November 19, 2013: Strategy Page
U.S. Army leaders recently admitted that budget cuts, continued costs for troops in Afghanistan (and removing $17 billion worth of equipment) as well as keeping many major procurement and development projects going has had some negative effects. One of these has been a decline in the combat readiness of most combat brigades. Training is expensive in terms of fuel and spare parts costs, not to mention wear and tear on equipment. Currently only two of 47 combat brigades are fully trained for combat. The army expects to change this as the need to keep troops in Afghanistan (and pay to withdraw equipment) and have the cash to resume training. This will require a reduction in the number of combat brigades over the next four years, from 47 to 33. Army personnel strength will also go down 14 percent (from 490,000 to 420,000) and some major procurement projects (like replacing the hummer with a more heavily armored vehicle) will be cancelled or delayed.
Growing costs (for equipment, supplies, and wages) makes these cuts even larger. For example, over the next decade defense spending will decline from 3.6 percent to 2.8 percent of GDP. These cuts are nothing new as army leaders have seen it coming for some time. Back in 2007, despite major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army went through a major reorganization. The end result was the increase in the number of combat brigades from 33 to 48 (soon reduced to 45 because of budget cuts). This required the transfer of over 40,000 people from combat-support jobs to the combat brigades. In doing this, the army got some experience in reducing personnel strength without losing capability. Most of this reset was completed, with all the new brigades ready for service by 2010. In 2007 Congress ordered the army to increase its strength by 65,000 troops, and the army planned to add five more combat brigades. The army completed that personnel expansion, to 574,000 troops by 2009, but budget cuts reduced the combat brigade expansion.
Another major expense has been the reset process, which includes repairing and rebuilding the weapons and equipment that were used in the combat zone. While there was a lot of combat damage most of the reset work went into restoring gear that was simply used much more in combat than it would be in peacetime operations. This caused some serious problems, as much of the equipment dated from the 1980s and 1990s, and was due for replacement after 20-30 years. The rigors of combat wore out a lot of that stuff way ahead of schedule. But the reset effort enabled the army to get a more accurate idea of how to design and build new equipment.
The army scrambled to develop the next generation of vehicles, equipment, and weapons during the last decade. A new generation of trucks is now showing up. New weapons and other gear had been introduced gradually, with the specs of this new stuff driven largely by combat experience. One problem area was the new generation of armored vehicles. The FCS (Future Combat System) program envisioned radically new designs for tanks and infantry vehicles. The original FCS concepts were reconsidered, and then largely dropped, because of how well the M-1 tank, M-2 infantry vehicle, and Stryker wheeled armored vehicle performed in combat.
The 2007 reforms made the brigades, not the divisions, the primary combat unit. The new brigades have more support units permanently attached and can be more easily sent off to fight by themselves. In the past, doing this involved quickly adding a lot of support units to the brigade. But the new organization makes small support units part of the brigades and, more importantly, the brigades train using these support units and learn to work well with them. The divisions still exist but operate more like the corps has for the last two centuries (coordinating the actions of a few divisions and only having a few support units under its command).
The reorganized divisions originally had four of the new brigades but can control more (or less) in action. The budget cuts and combat experience have resulted in a return to three brigades per division. Each of the new brigades (or BCTs, for Brigade Combat Teams) has 3,500-4,000 troops (depending on the type). There are three types of BCTs: light (infantry, including paratroopers), heavy (mechanized, including tanks), and Stryker (mechanized using wheeled armored vehicles). This larger number of combat brigades is achieved by reorganizing the combat units of each division into four brigades, instead of the current three. There are several independent brigades as well.
New weapons and equipment (especially satellite based communications and battlefield Internet software) enabled the army to get the same amount of combat power per brigade using fewer combat troops. The actual number of infantrymen and tanks won't change but the number of communications, maintenance, and intelligence support will. For example, increased use of robots, sensors, and computerized vidcam surveillance systems makes it possible to do the same amount of work in combat with fewer troops. A lot of these new ideas, and equipment, were tested in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most of these items have worked well in combat.
This "reform and reorganize on the run" approach enabled the U.S. Army to leap way ahead of its contemporaries in terms of combat effectiveness. This caused lots of unease in the military headquarters of the other major military powers. But the American methods also depend on lots of cash for training and new equipment required by many of the new techniques and organizational ideas. Now the money is running out and the army has to concentrate on doing more with less.