Rapid Deployment: The Army and American Strategy


When the U.S. deployed forces to Saudi Arabia in August 1990 after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the first troops to arrive, a brigade of the 82nd Airborne, got there in less than three days after the decision to go was made.  Within a week, a the combat elements of a full division were on the ground, complete with air-landed light armor. In three weeks, combat-loaded M1 tanks of the Army’s 24th Mech Division began rolling out of fast sealift ships at Dhahran.  And in two months the entire XVIII Airborne Corps, to include an airborne, an air assault and a mechanized infantry division, plus Corps troops and a Special Forces group, were on the ground.  It was a triumph of rapid deployment.

It’s curious, then, that an Army spokesman recently indicated to a reporter that the most recent futuristic wargames had the Army struggling to get to Syria in 45 days.  The correspondent naturally concluded that the Army was still marching to the beat of the Cold War drum – too heavy to get anywhere.  The more likely fact is that the spokesman – from the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, no less – simply didn’t understand how the Army deploys, nor did the game accurately portray the Army’s real capabilities.   That should give us pause.   But it is not uncommon to find senior officers in the Army who don’t know how their own service deploys rapidly, or what joint assets are available.  Here’s a quick primer.

For deployment by air, the Army has long maintained the 82nd Airborne Division and other parts of XVIII Airborne Corps to respond to trip-wire emergencies overseas.  The Corps, and particularly the 82nd itself, are masters at using airlift to move combat-ready forces anywhere on little or no notice.  The 82nd’s lift of a brigade task force from Fort Bragg to Saudi Arabia demonstrates the global reach of the Army-Air Force team.

Army units know less, though, about the other deployment muscles available.  In the 1980s, the formation of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force resulted in the purchase of 8 super-fast sealift ships (FSS), with sustained speeds in excess of 30 knots, for Army use.  (These were the ships that carried the 24th’s spearheads to the Gulf, and in their subsequent service in the sea bridge they consistently “lapped” other, slower cargo ships.)  After Desert Storm, the Army, through Congress, successfully pressured the Navy to buy 19 Large, Medium-Speed, Roll-On, Roll-Off (LMSR) ships for Army use as well.  Eight went into maritime prepositioning at Diego Garcia, leaving eleven big ships split between the east and west coasts, ready to operate with standby crews on board, and a rate of advance (speed) of about 22 knots.  These are big ships; one LMSR can carry an entire U.S. Army Task Force, including 58 tanks, 48 other tracked vehicles, plus more than 900 trucks and other wheeled vehicles. So the Army has available a fleet of 19 fast cargo ships to carry heavy equipment – and since a normal merchant ship from the East Coast closes European ports in two weeks or less, the Mediterranean littoral should be about a week and a half steaming time.  So much for 45 days!

The Army chief of staff after Desert Storm, General Gordon Sullivan, also addressed the bottleneck of the fort-to-port equation. In the years after the deployment to the Middle East, the Army spent millions upgrading rail loading yards at Forts Hood, Carson and Riley, as well as purchasing flatbed rolling stock for the movement of heavy vehicles to ports to meet the LMSRs or whatever chartered shipping has been found after the initial LMSR-FSS deployments.  It’s important to remember that once the sea bridge is established, it functions like an endless conveyor belt.  The trick is the tip of the spear – the LMSRs and FSS that fill in while chartered shipping is rounded up.

With all this capability, why does the Army not recognize its own ability to deploy rapidly and globally?  The short answer is that, in the past twelve years of war, deployment on little or no notice has slipped out of the Army’s mainstream.  Marines unconsciously count on the Alligator Navy to get them to the fight; amphibious assault shipping are part of their culture.  With the exception of parts of the old XVIII Airborne Corps, rapid deployment, the LMSR fleet and all the things that attend fast global deployment have washed away.  At a time when events overseas demand an Army capability to deploy quickly, while at the same time tight budgets will inevitably imperil the Army’s fast sealift, the Army needs to get on its game quickly.  Here are a few tips.

First, the Army has got to mainstream rapid deployment.  Rapid global reach in all its manifestations – air, sea, rail, port operations and in-stream unloading operations – has got to become the routine business of the Army, to include doctrine, training with sealift as well as airlift, and preparing and maintaining “ready” units that can move to airfields and ports on little notice.  Fortunately, the Army’s current rotational readiness system supports maintaining “ready” brigades across the Service.  While dealing with Military Sealift Command can be a challenge simply because of the cost of moving an LMSR, say, to Beaumont for outload training, steady repetition should smooth bureaucratic hurdles.  Deployment to combat is an operations, not a logistics, responsibility, as the force is already committed to the fight when the first ship departs.

Second, the Army should stop obsessing about smallness.  While size matters in airlift—there is still a need for an airborne light tank to replace the old M551 Sheridan – size and weight isn’t important to an LMSR or a FSS, or to a commercial charter.  The Army’s strategic mobility does not hinge on getting hardware into a C-130, as TRADOC thought a decade ago.  The M1A2 tank’s size is no issue in the hold of am LMSR or FSS. What matters is strategic “awareness,” standard procedures that produce a high state of readiness for early-deploying units, and being able to tailor those units for the mission at hand – which will always be vague during the heat of crisis action.  These are second nature to airborne forces, but can be learned in other kinds of units as well.  In 1990 the 24th Infantry Division (Mech), which had been held to XVIII Airborne Corps readiness standards, had a combat-loaded armored task force on the docks ready to deploy in less than a day – and then had to wait for the fast sealift ships, which had not been held to a similar standard.

Third, rapid deployment is a core issue for the Army, not a fad or something to be turned over to the loggies and forgotten.  For the Army, it’s a strategic issue as well, and in several ways.  Being able to get heavy firepower to a fight half a world away is obviously a strategic and an operational challenge.  But the funding wars inside the Beltway that are getting underway now will ultimately be decided on what each service brings to the fight.  In the Army’s case, the ability to quickly launch divisional and corps-level assault forces to meet global challenges satisfies all the goals of effectiveness and relevancy.  If the Army is perceived as too heavy to move – and another exercise that says we can’t get to the Levant in less than 45 days won’t help – then funding is liable to flow to forces that can.

Finally, learn by doing.  The fast sealift fleet has some disadvantages – the ships draw a lot of water.  Having to have an international airport nearby makes the whole equation vulnerable to disruption.  But there are workarounds.  MSC maintains a number of crane ships to discharge deep-draft cargo “in stream” onto lighters, and the Army has the lighters.  Troops may someday deploy on the same ships as their equipment, ending the dependence on a big airfield.  All these are workarounds, and there are potentially many more.  But until the Army embraces sealift as it has airlift, and works the challenges persistently enough to build core expertise in rapid deployment, those challenges will remain unanswered.


Colonel (USA ret) Bob Killebrew writes and consults on national defense issues as a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.  Prior to his retirement from active duty he served for thirty years in a variety of Special Forces, infantry and staff duties.


Image: A U.S. Army soldier from the 82nd Airborne Division, Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller, U.S. Air Force. Fort Bragg, N.C., parachutes from a C-130 Hercules aircraft during Operation Toy Drop at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Dec. 6, 2008.