Rapid Deployment: The Army and American Strategy

December 9, 2013

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

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.

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!

14 thoughts on “Rapid Deployment: The Army and American Strategy

  1. Eminently readable to a layman outside the armed forces.

    That’s not shallow praise. It’s fantastic to be able to come to an article like this and read it through thoroughly and feel like you’ve absorbed the core concept.

    Personally: I’d love to hear more about how other NATO countries ability for rapid deployment compares.

    1. No other nation has the ability to deploy heavy brigades and divisions with anything approaching the speed of the Army and Marine Corps so, from a strategic mobility perspective, there isn’t really anything to look at outside of DOD. What’s needed are regular exercises of the capability so planners and leaders get familiar with the capability, the details of making it work, and the relevant force flow planning factors (e.g. how much moves how fast).

  2. A very timely piece. The Army’s quest for a 20-ton MBT and quad-tiltrotors will be an expensive one and unlikely to bare much fruit.

    The Army could also increase its responsiveness by making greater use of prepositioning ships. There would be costs associated with the ships and stored equipment, but floating stocks of equipment could (and in fact are) be based nearby to significantly reduce the sailing time to the theater of interest. The soldiers to operate the gear could then be flown in to rendezvous.

  3. To expand on Edward’s comments, I agree this is a fantastic article and easy to read. Prior to this article, I was aware that the Army has a large “fleet” of ships to be used in the event that somewhere in the world was to go “hot” and big Army was needed to rapidly deploy her assets into theater, but I had not seen a breakdown including timelines of how assets would be moved. The questions this article raises for me is a) how exactly did the Army “wargame” the Syria scenario leading to the conclusion they would struggle to make it in 45 days when a previous real life example was executed by the Army during the Gulf War, b) how does a senior Army spokesman use this “flawed” wargamming scenario as a talking point and c) what has caused such a basic misunderstanding from senior leaders within the Army to not only understand how their service deploys and what assets are available for use? I know the author touched on the last decade+ of war being a possible catalyst for the shift in focus, but either way the fight has still been overseas and with that being said I would think (and hope) that big Army wouldn’t lose focus of the importance of being able to rapidly field her forces to fight a potential adversary overseas should one rear its ugly head.

  4. Wonderful for several reasons. First is that the public (I am a Soldier, but a citizen first) should always be skeptical about what our military leaders say. We should question their assumptions and assertions, and demand more. Second, America needs to know how this stuff works. I doubt more than one of 50 congressmen know how the Army deploys. Third, while the military inevitably will see a cycle of waxing and waning of its footprint, it will always be required to move. Thus, I particularly agree with the last point. The Army needs to be practicing this stuff.

    Great article.

  5. Very interesting. In the Spanish-American War and World War I the lack of shipping tonnage was a huge hindrance. In WWI it meant we had to focus on shipping combat soldiers without all of their equipment or support personnel. In 1944 the shortage of LCTs prevented Operations OVERLORD and DRAGOON from being conducted simutaneously. The Army should not repeat these mistakes.

  6. Thanks for a most interesting and informative article.. However, for your trans-pacific partner it is noteworthy that little has improved since our Timor deployment where we had to rent our logistic support vessel, we had privatised cooks out of the military, our air landing ground was secured for us by UK Ghurkas, and we have never owned a Combat Engineer Vehicle! Timor is but 186 miles off the Australian coast.

    As your comrades down under this is a sad window on our equipping/logistic baseline, whilst our foot soldiers are as good as any and second to none, and we have half a dozen CI7s, we are somewhat dependant on the USA for lift.

  7. I think what the spokesman meant was that it would take more than 45 days deploy an adequate force to the theater. Obviously army united could deploy but this does not mean that they have achieved the critical mass to make a decisive attack into Syria. As you say in your opening paragraph it took two months to get an entire Corps in place to invade Iraq. The same would likely be required to properly invade Syria.. better to go in with decisively large force than a small one that can still get the job done but risk being overstretched. By that logic I can easily understand a struggle to get all combat and logistics assets deployed within 45 days.

    More importantly though, whats the rush? The invasion of Syria was not a strategic necessity which required a quick application of force to mitigate some clear and impending danger to the United States, it would have been simple adventurism.

    1. Joshua Shapiro,

      I agree with your last point in regards to Syria that it would have been “adventurism” rather than “strategic necessity” had the US intervened in the conflict. With that being said, I don’t believe the author was arguing that the US should have become involved in Syria, rather I think he was illuminating the fact that there has been a corrosive loss within the Army’s higher ups as to how to deploy it forces rapidly and what assets the Army actually owns to support rapid mobilization and deployment of said forces. This is a rather glaring indictment if true because while Syria was not an immediate threat to US security or national interests what if a seen or unseen threat were to immediately materialize rapidly somewhere in the world today and required the Army to rapidly deploy its forces? I think that was the point of this article that the author was warning about. If the Army were to lose this ability to rapidly deploy her forces in the future this could have a deleterious effect to the US in the event of a major threat to the US and/or her allies was to materialize overseas.

  8. Fine article. Just a couple of technical corrections. The 11 Surge LMSRs were layberthed along the East and Gulf Coasts to support load out of heavy divisions from Texas and Georgia. At that time there were no heavy divisions on the West Coast.

    Also, although the Army was the primary driver for the LMSR program, it was the Joint OSD/JCS sponsored Mobility Requirements Study that established the requirement.

    Jon Kaskin, former Director, Strategic Mobility & Combat Logistics Division (OPNAV N42)

  9. While the war ending does reset the army to its normal mode of doing things I place limited value on rapid deployment.
    We have more ships and aircraft to do that today that in the past.
    I place a lot more emphasis on ensuring our ground forces are equipped to engage in combat in medium and high threat environments.
    This counterinsurgency rubbish is a only a narrow part of the spectrum of threats the United States must defend itself against.
    The problem with rapid reaction forces is that they lack enough main battle tanks, quality artillery and air defense systems to deal with a peer foe. The airborne rely on rest of the army showing up quickly to protect them from retaliation and the USMC relies heavily on the Navy’s destroyers and ship based close air support to protect it for jet aircraft and tanks and heavy artillery until the army’s heavy brigades arrive.
    The Navy’s ship fleets represent 25 years of shipbuilding. While powerful, I don’t feel comfortable putting all of our eggs in only one basket.
    This look at force projection looks at ourselves without looking at all of the potential adversaries, many of which have airborne and marine forces of their own.
    For this group we need big heavy forces that can smear them on the spot.
    Perhaps instead of worrying about how to attack people and sour our international reputation, we should be getting more attack submarines, fighter jets and heavy ground forces to defend our nation and our allies.

  10. Where is the heavy equipment ready for rapid deployment from the west coast? The closest active armored brigades are at Fort Carson CO, and are in use. With no advance warning, it would take over a month to pack up and deploy the equipment by rail to Long Beach or Oakland and aboard ship.

    The idea of rapidly deploying the 82nd into serious combat is a joke except to fight confused minor third world nations, and minor ops into Grenada and Panama were embarrassing flops. The division needs at least one large airfield outside enemy artillery range and a month just to land and get organized and we don’t have enough airlift to sustain it in combat. A average army need only unleash a few MLRS volleys at the airfield to win.

    The Army exists to fight America’s wars, and should be in no hurry to do so. But the fear remains that Congress may ask why keep such a large active army when less than half of combat forces can be deployed in six months, allowing plenty of time for the Guard and Reserve to get up to speed.