An army at war getting overhaul

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.

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.

For instance, the 4th brigade combat team, 1st Infantry Division here contains:

• The 1-28 and 2-16 infantry battalions.

• A cavalry reconnaissance squadron.

• An artillery battalion.

• The 610th Brigade Support Battalion.

• A special-troops battalion with a military-police platoon, a signal company for communications, an engineer company, and a military intelligence company.

For Col. Rob Weaver, commanding officer of the 610th Support Battalion, this convergence at the brigade level is nothing less than a revolution. He deployed to Iraq in a unit that had not yet gone through modularization. That meant he had to go to the division to get the troops and equipment he needed.

"I didn't have the mechanics, but I was still responsible for getting the stuff fixed," he says. "Now, I have all the equipment and soldiers, and I don't have to reach back [to division] to ask for it."

"In Iraq, we had three mechanics in an infantry battalion," he notes. "Now, each battalion has ... 50 soldiers to do maintenance."

Yet modularity does have its critics. Even in peacetime, the process of reorganizing the entire Army would be monumental, considering that it involves recasting the training, deployment, and rotation of every soldier. That the Pentagon is attempting to do it amid two wars is unprecedented.

In many ways, the process is independent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the frequent debate over the size of the Army has more to do with the total number of soldiers than with modularity - that is, how they are organized.

Yet within that debate, both the Pentagon and critics point to modularity to support their positions.

The Pentagon notes that a primary reason behind modularity is to free up more troops to fight. By reshuffling personnel and reorganizing the force, the Army hopes to increase the number of its brigades from 33 to 42 by 2010.

That gives the Army more deployable units to help spread the load of repeated deployments. "We needed a force that was able to do a whole lot more than what they were in the past," says Lt. Col. Gregg Skibicki, a modularity expert at the Pentagon.

Critics, however, cite a report by the Institute for Defense Analyses, which contends that modularity actually reduces the number of troops on the ground. By including engineers and military police (MP) and reconnaissance troops in a brigade, they suggest, the Army is reducing the number of infantrymen in a brigade who can patrol an area - a vital function in combating an insurgency.

The Pentagon counters that many types of soldiers can patrol an area, so there will be no drop-off in force within a brigade. "Our MPs are actually holding checkpoints out there," says Colonel Skibicki.

Undertaking this transformation during wartime, however, has had consequences. When the Iraq war began, many Army brigades were going through modularization and were not ready to deploy. The National Guard had to pick up the slack.

In early 2005, 10 National Guard brigades were in Iraq. As more Army brigade combat teams have come on line, the reliance on the National Guard has fallen. Currently, only two National Guard brigades are in Iraq.

Whether the modularization program can continue at its current pace is uncertain, analysts say. The estimated cost of the program has nearly doubled from $28 billion to $52.5 billion in the past two years, according to the Government Accountability Office. And some analysts disagree with the assertion that the Army can increase from 33 to 42 brigades without an increase in manpower and materiel.

"There is some indication that they might not have the people and the equipment to do it," says Andrew Feickert of the Congressional Research Service.

Among the commanders at Fort Riley, there is certainly an understanding of the difficulty of the task, but also a hunger to make it work. Says Kauzlarich: "We are building an airplane while in flight - and while we are in the fight."

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