At the beginning of the Bush Administration the United States Army could feel with some justification that it was both a more capable organization and more in tune with its new commander-in-chief than it had been in decades. Since the trauma of the Vietnam years, the Army had made itself into a highly professional fighting force. Its ranks were filled with well-trained, spirited soldiers. Its noncommissioned officer corps—the tough, weatherbeaten men and women who are the Army’s backbone—had been successfully rebuilt after its near-destruction in the 1970s. Army forces had performed well, sometimes brilliantly, in Panama, Kuwait, the Balkans and elsewhere during the previous decade. Furthermore, in service schools and think tanks, studies and experiments were underway to adapt the Army to the coming century. Like all institutions in the dot-com ’80s and ’90s, Army planners realized that the information age would significantly change the reality of armed conflict. Many millions were spent on high-tech experiments in the California desert and on futuristic wargames at the War College. Though it was overstretched as of January 2001, the Service felt itself in good shape.As for George W. Bush, he seemed a man inclined to the Army’s view of its own value to the nation. The President and his new National Security Advisor had spoken against using soldiers for nation-building. As a candidate, Bush had gone to The Citadel in September 1999 to affirm that, if elected president, he would “replace diffuse commitments with focused ones; I will replace uncertain missions with well-defined objectives.” U.S. troops, he said, would not be sent on “endless and aimless deployments.” The new civilian team at the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), however, came to the third floor of the Pentagon’s E-ring with a “transformation” agenda very different from the Army’s. Informed by revolutions in communications and precision weapons, and by a series of speculative studies dubbed the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) by Andy Marshall, the Pentagon’s reclusive futurist, Donald Rumsfeld’s team leaned toward fast, high-tech campaigns that minimized the role of ground forces. Rapidly-deployed “expeditionary operations” were in, overseas basing was out. The Air Force and Marines’ precision and dazzle were in, the Army’s old-think and mass were out. Within months, speculation was rife that the new Secretary intended to cut the Army’s strength to pay for more technology, mainly for other services. Then came September 11, 2001. Swift victories in Afghanistan and then Iraq initially seemed to vindicate OSD’s vision of low-cost, rapid warfare. But when the enemy in Iraq slipped away and kept fighting, the silver-bullet version of high-tech blitzkrieg missed its mark, a victim of overconfident initial planning exacerbated by a stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality until nearly too late. Now, as the war in Iraq grinds on toward a fourth year, the Army finds itself stretched thin between requirements for combat today and reorganization tomorrow. Combat today, moreover, is defined by an insurgency whose character requires the Army to be engaged in nation-building and police work as well as conventional combat operations. The stretch is painful, and it is unexpected—this is certainly not what Army leaders anticipated back in January 2001. So are the “wheels coming off” the Army, as several retired generals have warned? Probably not, but there are some worrisome trends. At the heart of the question are two facts pointing in opposite directions. First, the Army is too small. Its authorized strength is just over one million servicemen and women in the total active force and reserves, but the force available to fight is around 660,000 soldiers—512,000 regulars and 148,000 mobilized reservists. Of this number, almost half are deployed overseas, leaving about half as many either in training to deploy, reorganizing units as part of the “transformation” drive, going to school or in the essential base that recruits, trains and maintains soldiers before they join combat units. The Army’s new reorganization, too, requires the retraining of about 100,000 soldiers in different career fields, adding even more turbulence to a Service already in turmoil. Just maintaining strength in the ranks is an increasing challenge. Recruitment is slipping; not only are goals not being met, but the increased intake of recruits in the lower mental categories is awakening the ghosts of the bad old days of the 1970s. Strength is being maintained, in part, by a surge in re-enlistments, but that can only go on for so long before the Army gets a middle-aged bulge in its junior ranks. Besides, the prospect of continuing one-year rotations in and out of combat zones is straining the married mid-grades of sergeants and junior officers who, along with their spouses, are making career decisions. Against this backdrop of challenges is set a second, more hopeful fact. This is a professional Army, proud of what it does and very good at doing it. To an extent sometimes not discernible to Beltway pundits, statistics and numbers don’t count for as much to an army as intangibles like pride and spirit. Judging by these criteria, the Army is still healthy. Its soldiers, regular and reserve, continue to perform superbly, honoring their families, teachers and hometowns—and incidentally making a vivid case for the importance of recruiting top-notch young people to fill the ranks. The Army has had the good sense, too—at long last—to leave soldiers in the same outfits for longer periods, capitalizing on the bonds of camaraderie and spirit that grow up among soldiers. The business of soldiering is first and foremost an affair of the heart, which is why re-enlistments actually increase in units notified for overseas deployments. Meanwhile, the Army’s noncommissioned officer corps shows little sign of fraying, as it did during the Vietnam War. Indeed, its prestige and authority will probably be enhanced by the Iraq campaign as ever more responsibility devolves to NCOs. It is good news, as well, that sufficient cadres of young, combat-experienced officers are staying in uniform and will soon be stepping into assignments key to the Army’s future. That bodes well for overcoming the enormous challenges ahead for the Army: continuing combat in Iraq and Afghanistan; budget shortfalls that are already cutting into operations and training; and the restoration of the Army’s education system. Recruitment and operational tempo issues notwithstanding, the wheels will not come off the Army if it retains its best-trained and most experienced soldiers. That said, there still remain institutional obstacles that the Army will have to clear before it can deal with its problems. Among these is the issue of civil-military relations. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, relationships between the Department of Defense and the Army’s leadership were already strained. Civilian officials considered the generals’ thinking to be ossified, and they made little effort to disguise their disdain. The generals, for their part, thought the newcomers cavalier in their approach to warfare and so adopted the time-tested tactic of waiting out the new team’s directives. Bad relations boiled over when Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki was relegated to lame duck status after contradicting the Administration’s troop estimates for the Iraqi invasion. Botched pre- and post-invasion planning then exacerbated further tensions between soldiers and OSD civilians. Today, though, after six years of Secretary Rumsfeld’s stewardship, the senior Army generals moving into key positions are his hand-selected team. This alone has done much to turn verbal missiles into mere mutterings. The general attitude now is a resigned “let’s get on with it.” Getting on with it, however, still involves some bumps on the road. While soldiers risk and occasionally lose their lives, the Secretary appears to be increasingly distanced from the war in Iraq—except as a case study for defense transformation, which remains his first priority. Bad taste lingers over the Army’s continuing probes of Abu Ghraib and related issues, while neither the Secretary nor the four-star joint headquarters responsible has taken any action. Since relief (“firing”) is an administrative action, not a judicial one, heads should have publicly rolled long ago, with the Defense Department wielding the ax—even if by doing so ongoing Service investigations had been prejudiced. Two years afterward, few would have noticed a flubbed investigation, but the message would have been unmistakable to the world: The Army doesn’t condone torture. These are no small matters. But there are even more fundamental challenges facing the Army than bad blood between the top brass and the OSD civilian leadership. During his tenure, Secretary Rumsfeld has overseen wrenching changes in the American defense establishment. The role of the Services has been diminished while the authority of the Secretary of Defense and his appointed subordinates has increased. Additionally, the influence of “joint” commanders has been enhanced at the expense of the individual Services, whose influence in the now-mature post-Goldwater-Nichols Joint Chiefs of Staff setup has dwindled to the vanishing point. These changes threaten the Army on several levels. Historically, as the trainer and mobilizer of America’s men and women and the senior Service responsible for decisive battle on land, the Army has seen itself as the keeper of the nation’s essential warfighting skills. Moreover, as the Service whose members historically pay the price when gee-whiz warfighting theories go wrong, the Army has long cultivated serious—and conservative—thought on war and strategy. Army reform at the beginning of the last century prepared the way for victory in World War I. Likewise, the Army led strategic thinking during World War II and fought—correctly, as it turned out—the “massive retaliation” strategies of the 1950s. As the century progressed, a conservative Army leadership often found itself to be the odd-man-out among the Services in opposing technologically-based budget schemes tarted up as quick-win warfighting strategies. But in the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle, Army thinkers at the Command and General Staff College largely rewrote the book on the American art of war, and the Army’s concept of “operational art” became a keystone not only of the Army’s postwar renaissance, but also of the other Services and, ultimately, of the Defense Department itself. Unfortunately and ironically in light of this history, the Army took two significant wrong turns in the late 1990s that have harmed its present-day operations in Iraq and that menace its future. First, under the press of operational commitments, the Army’s leadership stripped officer education programs to fill combat units in the field. The Army historically had sent its best and brightest to fill both student and faculty slots even during lean times. With promotion boards increasingly favoring extensive field assignments over classroom education, the Army took on a decidedly anti-intellectual flavor during the 1990s. Second, the Army’s wargames and think tanks turned from broad-based war studies and experimentation to focus more narrowly on future force designs that supported the Defense Department’s “global blitzkrieg” theories. As a result, Army thinking became more narrowly focused on offensive operations and force structure at the expense of considering other strategic challenges, a deficit that cost Army leaders dearly after the fall of Baghdad. Even as international challenges grew in scope and intensity, the Army’s leadership developed tunnel-vision. The result of these decisions was that, by the time the Bush Administration took office, America’s “muddy boots” Service focused intensely on blitzkrieg-style attacks, but maintained little interest in broader challenges or even in its own existing doctrine for follow-on or stability operations. One foreign observer, British Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, commented—in a recent article endorsed by the current Army Chief of Staff in the November/December 2005 Military Review—that “the U.S. Army has developed, over time, a singular focus on conventional warfare of a particularly swift and violent style, which left it ill-suited to the kind of operation it encountered as soon as conventional warfare ended.” When Rumsfeld came to office predisposed toward RMA-type “precision war”, he found an Army prepared to play its role (even if, as suggested above, there was something less than a complete mind-meld between OSD and the Army on the precise nature of the revolution in military affairs). Besides, offensive war played naturally into the Army’s aggressive nature. One advisor to Rumsfeld—an Army cavalry officer—boasted he could “take Baghdad with an armored cavalry regiment.” Nothing genuinely “transforms” a military service like a real war. And the Iraq war has had a sobering effect on both the Army and the Defense Department. The Army, for its part, is returning today to its traditional broader perspective, but its broader influence over the Armed Forces as a whole is not what it was. The Army must now accommodate a complex, sharply top-down OSD process for the vetting and review of its own warfighting concepts. Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, a prominent and highly respected authority, has charged that Department of Defense procedures are unwontedly cumbersome and lack intellectual content, and thus risk future U.S. success on complex battlefields. “Ideas move institutions, for good or ill”, he wrote in a now widely-distributed e-mail to senior service officers. “The result of leaving these concerns unaddressed will be a military that is significantly less able to meet its future requirements.” As it moves to revitalize its own grasp of future challenges, the Army, along with the other Services, must find a way to work within a newly structured Department of Defense bureaucracy. It has not quite figured this out yet. Beyond increasing the size and quality of its forces and learning to navigate a new DoD structure, the Army faces two other key internal challenges. Above all, the Service must rebuild the educational depth of its officer corps—the key to its future vitality. Here some help may be at hand. The Army’s current leadership is revamping officer education programs, sharply increasing the number of officers attending postgraduate school, and sending all officers to mid-level command and staff schooling that was previously available to only about half of the officer corps. As always, the war is producing a generation of young, battle-experienced officers with modernizing and reforming ideas. The gap between combat officers up front and chair-warmers in the rear echelon will narrow as the young combat generation overtakes and replaces its elders in the top levels of the Army. In fact, that is happening now. There has probably never been a more self-aware, well-informed junior officer corps than at present. To retain the finest officers, and to insure that they are selected in ways that bolster confidence in the Army’s institutional judgment, the Army must urgently rethink how it selects the best for promotion to the top. Ever since promotion by strict seniority was abolished a century ago, an officer’s career has rested almost entirely on pleasing the boss and the skill with which that boss words his evaluations. While there can be other indicators—a record of sterling assignments can be helpful—one bad mark from a superior can derail the most promising and worthy career. This system is an industrial age relic that is highly dysfunctional, not least because it creates perverse incentives that work against honesty and objectivity. In a painstaking study of military leadership in the Spring 1998 Parameters, retired Army Lt. Gen. Walter Ulmer warned: The warrior ethic, essential as the distinctive characteristic of the profession of arms, can rationalize leader behaviors that are situationally inappropriate. The classic example is the authoritarian leader whose penchant for centralized control results in poor decisions because his style denies him essential information. An idea long enunciated by many respected senior Army leaders—disagreement is not disloyalty—has not permeated the fabric of the institution. Aylwin-Foster, too, wrote in his Military Review essay that, with regard to operations in Iraq, a strong can-do ethos is admirable, but not “if it discourages junior commanders from reporting unwelcome news up the chain of command.” Not only does the current promotion system reduce the odds of getting the right leaders in the right places a decade or so from now; it also contributed to the high-level failures that began the Iraq war. Old as the Army is, it is continually in the process of transforming itself and adjusting to new demands. Rebuilding the Army after war is part of the American military tradition, and the challenge of rebuilding as troops come home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be the same as before. There will be different tasks, perhaps, but also the same uphill fight to fund new equipment, recruit and train for the next war. The need for new tactics and new strategies will require Army leaders with vision and patience who can match up the instruments of war to new conditions and new enemies. Discovering the Army’s institutional voice in the “new” Department of Defense pantheon, and re-establishing its boundaries and links with the department’s policymakers and its doctrines, is a vital task. This will be the challenge for the next generation of Army leaders—the officers and non-commissioned officers now manning the battalions around Baghdad or in the Afghan highlands. It won’t be easy, but it never has been.
This is your free article this month. A quality publication is not cheap to produce.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Appeared in: Volume 1, Number 3In the Army Now
Published on: March 1, 2006
Published on: March 1, 2006
Are the wheels coming off the U.S. Army thanks to the Iraq war? Not really, argues a retired Army colonel. But other problems loom.