What Next for the Army? In Defense of Proponency by Componency


As the U.S. Army tries to recover from extended operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the service’s ability to fight larger wars against near-peer, conventional adversaries needs to be reinvigorated. Such wars are the most dangerous scenarios, but the Army cannot lose the lessons it has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan as smaller operations in failed and failing states are not likely to fall off the U.S. military’s to-do list. In the 1970s, the Army walked away from lessons learned trying to save South Vietnam in order to focus on the Soviet threat. This is an experience that we cannot repeat.

A recent study, The Total Army, that we co-authored with the other members of the U.S. Army War College Carlisle Scholars Program recommends establishing “proponency by componency,” assigning primary responsibility for readiness for high-intensity conflict — what the Army terms “combined arms maneuver,” —to the active component. The report also recommends making the National Guard responsible for maintaining institutional readiness for stability operations and other related missions (“Wide-Area Security,” or WAS). The former is already effectively the case — the active component is the proponent for combined arms maneuver by default. The significant change proposed in the report pertains to the National Guard’s responsibilities for WAS. The idea is not binary. It does not recommend that only the active component should conduct combined arms maneuver and that only the Guard should conduct WAS.

We do not recommend “unloading” WAS as an unwanted or unworthy task, as was recently argued at War on the Rocks by Maj. James King. Indeed, our recommendation is premised on the principle that WAS remains an enduring and essential mission for the U.S. Army, and that developing and maintaining readiness for it are central to the Army’s effectiveness. WAS is doctrinally one of the Army‘s two core competencies, and is no less important than combined arms maneuver. Rather than pushing WAS to the side, this proposal would elevate its significance in an effort to retain the gains made in in the last 15 years of counterinsurgency and stabilization operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would also place proponency for WAS where it fits more naturally. Task allocation in the Army is all about prioritization. This idea simply focuses the priority of each component and establishes a leader. In the end, as the Army has learned numerous times in history, every unit must be able to perform both combined arms maneuver and WAS, and whatever else comes its way.

The Limits of Readiness

Readiness is the Army’s number one priority. In the words of General Milley, the Army Chief of Staff, “there is no other #1.” Broadly speaking, readiness can be broken down into two sub-components: “ready to go” and “ready to do.” The first involves the availability and fitness of soldiers, the equipment to move out on deployment, and the mobility to get them both there. The second involves being trained to perform the individual and collective tasks required to achieve the mission. Each unit in the Army is designed for a specific mission. Units are optimized to perform their intended mission through both their physical organization (provided by the organizational structure, equipment, and manning) and their training focus.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, units retained their combined arms maneuver-focused structures and equipment even when their training focused on WAS. Heavy units deploying for stability missions often left their equipment behind and completed combat training center rotations that were totally focused on low-intensity conflict scenarios. Although every unit in the Army is designed for a specific purpose, units often work outside their designated mission (for example, infantry doing civil affairs work, engineers and artillery fighting as infantry, and so on). An agile Army requires that units do many things. But to do these other things well, they need time to train for and transition to the new mission. The challenge of determining where to focus each unit’s training presents a significant strategic readiness problem. The Army must be ready to conduct large-scale land combat operations. It is the only element of the U.S. government that can perform this role. It must also be ready to perform many missions across the range of military operations short of high-intensity conflict, including WAS.

Training takes time and money. Given limited resources, militaries must prioritize training, and the priority of various training requirements is most often determined by assessment of risk. The U.S. Army prefers to be prepared for unlikely but very dangerous combat environments, while accepting risk in its preparedness for much more likely but less dangerous environments. Readiness for high-intensity conflict is a full-time job for active component Army units.

The basic unit of the Army’s combat forces is the brigade combat team (BCT). The Army is reorganizing to have 30 BCTs in the active component and 26 BCTs in the National Guard. A BCT’s training focus is determined by its Mission Essential Task List, which is determined by the Department of the Army and is standardized across all brigades of the same type. Once alerted for deployment, units may get a directed task list tailored specifically for the pending mission. In the absence of deployment orders, every BCT in the Army is training for the same mission: combined arms maneuver.

The Army’s ability to conduct decisive combined arms maneuver has deterred many adversaries. This is undoubtedly a good thing, but it has also led decision-makers to reduce requirements for combined arms maneuver capabilities over time. America’s rivals have learned from recent history that opposing the United States with a large conventional force is a bad idea. Success in Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom caused our adversaries to adopt new tactics and concepts of operation that undermine or avoid U.S. conventional strengths.

For the last 15 years, the Army has been largely involved in WAS, counterinsurgency, and counter-terrorism operations. In this time, other nations, Russia in particular, have closed the combined arms maneuver capability gap. It is important to refocus the Army on conventional war fighting to continue deterring potential adversaries. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan may not have advanced the Army’s ability to conduct maneuver warfare, but they did develop useful capabilities.  These capabilities, now resident in the Army, also serve a deterrent purpose and prevent smaller conflicts from growing. The Army must be able to do both.

Recent Operational History

Since the end of World War II, Army operations have predominantly been WAS. WAS encompasses a variety of missions, from counter-insurgency to peacekeeping operations. The Army has had greater difficulty in dominating its adversaries in WAS, than it has in its “conventional” wars, largely because the adversaries remain elusive. The largest WAS operations the Army has conducted in the last 50 years have been in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It has also conducted these operations in the Balkans, Somalia, the Sinai Peninsula, and Latin America.

Although the Army is focused on combined arms maneuver, history proves that WAS will remain a relevant mission, whether we like it or not. WAS involves many of the same basic skills as combined arms maneuver, but it also involves skills that the active component does not typically get to practice, such as interacting with local governments, law enforcement, and managing civil infrastructure. Through its citizen-soldier construct, as well as being part of their state governments and local communities, the National Guard is fundamentally more prepared to conduct WAS on short notice. The Guard has many soldiers whose civilian jobs, from policemen, to farmers, to engineers, are natural fits for the WAS mission. Guard leaders are more experienced at integrating their operations with local governments and considering the needs of the local community.

Recent history has shown that either component can become competent in WAS, but transitioning from combined arms maneuver to WAS in Iraq was difficult and costly. The Army is organized and trained to conduct combined arms maneuver. Units that are required to remission to other tasks, such as WAS, require a knowledge base to draw on. The difficulty in transitioning from combined arms maneuver to WAS in Iraq was compounded by the fact that there was little WAS knowledge anywhere in the Army; there was no proponent. Lessons were learned and TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) were developed in contact. This was a costly way of developing a new skillset that should not be repeated. Many of these lessons had been previously learned in Vietnam but had simply fallen away. The Army cannot let this happen again; WAS is here to stay, and the Army must maintain basic competency in this task. Establishing a proponent for WAS would help ensure this happens.

Proponency by Componency in Action

Propenency by componency would allow some National Guard forces to maintain a training focus on WAS. These units would maintain and develop the skills and knowledge recently learned at so high a price. Army doctrine states that the two core competencies of the Army are combined arms maneuver and WAS. As challenging as combined arms maneuver readiness is, recent experience suggests that WAS missions carry their own unique challenges and risks. The Army needs some units training specifically for WAS to keep both competencies current. The next time the Army goes to war, it should not have to relearn the forgotten lessons of previous wars.

The Army should not put all of its eggs in the combined arms maneuver basket. Establishing “propenency by componency” will help ensure that WAS skills atrophy less than if no part of the Army is focused primarily on them. This concept does not change the National Guard’s role as an operational reserve; it does not change Guard structure and equipment; and it does not relieve the Guard of the obligation to be ready to fight and win our nation’s wars. It also does not relieve the active component from having to do WAS.

The Army is the only element of the U.S. government that can conduct combined arms maneuver on the scale to defeat another nation. There is no parallel to combined arms maneuver in the civilian world, therefore if falls to the active component to develop the skills for this task. WAS requires many of the skills needed to govern and maintain law and order. The National Guard’s inherent competencies come closer to WAS than the active component’s do. The National Guard is better suited to be the proponent for WAS.

The proponency is just that: Each component would be the proponent for developing the doctrine, training, and equipment required for their competency. Neither component would, or ever could, be the sole executor of either competency. The Army is too small to assume any component could perform an operation on its own. The Army Reserve in particular has key enablers that would be required by both the National Guard and the Regular Army in operations, and is therefore not included in the proponency by componency idea. Combined arms maneuver is the competency required to seize terrain and defeat large organized opposing forces. It inevitably leads to wide area security. There is clearly an operational grey zone in which both would be required simultaneously, and therefore both components must still be able to perform either competency.

Both the Guard and the Army Reserve have developed significantly since 2003 and proven themselves in operations all over the world. Given the time to mobilize and train, they can be as effective as the active component. In recent wars, the maneuver phase of U.S. operations has typically been short, intense, and decisive. However, later phases of an operation to consolidate gains and ensure long-term change require more time. During these longer phases the National Guard will have sufficient time to mobilize and conduct wide area security, though even in a Guard-heavy WAS deployment there would also be some active component forces, units, and individual augmentees. The Guard’s operating tempo, dwell time, and home state requirements could be mitigated with active component forces. As active component forces would still be required for WAS, the Guard’s proponency will have ensured there is a knowledge base to support training.

The world is a turbulent and dangerous place, and our Army is getting smaller. Given the instability of the current world security environment, there is no shortage of missions or “ends” for the Army. Given our current domestic political environment, the “means” at the Army’s disposal are not likely to increase. The Army’s only recourse is to revise the “ways” in which tasks are allocated and prioritized. Propenency by componency helps achieve greater efficiency and agility in an unpredictable world.


Colonel Michael N. Clancy and Lt. Colonel Zac Delwiche are students in the US Army War College’s Carlisle Scholars Program. These views do not represent those of the U.S. Army War College, the Army, or any part of the Department of Defense or U.S. government. 

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christopher Blanton