As Donald Rumsfeld gears up for his war on the U.S. Army, the Army is preparing to fight back. I noted here two weeks ago Rumsfeld’s opening May Day fusillade, in which he let it be known that his new secretary of the Army would be James Roche. The intriguing—and, from the Army’s point of view, disturbing—thing about Roche is that he’s a retired Navy captain who, for the past two years, has been secretary of the Air Force. As if those two facts weren’t brutal enough blows to service pride, Roche is also a longtime associate of Andrew Marshall, a veteran Pentagon official who has been building a case over the past decade for a “military transformation,” which involves a major restructuring—and substantial reduction—of Army forces.
Since this news, Army colonels and generals have been mumbling about Rumsfeld’s “hostile takeover” of the Army. When he first took the helm of the Pentagon in January 2001, Rumsfeld launched a comprehensive review of the military, which recommended Marshallian transformations. (No coincidence: Marshall played a major role in the review.) The Army beat back most of the assault. But now Rumsfeld’s stature has grown. He’s won two wars using battle plans that involved either highly unconventional combinations of forces (Afghanistan) or far fewer tanks and troops than Army commanders at first requested (Iraq). He’ll soon have his own man not only as the Army secretary but also as the Army chief of staff. Rummy no doubt will remount his offensive.
In one sense, the looming battle can be seen as a clash between the forward-looking, broadly strategizing “transformers” and the traditionally hidebound, parochial Army brass. But there are genuine issues here, over which objective analysts could reasonably disagree. The stakes of this bureaucratic war are huge. Its outcome will shape how wars of the future are fought and how hundreds of billions of dollars are spent.
The term “military transformation”—or, as it’s sometimes called, the “revolution in military affairs,” or RMA—has several dimensions and definitions. However, as far as it applies to the Army, the concept calls for lighter, lither forces that can be transported rapidly to an area of crisis and that, once they reach the battlefield, can fight with greater speed and agility.
The Army, Marines, and Air Force (less so the Navy) have already adopted many elements of RMA-style war-fighting. In Afghanistan and Gulf War II, air and ground forces operated synchronously and in coordination with one another (as opposed to Operation Desert Storm, 12 years ago, when the air war and the ground war were fought sequentially and autonomously). In Iraq-redux, ground troops moved quickly through the desert and (at least after the first week) maneuvered around Iraqi forces, enveloping them and then crushing them from all sides before moving on toward Baghdad.
However, it still took a long, long time to move U.S. forces into the region. The mobilization for Desert Storm, back in 1991, took six months. The mobilization for Gulf War II, though involving far fewer divisions, still took almost four months. And when the Turkish parliament refused to let the Army’s 4th Infantry Division invade Iraq from the north, the division couldn’t redeploy to Kuwait in time to play a role in the war. It just took too long to transport the division’s equipment down the Red Sea, around, and up through the Persian Gulf.
The problem is that the mainstays of U.S. Army “force structure”—M-1 tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, self-propelled artillery guns, and the caravans of logistical trucks that provide their supplies and fuel—are big, heavy things. Just one M-1 can fit inside a C-5 or C-17 (the largest of our military cargo-transport planes), and not every airfield in the world can accommodate those planes. (Tanks are too big to load into the smaller, more flexible C-130s and C-141s.) These planes are also expensive; the fiscal 2004 military budget includes $3.7 billion to build a mere 11 more C-17s. Many more tanks and armored fighting vehicles can be loaded onto cargo ships, but ships are by nature slow, and they’re expensive, too, not just to build but to maintain and keep on station. There’s a bureaucratic problem here, as well: Neither the Air Force (which buys cargo planes) nor the Navy (which buys cargo ships) likes spending billions and billions of dollars to expand an intercontinental shuttle service for the Army.
If Army divisions were lighter, not only could they maneuver on the battlefield more agilely, they could get there more rapidly. But here’s the dilemma. Let’s say we create a new, nimble Army, light enough to get to a crisis spot within hours or days (instead of weeks or months), free enough of long logistics lines to maneuver swiftly across the terrain. What happens when this force runs into serious opposition? Once you find yourself in a battle, it’s good to have a tank with a big gun and thick armor. Big guns and thick armor weigh a lot. Vehicles that weigh a lot require a lot of fuel. If they’re zooming across the dusty desert or rough terrain, they also need spare parts. All these things are heavy. So, we’re back to the original problem.
Recent technological breakthroughs—most notably GPS-guided “smart bombs,” unmanned aerial drones equipped with video cameras and real-time command-control-communications links—ease this dilemma somewhat. They make it possible to destroy enemy formations, with great precision, from the air. Still, air power can’t do the whole job. Even in Afghanistan, ground troops were needed to move in and kill enemy troops close up. A big tank also has a frightening effect on the soldiers it’s aimed at, especially if they’ve already been shocked by bombardment. In short, it’s nice to float like a butterfly—but you’ve also got to sting like a swarm of bees. Much of the Army’s opposition is parochial, but much is also substantive. Some officers fear transformation will backfire if the U.S. military gets a lot lighter and our enemies get a lot more clever.
Most likely, the bureaucracy will muddle through: improving and expanding the smart bombs, the drones, and the other high-tech aspects of RMA while also reshaping the bulkier aspects of the Army—but without getting rid of the bulk altogether. And in this case, such a stalemate might be preferable to outright victory by either side.