war on the rocks

7 Issues the Future of the Army Commission Should Have Spent More Time On

February 25, 2016

War on the Rocks has already had much astute commentary about the content of the final report from the National Commission on the Future of the Army. I would first like to echo the praise from those who have emphasized how much work went into producing the report. It is obvious that the members took their duties seriously and applied themselves diligently. With that said, I’d like to provide my observations about some issues that could have benefitted from more analysis.

1) Once cut, the Army is not easily expansible

The myth of expansibility, that ground forces are especially easy and quick to reconstitute after significant reductions, is an enduring one, which ignores the inherent difficulties in growing the force in the current environment. One of the big things the commission got right, as Maj. Gen. Bob Scales has already pointed out, is the focus on better integration of the reserve components. The large section dealing with Apache helicopter transfers reflects a sincere effort to balance active and reserve equities in a Solomon-like effort to split that baby. The report correctly emphasizes the importance of Total Force policies while hinting at the immense obstacles against expanding the active force any other way. I would like to have seen a more thorough analysis of cost and benefits of a draft, especially after the bleak discussion of the diminishing pool of eligible recruits available for service, and some thoughts about including women in a future draft.

Even though a draft is unlikely, the expenses involved in manning an all-volunteer force are only going to increase, and having an objective evaluation of the comparative costs and capabilities of a draftee force would verify or discount its utility as a viable alternative. The report mentions a shortage of mobilization facilities; I think that analysis could also be expanded to include training capacity and the industrial base. It also discusses the paradoxical requirements for an increased institutional base to support expansion, at the cost of standing forces. The nation just does not have the capacity anymore to expand the force in a crisis as it did for previous major wars. We are going to have to fight with the personnel and equipment in the force already in being, active and reserve.

2) Deeper analysis on options to better integrate the active and reserve components

The report advocates for the creation of a personnel system supporting rotating assignments between the components. That seems like a good idea, but it remains to be seen how active-component promotion boards would view reserve-component assignments. The commission also pushes for more multi-component units, while acknowledging that past experience with them has produced mixed results. This is a subject that deserves much further study. I am especially leery of mixed headquarters. On that subject, I was pleased to see that the commission recognized the negative impact of arbitrary Army headquarters reductions in its acknowledgement of the inadequacies of current Army service component commands and associated headquarters.

3) A more thorough discussion of deficiencies in force structure and capabilities

Complying with the ban on cluster munitions has reduced an important fire-support capability at the same time the Russians have demonstrated how they have increased theirs. In one of the many tradeoffs necessitated by the Long War, the Army has allowed its transportation assets to atrophy during the last decade, and the commission recognizes the necessity to reverse that trend. The lack of adequate short-range air defense is a longstanding problem that has the potential for dire consequences on future battlefields. The commission should also have addressed the growing requirements for more theater air defense assets as enemies begin to challenge our assumptions about continuing air supremacy.

4) Expanded discussion of stability operations and counterinsurgency

The report’s lack of discussion of this crucial issue, as discussed by Andrew Hill and Nadia Schadlow, is in keeping with the current defense planning guidance, but in my opinion violates the mission of the commission to consider “current and anticipated mission requirements for the Army.” We did not enter Afghanistan or Iraq intending to fight insurgencies for more than a decade, but evolving national objectives necessitated such commitment. In fact, history shows that in any significant American military intervention, long-term ground presence is almost always required to achieve national goals. The report assumes a situation where forces are engaged simultaneously with a large-scale homeland defense response, a large-scale conventional conflict, and a limited-duration deterrence operation, without considering any other distractions or even residual requirements from those missions. Inevitably, that conventional operation would have a significant stability component that would begin before the end of major combat and endure long afterwards.

5) Explicit analysis of force size and structure recommendations

The commission recommends retaining at least the current planned force of 980,000, but gives little guidance on how it might configure or grow to fix noted deficiencies. It does recommend cutting two infantry brigade combat teams to provide some room for restructuring, but those might indeed be necessary in an alternate future combating more irregular threats or conducting stability operations.

6) A real discussion of risk

The Army has always been poor at clearly defining risk, and this report does no better. It describes emerging challenges thoroughly, but does not come to grips with how future force size will affect the ability to deal with them, or what the resulting risks to national policies might be. It is vague on both operational and strategic risk. The Army tends to be much better on the former than the latter, much to its detriment in force-structure discussions with civilian policy makers.

7) Contractors on the battlefield

We all know how the Army has tried to shift a multitude of support requirements to civilian contractors to save uniformed positions for other tasks. How would their presence impact the conventional operation considered in conducting this study? Would that case reveal even more shortfalls in support requirements for conventional operations, especially in very austere or dangerous environments? How do contractors fit into Total Force policies in general? I think there is much room for further analysis of that issue, including cost/benefit calculations.


Conrad C. Crane is chief of historical services for the Army Heritage and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks and a former director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute.