Setting the Stage for the Future of the Army

March 2, 2016

Conrad Crane is correct that more work could be done on the seven issues he highlighted in his critique of the recent report issued by National Commission on the Future of the Army (NCFA). However, there were important factors that kept the breadth of an already lengthy 200-page report limited, such as the deadline set by Congress and the inherent limits of discussing the future of the Army in an unclassified forum. The commissioners rightly prioritized the work to get after the congressionally mandated tasks and considerations in a transparent, objective, and evidence-based manner. As someone intimately involved with the work of the commission — I have the honor of serving as its staff director — I will address each of Crane’s seven points.

1) Once cut, the Army is not easily expansible

The commission concluded that a conscription force would not yield the quality of soldiers needed for the future Army. The very first recommendation, “The nation must maintain and sustain an All-Volunteer Force,” was placed up front for this reason. The cost of manning the All-Volunteer Force will increase, but this is a cost the United States must pay. The report identifies work from other commissions and task forces that proposed cost reduction initiatives in military compensation and health care (page 44).

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

Recommendation 28 addresses the need to develop selection and promotion incentives for cross-component assignments. Regular Army promotion boards will follow guidance from the secretary of the Army, but changing the culture will take time and continued leader emphasis. Consider how negatively some in the Army viewed joint assignments before the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The Army has come a long way since then. One of the commissioners had personal experience as a Regular Army soldier detailed to an Army National Guard unit. Sergeant Major of the Army (retired) Raymond Chandler’s career demonstrated that a Regular Army soldier serving within a Reserve Component unit does not have to limit promotion.

The commission’s call for greater use of multi-component units did not include discussion of how to design such units. Unit design work is clearly an internal Army task. Some lessons learned in designing multicomponent units were offered as part of the Operational Subcommittee Multicomponent Units paper issued by the commission last year.

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

On this issue, the commission’s work is much richer than Conrad assessed, but could not be presented in the unclassified product. The classified annex discusses force structure analysis methodology and outcomes in detail. Recommendation 9, which calls for risk assessment of short-range air defense, CBRN, field artillery, and watercraft, was derived from findings in the classified annex.

4) Expanded discussion of stability operations and counterinsurgency

The limited text discussing stability operations and counterinsurgency should not be construed as the commission’s de-emphasizing of these topics. The commission included stability operations in the modeling activities and proposed increasing enabler capabilities critical to stability operations, such as logistics and military police. Additionally, the Army must comply with the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and national strategic documents that followed to set the scale and scope of U.S. stability operations and counterinsurgency activities. Recommendation 13 addresses the existing mismatch between the security environment and strategy.

5) Explicit analysis of force size and structure recommendations

The commission recommendation concluded that 980,000 soldiers represented the “minimally sufficient” force. This was careful word choice, and NCFA Chairman General (Ret.) Carter Ham made clear during House and Senate hearings this end-strength number is a floor, not a ceiling.

Recommendation 24 states that “the Army should consider reducing up to two Regular Army IBCTs to provide manpower spaces that could be used to decrease higher priority risks.” This offers one way to reconfigure the Army to reduce risk, but reducing the Army’s maneuver force has rightly generated some angst. However, the commission “… found the Army’s capability and capacity in Infantry Brigade Combat Teams (IBCTs) created less risk than many of the structure shortfalls,” another careful word selection that demonstrates the tough choices ahead for the Army. When viewed from a Total Force perspective, reducing Regular Army infantry creates less risk than other shortfalls. Additionally, multinational partners can provide infantry, but not adequate armor, air defense, or logistics.

6) A real discussion of risk

Conrad noted that “the Army has always been poor at clearly defining risk” and I concur with one caveat: The lack of clarity for defining risk is not an Army-exclusive issue. The Department of Defense is not known for defining risk in clear and understandable terms. The commission was directed to take into account “anticipated mission requirements for the Army at acceptable levels of national risk and in a manner consistent with available resources and anticipated future resources.” The report explains that sources and experts consulted — inside and outside the government — all had different levels of risk tolerance. With so many diverging views, the final report of the commission and its view of risk reflect the professional judgment and experiences of the commission.

While national risk was at the heart of the commission’s mandate, the 2015 NDAA included four undefined categories of risk for the commission to consider: national, strategic, operational, and military risk. The report explains how the commission approached explaining risk:

The Commission chose to simplify the risk framework into the Army’s ability to fulfill two basic responsibilities: (1) to provide options to the President, Secretary of Defense, and Combatant Commanders when called upon (risk to mission), and (2) to ensure the health of the force (risk to force).

7) Contractors on the battlefield

Conrad was on target that further analysis of this issue is needed. Army force structure for sustainment, maintenance, and transportation must be assessed for adequacy when the environment is not stable enough to employ contracted assets.

In summary, the commission addressed all the NDAA-mandated tasks and considerations. Hopefully, the debate on what to do with its findings and recommendations leads to a more effective Army that is adequately resourced.


Rickey E. Smith is the Staff Director of the National Commission on the Future of the Army. He is also the Training and Doctrine Command Deputy Chief of Staff, G-9.


Photo credit: U.S. Army