Should America Build a Smaller, More Lethal U.S. Army?

In the Old Testament book of Judges, the Almighty tasks Gideon with leading the Israelites against their oppressor, the Midianites. In assembling an Israelite army, the Almighty commands Gideon to reduce his numbers. Gideon obeys and ultimately triumphs with the remaining force of three hundred men employing an elaborate ruse. Reducing the size of an armed force seems counterintuitive, but, as the story illustrates, organizational design, and not end strength, is critical to military effectiveness.

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(05/20/2016 Postscript: 
Senate Armed Services Committee has endorsed the below RSG concept)

Should America Build a Smaller, More Lethal U.S. Army?

In the Old Testament book of Judges, the Almighty tasks Gideon with leading the Israelites against their oppressor, the Midianites. In assembling an Israelite army, the Almighty commands Gideon to reduce his numbers. Gideon obeys, directing those who are afraid to fight to leave; of the thirty thousand assembled men, more than twenty thousand leave. When left with the remainder, the Almighty again commands Gideon to reduce his numbers. Gideon again obeys and directs the remaining men to drink from the nearby river. If the man put his mouth to the water, he was sent home. If the man kneeled to collect water in his hand, he was permitted to stay. In the end, Gideon was left with a force of three hundred men. Organizing the remainder into three companies, Gideon then armed the men with trumpets, glass jars, and torches. Gideon launched the Israelite attack just as the Midianite camp rotated its guards, and, at the moment of contact, he signaled the three hundred men to smash their jars, blast their trumpets, raise their torches, and shout their battle cry. The deception worked as the ruse convinced the Midianites the attacking force was far larger; in their disarray, they either attacked each other or fled. The victory freed the Israelites from Midianite rule and ushered in forty years of independence and peace. In the present day, headlines are replete with American Army leadership warning of risks arising from the reduction in the service’s end strength. Additional resources are always welcome in the event of a crisis, but simply increasing the Army’s end strength will not solve the challenges facing the service. Reducing the size of an armed force seems counterintuitive, but, as the story illustrates, organizational design, and not end strength, is critical to military effectiveness.

Army End Strength Drawn Down to a Minimum

In submitted written testimony to Congress for an April 5, 2016 hearing, Army general officers stated, “Army capacity is critical... There is mounting risk associated with an Army that could prove too small to execute the strategy outlined in the National Military Strategy. Current demand exceeds the Army's ability to supply units on a rotational basis.” More pointedly, Army leaders warned, “If sequestration-level cuts are imposed in Fiscal Year 2018 and beyond, all components of the Army would be reduced further... creat[ing] unacceptable risk to the nation.” (If sequestration remains in place, then the Army drawdown to 980,000 soldiers — 450,000 in the Active and 530,000 in the Reserve and Guard -- would continue to 420,000 in the Active and 500,000 in the Reserve and Guard.)

The commander of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, regarded the service’s “futurist,” starkly alleged, “We are outranged and outgunned by many potential adversaries [and] our army in the future risks being too small to secure the nation.”

Two days later, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff tempered those remarks, but he too warned against further reductions.

Unfortunately, Army leadership indicated the risks could only be addressed by providing the service with more resources, namely appropriation dollars to afford additional personnel and new equipment.

Given the Department of the Army’s record in managing prior manpower increases and modernization programs, Congress is right to be skeptical as to whether simply providing more of both would best minimize the risks raised by the service’s leadership.

The Independent Assessments

The Commission on the Future of the Army, tasked by Congress with an examination of these matters, found that the aforementioned 980,000 force structure “provides the Army a minimally sufficient capability and capacity across a range of near-term challenges” [Emphasis added]. Moreover, the Commission reported the “Army’s programmed distribution of forces across the components is about right for the range of threats assumed in existing sizing and shaping guidance.” The Commission nonetheless hedged its conclusion: “in general terms, the Army is appropriately sized, shaped, and ready to meet the strategic guidance it has been given... but only just so.” [Emphasis added].

The Commission noted that for some potential challenges already being planned for, the Army might have capability and capacity shortfalls and will be forced to deploy units not fully ready, an unacceptable prospect at any force size. In the Commission’s estimation of emerging international security trends, the service “lacks key capabilities and the capacity to meet or deter some potential threats.”

The Commission submitted a number of recommendations along the lines of force posture, force utilization, and component sourcing, but acknowledged the Congressionally set end strength remains an inevitable limitation and suggested one solution would be to reduce the number of Active Army Infantry Brigade Combat Teams by two. The step would free up approximately 8,500 manpower spaces to alleviate at-risk capabilities, such as air defense artillery and enablers (e.g. fuel distribution, port opening, transportation, and military police.)

The Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm, just reported on the matter of enabler capacity, finding that the Army prioritized the preservation of combat capacity in complying with reduced end strength authorizations, even to the point of diminishing enabler capacity. The priority placed on preserving combat capacity resulted in the Army only partially identifying the risks associated with such a force structure.

According to GAO, the Army only evaluated the risk associated with fulfilling its mission, but not the “risk to the force”. In other words, the Army examined whether its current force structure could succeed in the fights the current leadership sees on the horizon, but the Army did not determine to what lengths they would have to push and stress its current force structure to achieve these successes. The U.S. Army rightly prides itself on the stress it can endure, but returning to a time when the Army was similarly sized twelve years ago and preparing for a long and unexpected occupation, one Army leader warned achieving success would entail a stress in which his branch of “200,000 soldiers [would] rapidly degenerat[e] into a 'broken' force." The GAO declined to propose adjustments in the vein of the Commission’s IBCT recommendation, but revealed Army senior leaders assume the enabler deficiency can be resolved via contracting. Revisiting how this solution worked out should give all elected decision-makers pause.

(The combat-vs-enabler tug-of-war within a finite end strength invariably conjures images of unruly siblings fighting to put a undersized sheet on a bed...)

If, as the Commission states, budgets are fixed and readiness is a priority, then the solution lies in the matter that prompted the Congress to launch the aforementioned reviews: the Aviation Restructuring Initiative.

Good Enough for Aviation...

In fiscal year 2013, the Army maintained a combat aviation force comprised of 71,000 soldiers and 2,945 helicopters (810 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and 2,135 UH-60 Blackhawk assault helicopters). The Army’s authorized force structure included 21 combat aviation brigades (13 in the Active and 8 in the Reserve and Guard), and 2 theater aviation commands (in the Reserve). These brigades and commands were made up of subordinate units, principally battalion variants.

To accommodate the reduction in fiscal resources, the Army proposed an Aviation Restructuring Initiative whereby, in general, overall end strength would decline, force structure would shift to the Active Component from the Reserve Component, including the preponderance of attack helicopters. The Army National Guard objected to the initiative and proposed an alternative whereby, in general, overall end strength would again decline, but the force structure shift to the Active Component from the Reserve Component would be less substantial and a proportion of attack helicopters would remain in the National Guard.

The Commission deemed ARI “a well-crafted plan that holds down costs while maintaining a reasonable level of wartime capacity,” and would help free funding for aviation modernization program. The GAO came to similar conclusions, reported the Army came to its decision on the basis of a procedurally sound analysis. The Commission caveated the praise by noting ARI would not alleviate peacetime operational tempo, would diminish the service’s surge capacity for wartime, and would “exacerbate the problem highlighted in this report: the lack of unity between Regular Army and Army National Guard forces.” (Concerns about this disunity may be overwrought as shifting the priority to the Active component may be overdue. For additional information on the misplaced emphasis placed on capacity and capability of the Army reserve components, see the scholarship of military historians Conrad Crane and Gian Gentile.)

While the GAO and Commission findings tempered the controversy surrounding the Active-Guard dispute, the two reports left unstated a critical aspect of the initiative that has bearing on the matter of adequate end strength.

To accomplish the combat aviation force downsizing, the Army approved the streamlining of the service’s aviation brigade structures; specifically, the Army endorsed the reconfiguration of four structures (Heavy, Medium, Light, and General Support) into two new formations, the Full-Spectrum Combat Aviation Brigade and the Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade.

By exploring and adopting alternatives, the Army demonstrated organizational design can mitigate the impact of fiscal and end strength constraints on combat aviation.

More pointedly, the step demonstrates how organizational design can similarly solve the combat-enabler problem posed by the Brigade Combat Team.

...Good Enough for the Total Force

The Army’s principal combat formation, the Brigade Combat Team is nominally the product of the Army’s modularity initiative of the 2000s. The Army touts it as their capability of reference, on par with the Navy’s carrier group or Air Force strike packages, but the formation is a barely modernized descendant of division-centric designs that can be traced back to Army leadership decisions in 1942 to emulate German force structure, one that has inhibited its adaptability since. (Indeed, the GAO reports notes that for all the sturm and drang associated with maintaining a specific number of Brigade Combat Teams, including a “redesign from a two maneuver battalion to three battalion formation,” the ultimate number of underlying battalions will only decrease by less than two percent.)

One alternative in particular directly addresses the matter of combat and enabler capacity -- the Reconnaissance Strike Group.

The Reconnaissance Strike Group (RSG) is predicated on flattening the command and control structure and mirroring the reconnaissance-strike attributes of the aforementioned Navy and Air Force capabilities of reference. If instituted, Air Force, Army, and Navy formations would each commence operations under the command of a one-star general officer and deploy parallel reconnaissance-strike functions. On this basis, the Army RSG would comprise 5,500 to 6,000 soldiers and organize along reconnaissance, mobility, and strike functions and thus integrate more efficiently with sister service packages under ad hoc joint task forces.

Furthermore, this integration accommodates new joint priorities, namely anti-access area denial and rapid aggregation. The Air Force and Navy, having been at the forefront of addressing anti-access area denial challenges, they have readily recognized the advantages conferred on dispersed forces and rapid maneuver; shifting to the RSG permits the Army to capitalize on and complement the nation's advantage in aerospace and maritime-borne strike capabilities.

Lastly, while the RSG would be larger than a BCT in terms of manpower, implementing the RSG would have the added advantage of solving the combat-enabler end strength dilemma currently confounding the Army leadership. The RSG is designed to operate in an austere environment by embedding enabler capabilities in its corresponding battalion structure. The RSG Sustainment Battalion operates independently, unlike a BCT's Brigade Support Battalion. Each RSG maneuver and strike battalion additionally features its own organic support, approximately one-quarter of its assets (see below graphic).


Indeed, each RSG would possess more sustainment manpower (2,426 soldiers) than a BCT (1,357 soldiers).

In all, the RSG can operate on a self-sustained basis for thirty days at a range of 600 miles -- for the intervention-minded, the distance from Warsaw north to the southern border of Finland or south to the Black Sea, the distance from Kuwait City to the southern border of Turkey and the southern edge of the Caspian Sea.

As mentioned above, similar readiness has not been the recent experience of (nor cannot be expected of) the incumbent BCT structure.

Conceptual Debate or Procurement Scramble?

The enthusiasm with which the Active Army embraced ARI contrasts markedly with the vehement opposition to the RSG proposal.

Both concepts represent alternative unit configurations that would help solve problems arising from current end strength and fiscal constraints. Both concepts have been demonstrated their effectiveness in combat simulations. Both were conceived by officers below the flag officer level with first-hand experience coping with the shortcomings of incumbent designs.

Substantive objections probably exist, but a more mundane matter is probably the deciding factor: procurement dollars. The ARI permits the Army to proceed with planned acquisitions with incumbent providers; the RSG would require the procurement of a system from a new supplier.

Consider how rapidly the Army proceeded with implementation and signing AH-64 acquisition contracts once the Army Chief of Staff approved, even as the Army National Guard objected and the Congress launched independent reviews. Since September 2014, the Army has concluded 21 contracts associated with the AH-64 attack helicopter, excluding Foreign Military Sales, for a total of $2.7 billion.

In contrast, the RSG proposal entails ditching the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle in favor of the German-made Puma variant. Army leadership has unceasingly bemoaned the failure to obtain approval for a new vehicle modernization program even though a 2013 Congressional Budget Office report identified the Puma as a plausible and affordable alternative to the ungrounded and costly proposals favored by the service.

As the saying goes, when out of money, the time comes to begin thinking. As the ARI-RSG contrast shows, Army leadership has declined to think, opting to just ask for more money.

(To its credit, the Commission cited structure redesign as an attractive course of action and recommended Congress require DOD to model alternative Army design and operational concepts, including the Reconnaissance Strike Group.)

* * *
To conclude, quantity indeed possesses a quality of its own, but as history demonstrates, organizational design remains paramount. As the Army leadership grapples with end strength, fiscal, and readiness challenges, the step of embracing a smaller force -- one more capably organized and equipped with modern systems (finally) -- emerges as a counterintuitive solution. Amid the welter of challenges and uncertainty characterizing the current international security environment, well-organized ready joint forces constitute the ultimate asymmetric advantage.

(05/20/2016 Postscript: Senate Armed Services Committee has endorsed the RSG concept)

S.2943 - National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017


(a) Modeling Of Alternative Army Design And Operational Concept.—

(1) IN GENERAL.—The Secretary of Defense shall, in consultation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provide for and oversee the modeling of an alternative Army design and operational concept for the Reconnaissance Strike Group (RSG).

(2) REPORT.—Not later than one year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall submit to the Committees on Armed Services of the Senate and the House of Representatives a report on the alternative design and operational concept modeled as described in paragraph (1). The report shall include an assessment of the feasibility and advisability of a follow-on pilot program to test force designs and concepts of operation developed pursuant to the modeling.

(b) Test, Evaluation, Development, And Validation.—

(1) OFFICE REQUIRED.—Commencing not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the commander of a combatant command designated by the Secretary for purposes of this subsection shall establish within that combatant command an office to carry out testing, evaluation, development and validation of the joint warfighting concepts, and required platforms and structure, of the Reconnaissance Strike Group.

(2) REPORTS.—Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, and periodically thereafter, the commander of the combatant command designated pursuant to paragraph (1) shall submit to the committees of Congress referred to in subsection (a)(2) a report on the office required pursuant to paragraph (1), including the structure of the office, the programmatic goals of the office, and the funding required by the office to carry out the activities specified in paragraph (1).