faced more and more with smaller conflicts, and the Pentagon is convinced that this requires smaller pieces that can be moved around the globe more easily.

Yet the changes are already echoing beyond the arcane matter of military organization into soldiers' everyday lives.

Not only will infantrymen train more frequently with soldiers they would rarely have seen in the old system - as was on display in the predawn workout. But as members of the Army's newly created brigade combat teams, they all will also spend three years at one post - training together, living together, and eventually going to war together.

"The benefit is that we ... will be conducting all these day-to-day operations together," says Colonel Frank. "So when we transition to Iraq, we'll be better at it."

In the peripatetic Army of the past, where soldiers moved from post to post like human hot potatoes, three years in one place - with one unit - were unthinkable. For soldiers with families, in particular, the new three-year rotation promises some semblance of normalcy.

"If you've got a family, everybody gets to grow together," says Capt. Jermaine Hampton of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, which is part of the same brigade combat team as the 1-28.

Yet for many of the officers, three years together offer something else perhaps just as significant: the opportunity to build a true team.

That's what's happening at machine-gun Range 7. On a day when wind whips the Kansas dust sideways and nearby aluminum bleachers cook like silver-topped stoves in the sun, Capt. Gregory Escobar strides among his soldiers. These are recruits only a year out of basic training, and Captain Escobar is building them up, lesson by lesson.

To one, he suggests moving a pile of shell casings aside. To another, he offers advice on why the tracers are whizzing high over the target.

In the old Army, these soldiers would probably have moved to another unit by the time they deployed in a year. Now, Escobar will almost certainly take most of them to war in the 2-16.

"Before, you were not able to figure out, 'Hey my boss likes to do things this way,' " says Escobar. "Now, you will know exactly how each guy will react in any given situation" because you know them and train with them.

Moreover, it creates greater accountability in training. "You are going to fight the team you build," says Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, commanding officer of the 2-16.

The buzzword for the change is "modularity," and it is based on the idea that each new brigade combat team is an independent "module" that can be plugged into any situation. "Our brigade combat team can go fight for any headquarters in the Department of Defense," says Colonel Kauzlarich.

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