Will US Army reforms whip forces into fighting trim?

A leaner, tougher volunteer US Army, better able to respond rapidly to overseas emergencies, will result from planned new reforms, hopes Gen. Edward Meyer, the Army chief of staff.

However, NATO allies have not yet been consulted about one of the changes -- the planned withdrawal from Europe and South Korea of 7,000 US soldiers. These are mainly seasoned sergeants, needed for more thorough training of recruits in the United States.

Anticipating questions about this from anxious European allies, US Defense Department officials hasten to add that withdrawing about 6,000 American troops from the 200,000 in Europe, and about 900 from the 30,000 in South Korea, will reduce neither American readiness nor American will to meet overseas defense commitments.

Overseas US Army contingents, General Meyer says, now are manned at about 103 to 105 percent of their authorized strength. Reductions in the number of noncommissioned officers, needed for training volunteers in the US, therefore still would leave authorized strength at 100 percent.

Thus, the Army leadership believes combat readiness of units stationed in the continental US should increase.

In the new, computerized Army that is gradually emerging since the last draft ended in 1973, volunteer soldiers have tended to rotate rapidly among units, often every three months. This has caused "turbulence" -- the morale-weakening, rapid turnover of men and officers in impersonal outfits where there are few good or close friends.

In this situation, men and officers tend to feel litle identification or camaraderie with each other, whether in barracks, mess hall, training classroom, or combat. This may reduce their willingness to fight as a team.

What Meyer, a thoughtful, scholarly officer whose Army nickname is "Shy," now proposes is adoption of a "regimental" system, not unlike that used in the British armed forces. Recruit John or Jane Doe would be assigned right after induction to a particular regiment (2,500 to 5,000 men).

He or she would stick with that regiment throughout his, or her, Army career and wear proudly its distinctive insignia.

Company-sized units of about 180 men each would train together, then stay together for each three-year enlistment they serve. Frequent shifts and replacement of individual soldiers among different units would be discouraged.

Drill, combat training, and physical exercise would increase. A minimum eight weeks of basic training would stretch to about nine, if Congress makes funds available.

"Ticket punching," a practice that rotates officers rapidly among units to enhance their promotion prospects, would end. Instead, battalion and brigade commanders would serve for two to three years -- "long enough to be responsible for what they did," as Meyer puts it.

As in the British, Israeli, and some other armies, command authority would be decentralized and diffused. Sergeants, lieutenants, and captains near or on the front lines would get more authority to make rapid battlefield decisions, promote men, and discipline them as necessary.

In the past, Meyer has criticized the "hollow army" concept -- reducing the manpower of some US-based units to nearly nothing and transfering the troops abroad to beef up overseas units beyond their authorized strength.

To remedy this, Meyer plans to increase "come as you are" exercises. US-based combat outfits would move to Europe for seasonal exercises, like this month's "Reforger" maneuvers in West Germany, at their actual US strength levels.

This would cut out the need, says Meyer, to "borrow" sergeants, air defense missile crews, and other skilled specialists from US units for the overseas exercises.

To heighten personal and unit pride, insignia of infantry, airborne service, or other units would be issued and worn from early training days. In October or November, Meyer said, decisions will be made about issuing berets, like those now used by special forces. One proposal is for issuing maroon berets to airborne troops and black berets to others.

Pentagon manpower officials acknowledge that much of the lack of "togetherness" in units of the post-Vietnam volunteer Army stems from the high percentage -- about half -- of married soldiers, as against only about 5 percent in the old, pre-Vietnam Army.

It remains to be seen, they admit, whether cultivating regimental or other unit loyalties will overcome the impersonality of present Army life and discourage off-base living and "nine-to-five soldiering."

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