Surprisingly Sound Answers on the Future of the Army

February 3, 2016

I really don’t have much faith in congressionally mandated committees. I was a member of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). I found the experience to be unseemly and the shrill and naked advocacy of my fellow members very disappointing. Congressman Ike Skelton appointed Professor Dick Kohn and me to the QDR expecting us to craft a concept for the reform of the military’s education system. We did that. We tried to get the administration to pay attention. So far, nothing.

So I read the recently published report by the National Commission on the Future of the Army with some trepidation. And I was pleasantly surprised. The document is good. The commission members were faithful to their congressional charter. They were instructed to answer two key questions: What should the size of the future Army be? And how should the Amy apportion its aviation fleet between the regular Army and the Army National Guard?

The commission’s answers to these two questions are sound: They concluded that the minimum number of soldiers necessary to fulfill our national security strategy is 980,000: 450,000 regulars, 335,000 National Guard and 195,000 in the Army Reserve. These numbers track very closely with those proposed by Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and are sensible as long as the threat postulated by the intelligence services proves to be near the mark. The commission report goes against the Army’s proposed allocation of helicopter resources by suggesting that the Army not transfer all of its remaining 24 Apache battalions to the regular Army but keep four in the Guard.

The commission’s foray into regular-versus-National-Guard resourcing went beyond Apache helicopter apportionment. And that’s where, in my opinion, it struck gold. Fifteen years of continuous warfare have changed the Army’s culture. Decades of regular–National Guard mutual commitment have co-joined the services into a joint fighting force unparalleled on the planet. One cannot find a serving senior soldier who fails to appreciate the amplifying power of “jointness.” Experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has compelled the Army to discover new dimensions of war by embracing the role of the interagency, so called “whole-of-government” contributions to wars fought in the gray regions of conflict.

This commission concludes that the Army hasn’t done enough to exploit fully the Total Army. They suggest that the experience gained by the National Guard in particular needs to be recognized, that what started 14 years ago as a force of amateurs has matured in the harsh environment of the Middle East to become more professional than any reserve force in our history. They suggest, rightly, that the terrorist threat to the homeland has changed fundamentally the role of reserve forces in keeping us safe and in securing our borders.

The commission’s recommendations for addressing the issue of the Total Force are both sound and achievable. They recommend a “multicomponent” approach to Army structure that would imbed Guard and regulars together in permanent active and reserve units. Multicomponent units make the most sense for those portions of the Guard that would benefit the most from the regular–Guard combination, such as aviation, air defense, logistics, civil affairs, intelligence and engineering. Such units would in effect stretch forward the goodness of our painfully earned combat experience by allowing a free transfer of leaders and soldiers internally within these multicomponent units.

Virtually hidden in the report are a few additional jewels that should raise awareness among our political leaders. The commissioners write about capability “gaps” and the consequences for “risk.” In essence, the commission is warning that the fighting abilities of the nation are being impeded by several very serious shortcomings that have grown and festered during our recent wars. The first is air defense. In Ukraine and Syria, the Russians have clearly shown that they understand our “gaps” in air defense and have worked effectively to exploit them. In both places, the Russians have created an enormously complex, layered array of integrated air defenses that, in the hands of a Russian or Russian surrogate force, might deny our air forces access to the close fight. If the air forces are late to the battle, the Army will be unable to shoot down attacking aircraft and drones because it has virtually no low- and medium-altitude air defenses. This is a serious shortcoming. The Army must field a robust air defense capability immediately.

The second critical commission observation deals with a painful self-inflicted wound: neglect of our artillery force. The Russians have rediscovered artillery. In 2014, Russian multi-battalion artillery “fire strikes” virtually destroyed a Ukrainian tank unit within minutes. The “Little Green Men” employed sophisticated electronic means to locate the Ukrainians and followed their movements using layers of orbiting drones.

For reasons that defy logic, our Army has been told to destroy all of its stock of “steel rain,” the deadly bomblet munitions that obliterated Saddam’s artillery during the opening phase of the ground war in Desert Storm. The Russian army has learned from us. They have developed a new class of large and precise rocket launchers to deliver their new version of steel rain. Some of these munitions are filled with thermobaric explosives capable of shredding armored vehicles with horrific effects. In effect, the commission concludes that the Russians artillery already outranges us. When we destroy our stocks of steel rain area killing munitions they will out-kill us as well.

The commission recommends the stationing of an additional armored brigade in Eastern Europe as a cost-effective means for deterring Putin from adventuring into NATO territory in the Baltic states and Poland. As I wrote late last year in The Wall Street Journal, the strategic conditions have changed since the invasion of Crimea and Ukraine. These theaters are potential ground battlefields for the United States. Therefore, the only legitimate countervailing response that will keep Putin in his cage is to place American heavy units in his path.

My most serious concern with the commission report is its apparent failure to pay close attention to the lessons we have learned during the past 14 years of war (or, for that matter, the last 70 years of ground conflict since the end of World War II). Such ahistoricism manifests itself in the commission’s recommendation to reduce the Army by two light infantry brigades. This decision is, in a way, understandable given that the commission followed contemporary rules governing fiscal and human apportionment within the Department of Defense. They recommend reapportioning these light infantry spaces to meet obvious shortfalls in artillery, air defense and military police units.

But the Gods of War apportion differently. Like it or not our enemies are overwhelmingly light infantry. They are growing, not diminishing. The shortage of light infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan came close to collapsing our Army in 2006 and 2007. Too many close combat tours for our young infantry soldiers and leaders came close to breaking the Army. Too few soldiers for too many close combat missions has left scars that will torment them for generations. The Army can make up for artillery, air defense, and MP increases without affecting close combat BCTs. It just needs to take a sharp pencil to the issue and reduce logistics, higher level staffs, and acquisition officers with no detriment on the fighting capability of the Total Force.

Another painfully learned fact from our history is that a volunteer Army tends to fight with the forces they first take to war. It took almost five years for former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld to be persuaded to increase Army forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The same tragic scenario played out in Korea and Vietnam.

So my personal plea would be for the Army to increase not decrease its close combat (principally infantry) forces.

Abraham Lincoln used to talk about the “arithmetic of war.” By this, he meant that war erodes armies as soon as the first shot is fired. Noting can stop the arithmetic. This commission should better understand what our 16th president was trying to tell us. A better play for the future of the Army would be to “overstaff” infantry units before wars start so the Army will no longer face the eternal conundrum: Go to war shorthanded or fight with untrained, unfamiliar amateurs.


Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.


Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Opal Vaughn, U.S. Army