Battle over the future of America's Army

Its ramparts have not been manned for decades and its only weapons are Civil War-era cannons that shielded Union ships in the wind-washed James River from Confederate raiders.

Yet Fort Monroe, Va., is at the center of a fierce debate over the future of the United States Army.

The fort is home to the Army's premier war-fighting think tank and the designer of a blueprint to revolutionize America's ground-combat units for the new century.

The war in Kosovo has made even clearer the need for a force that can respond rapidly to global flare-ups. Under even the best conditions, it would have taken months for Army units to enter combat. And with regional conflicts becoming more common, Army officials are seeking ways to improve response time.

The Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) has laid out a plan for creating highly mobile, heavily armed "strike forces" of as many as 5,000 troops. They could be rushed anywhere at a moment's notice and would be trained and equipped to deal with almost any crisis, from disaster relief to enforcing peace accords to halting the invasion of an ally until reinforcements arrived, Army officials say.

"It is an initiative in our efforts to ensure that our army remains relevant in the 21st century," says Maj. Gen. Daniel Zanini, TRADOC's deputy chief of staff for combat development.

Yet some experts say the concept falls far short of readying the Army for the future. For now, it only provides for the creation of a single "headquarters" that would draw units from across the country for specific missions - not a full-fledged strike force. And critics say the delay will cost the Army a rare opportunity for radical experimentation afforded by the lack of a rival to US power.

"The leadership ... really has to begin to walk the walk as well as talk the talk when it says we are in a period of transformational change," says Andrew Krepinevich, a former Army colonel who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, a policy institute in Washington.

THE concept reflects intensified efforts by the Army to adapt to a post-Soviet world in which the US is unlikely to confront a military peer for years. While it must remain prepared for such an eventuality, the Army must be able to fulfill its core mission of fighting and winning two near-simultaneous wars in different places. Meanwhile, it faces more nontraditional operations such as short conflicts and peacekeeping missions.

Meeting those requirements, officials say, requires greater flexibility than that of the Army's 10 active divisions, whose structure has changed little since World War II. Says Gen. John Abrams, TRADOC commander: "This is all about innovation."

At present, the Army has six "heavy" divisions, each comprising 15,000 to 18,000 troops equipped with tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery. The rest are "light" units that can quickly deploy to trouble spots. But they lack defenses against massive attacks, and both formations are tied to extensive logistics systems and "iron mountains" of supplies.

The strike force was conceived to fit in between those two. It is envisioned as a medium-weight force that would move rapidly with its own supplies and specialized vehicles. Advanced weaponry and command-and-control capabilities would allow it to target a foe with devastating fire. But it could also tackle nontraditional operations.

As first, the plan called for adapting the 2nd Airborne Calvary, at Fort Polk, La., as the first strike force. It would have been a test bed for new tactics, and technologies that would be used to create future units, possibly leading to a redesign of whole divisions.

But simulations and analyses last year found that no current unit would be able to cope with the range of missions envisioned for the strike force, says General Zanini. It was decided to start off by establishing the headquarters by the end of this year. The headquarters will be operational by 2003, but it is unclear when the first full strike force will be created.

"What we chose to do was to go after the difficult issue of getting the headquarters set up," Zanini says. "We're looking long-term at what new forces would look like."

Some experts see other reasons for the decision. Dr. Krepinevich says the top brass refused to spare a brigade because of cost. Faced with a huge workload, Army leaders were also unwilling to jeopardize the US strategy of being able to win two near-simultaneous wars, he says.

"What really concerns me is that the army leadership feels today, when the danger is so low, that it cannot take a brigade, which is about one-third of a division, off the line to better prepare for the future," he says.

A defense industry source lays the Army decision to resistance to change at the highest levels. "When [Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis] Reimer briefed this to the Congress ... he said the Army would stand up the strike force," he says. "What they have done now is just establish a headquarters and not given it any forces, and yet they expect it to still be capable of new concepts."

Zanini disputes such contentions. "The Army is a traditional organization," he says. "We're not only values-based, we're tradition-based, and so change is hard. But it is change that is led by the senior leadership today."

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