Being All They Can Be

As Democratic presidential candidates trade sound-bite complaints about the Army being overextended in Iraq, one man in a position to make changes has announced a plan that could genuinely improve the Army’s predicament.

Gen. Peter Schoomaker (search), plucked out of retirement to serve as Army chief of staff on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s belief he’d shake up the institution, has, true to expectations, announced a reorganization of how Army soldiers fit into divisions and how they fight.

Currently, 20 of 33 Army active brigades are serving overseas. Some 130,000 active and reserve troops are in Iraq and another 50,000 are in Afghanistan, South Korea and elsewhere. This makes for an unsustainable ratio where there is only two-thirds of an Army brigade stateside, resting and training, for every one brigade that is deployed overseas. The insufficient slack means deployments are too long and there isn’t enough rest time for soldiers between deployments.

Schoomaker plans to fix the situation by taking the existing pool of soldiers and dividing them into 48 brigades instead of the current 33, according to Defense News. He will also re-train the troops to turn all soldiers into riflemen first, specialists in logistics and other subfields second. The reorganization will mark the most fundamental change in Army combat organization since the 1950s, and soon after it is implemented should relieve the Army’s current overextended state, by improving the ratio of soldiers deployed overseas relative to those at home.

Though it might appear that Schoomaker is merely making an accounting change, he’ll actually have a deep impact. The main elements of Schoomaker’s reorganization:

1. Increase the number of brigades: Schoomaker plans to take the Army’s 33 maneuver brigades and spread their personnel across 48 brigades. He’ll then take support brigades -- those that do artillery, supply and maintenance, for the most part -- and sprinkle their personnel across the 48 as well. This will push support roles down to the brigade level. That structure will replace the current arrangement, designed for the Cold War (search) when the Army was prepared to fight giant set-piece battles on European soil, where the support roles were organized at the division level. It will improve the deployment ratio so that there can be two brigades at home for every one deployed overseas.

2. Make every soldier a rifleman: The support troops in the new brigades will have to be more versatile as soldiers. Where under the current structure troops have completed basic training then gone immediately into their specialized fields of logistics, etc., the new structure will require a higher level of combat proficiency from each soldier. Schoomaker’s model draws on the traditions of the Marine Corps, where every soldier is an infantryman first, and indeed on his own experience in the Special Forces (search), where every member of a 12-man “A” team is a special operator first, and a communications expert or medic second.

Though it may appear that Schoomaker is spreading an already overextended Army even more thinly, that’s the wrong way to look at the changes. The U.S. military, with its increased firepower, greater precision and more advanced weapons and networks, is able to achieve its war aims with far fewer troops now that it did even a decade ago. There’s no better proof of this increased productivity than the fact that the U.S. defeated Saddam Hussein’s regime with half the troops it used in Desert Storm (search) 12 years ago.

Schoomaker is merely turning those military-wide improvements to the advantage of Army personnel. In addition, he’s putting into wider practice the analysis that smaller units make better and faster combat forces, which are better suited for the conflicts of our age, than do bigger, lumbering Cold War-style units.

To be sure, there may be some problems with the reorganization, which increases the mixture of weapons and functions at a lower level of the force. The changes will require a ramping up of training for soldiers, so that all can be skilled in combat arms. Commanders who previously dealt only with combat troops will now need to lead logistics and other supporting forces as well. And training support soldiers, who will now be spread across 48 brigades instead of concentrated in their own few brigades, will be decentralized and thus made more complicated.

What’s more, there’s a legacy of recent failure with just this type of organizational change. In the 1950s, the Army experimented with a move from the three-brigade division to the five-battlegroup division. The logic was that in the event of a battle where nuclear weapons were fired, troops would have to be more spread out than a three-brigade division allowed. This theoretically more survivable “Pentomic division” (search) failed to perform well in exercises, though, because it was spread too thin for the main contingency that the U.S. had to plan for -- a big set-piece battle on European soil. In addition, the Army of the 1950s didn’t have the communications and transportation needed to make the five-battlegroup division cohesive.

Times are different now. Information technology has made troops and commanders better networked than ever before, and precision weaponry has increased tenfold soldiers’ combat effectiveness. Add to that the fact that today’s engagements -- in Iraq, or indeed some future battlefield -- require rapidly deployable, lighter forces, and it’s clear that Schoomaker’s fixes are the military-personnel equivalent of military-hardware’s “transformational change.” Put another way, they’re essential.

 

Melana Zyla Vickers writes about defense technologies and foreign policy for  TechCentralStation.com and is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. She is a former editorial-board member of USA Today, Canada's The Globe and Mail and The Asian Wall Street Journal, and a former editor at the Far Eastern Economc Review.