When markets crash, when economic indicators fall by double digits, investors panic, stocks drop like rocks and governments teeter on the brink of collapse. Unable to understand the sudden break in prosperity, the public asks what happened; politicians hold hearings, financial institutions are investigated and, eventually, “too-big-to jail” financial wizards go to prison. At least, that’s what happened in the years after the 1929 crash.
In October 2013, Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno claimed that cuts in the Army’s total annual budget of $125.2 billion, including $37.8 billion for readiness, made it impossible for an active Army of 550,000 troops to provide more than two brigades ready to fight. In March 2014, when 80,000 Russian armored combat forces were poised to invade Ukraine, the U.S. Army was incapable of deploying an effective combat maneuver force to Europe or anywhere else.
How did this happen? How could an Army of 550,000 with 32,000 troops in Afghanistan’s forward operating bases fail to provide more than two combat-ready brigades, roughly 8,000 men under arms, to deploy and fight?
The answer is deceptively simple: It’s by design.
In 1950, before the outbreak of the Korean War, the U.S. Army had 593,167 soldiers on active duty. Despite the impressive numbers, Army divisions contained hollow brigades and regiments, units with only two-thirds of their combat power. Armor was almost non-existent and artillery was sparse. Task Force Smith, a force of riflemen with light, towed artillery from the Army’s 24th Infantry Division, was quickly defeated and overrun by 90,000 attacking North Korean troops with 300 T-34/T-85 tanks in July 1950.
But the architects of the defeat were not President Harry Truman, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson or the U.S. Congress. In 1950, the architects of defeat were the four-star generals who wanted an Army designed to provide jobs for generals, not to fight. To cope with the crisis the hollow Army created, Truman added 400,000 soldiers to the Army, including thousands of World War II veterans.
Fast forward to the contemporary Army and it bears a discomfiting resemblance to the Army that deployed to fight in Korea. Today’s Army, with an annual base budget, in fiscal year 2014, of $129.7 billion and a force of 550,000, is incapable of fighting a 21st century opponent with armies, air forces, air defenses and missile forces. And yet, when you include the estimated $30-40 billion for “overseas contingency operations,” today’s Army easily outspends the Army that by 1953 totaled 1 million men and fielded 201,000 soldiers in Korea.
Today, given the structure of the contemporary Army, it’s doubtful that $134 billion—the budget of the 1953 Army, in 2014 dollars—would buy that same level of force. Consider that during World War II, 11 million American soldiers were commanded by just 4 four-star generals. Today, the Army of 550,000 has 11 active-duty four stars, each of which comes with massive amounts of overhead. This makes no sense. If the Army were a rowboat with nine passengers, four would steer, three would call cadence and two would man the oars.
The solution is obvious: Reorganize and reform the U.S. Army to provide more ready, deployable combat power. Consolidate more combat power under fewer headquarters. Flatten the command structure and reduce the overhead. It’s not rocket science. The Japanese Self Defense Force has already done it.
Russia’s Army has moved in similar directions. Today, the country that fielded more divisions than any other nation in history has disbanded its divisions. Instead, it fields 80 5-6,000 man combat formations under generals. By 2019, the number is expected to rise to 200! These formations report directly to a three-star corps commander who is expected to command joint operations.
Here’s the lesson: Shrinking the U.S. Army to fewer divisions and brigade combat teams, without any commensurate increase in fighting power or cost savings, is the wrong answer. Realigning brigades with the 10 divisions of the 1990s Cold War Army is a step backward, not forward. Congress must intervene in the process and compel fundamental change or face another Task Force Smith in the not-too-distant future. Fortunately, the blueprint for action already exists.
As outlined in Breaking the Phalanx and Transformation under Fire, my two books on military transformation, an Army consisting of capability-based expeditionary fighting formations would contain 51 combat formations of 5-6,000 troops under brigadier generals. Organized around the critical functions of Maneuver, Strike, ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) and Sustainment (logistics), these combat formations would be designed to operate autonomously on land like warships at sea, all within the ISR-Strike framework of aerospace and naval power under joint command.
Inside an Army of 420,000 soldiers, the resulting fighting force would consist of four corps equivalents of 55,000 men each, each corps equivalent ready to surge in part or in total from a joint rotational readiness base, not from a Cold War-era, “tiered” readiness posture as they are today. The reorganized Army’s overhead would be reduced from 31 percent to 8 percent of the force.
Such an Army would also be aligned with air and sea transport for rapid response to the unexpected: a Korea-like emergency; a Sarajevo-like event; or deployments to support allies already engaged in fighting, not counterinsurgency or nation building. Events in Ukraine and the Western Pacific point to future wars that will not resemble the interventions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, they will involve conflicts as lethal as Korea or World War II, fights for regional power and influence that overlap with interstate competitions for energy, water, food, mineral resources and the wealth they create.
The Army four stars, active and retired, will collectively groan, “It’s too hard and will take too long to change the Army.” Well, it is true that building combat power takes time. But it’s useful to remember that only eight months after Gen. George C. Marshall received the executive order in March 1942 empowering him to reorganize the War Department, he was able to land a brand new Army on the shores of North Africa.
The point is simple: The U.S. Army is unraveling. As Peter Drucker told businessmen in the 1990s, “If you want something new, stop doing something old.” Congress must act. There is no need to fill Arlington Cemetery to capacity.