by Mark Thompson, Time Magazine, Nov 4, 2013
The army, after generations of preparing to fight complicated land wars, is more likely to face enemies that are terrorists, insurgents, and other small -bore bad guys than large standing armies. That’s going to require bulking up its special operations forces (Delta Force), shrinking the standing arm it has maintained since World War II and reexamining its faith in all kinds of sacred cows. It needs to reinvent itself fast, but the army shows no signs of making any of these changes.
As America winds down two costly wars (Afghanistan is now entering its 13th year), and the sequester forces a 10% cut, the Army bureaucracy is resistant to all change. In an era of targeted drone strikes and ever-more-daring Special Forces missions, the Army is an anachronism. It has 534,000 active duty troops today and is trying to hang onto 490,000 by 2015. Deeper cuts look likely and its core mission is anyone’s guess. The army brass has little justification for a half million man force, why they exist, or why they are relevant.
Very top heavy, since the Cold War, the number of soldiers per officer in the US Army has dropped 45%. In 2012, the Army budget alone exceeded that for any other nation’s entire military. Even as the total number of troops drops, the Army’s budget tops the Cold War average.
After a decade of war, they are coping with a messy aftermath: a force exhausted by repeat deployments, waves of traumatic brain injuries, and new epidemics of post traumatic stress and suicide. As things stand, the future army will look a lot like the pre 9/11 Army, built around 10 divisions, with weapons largely updated versions of those of the 1980’s, a strict WW II-era command structure, and a small Special Operations Command (costs $1.5 billion of the $185 billion budget in 2013. They still train against an enemy that looks like the defunct Warsaw Pact than al-Qaeda. Only now the cold war money has run out. The number of active-duty Army troops peaked at about 780,000 during the final years of the Cold War, dropped to 480,000 by 9/11, and with Iraq and Afghanistan grew to 566,000 in 2010. Some think it could be half that.
Nothing highlights the Army’s denial problem nore than ts old fashioned fixation on old-fashioned armored vehicles. They want to spend $30 billion on the new 9-man Ground Combat Vehicle, 22% longer, 7% wider and 67% heavier than what it is replacing, the 6-man Bradly Fighting Vehicle. But at 65 tons, it is too heavy to cross most bridges in most cities. It is also at least 3 times more expensive (possibly 4-5x more). A lighter, agile force more reliant on special operations and unmanned systems are a smarter, cheaper way of waging war against shadowy killers.
Today, the Army’s 23,000 special-ops soldiers account for 40% of all commando forces but only 5% of the Army total. Their number has nearly doubled since 9/11. Special forces are detached from the military’s traditional, and cumbersome, command structure. Working closely with the CIA, they have hunted down and killed thousands of terrorists on the fringes of the wars and in secret strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere.
They should be investing more in unmanned systems. A third of the Army’s air vehicles are drones, while only a tiny fraction of its ground vehicle are remotely controlled.
However the most urgent fix concerns the fact that the Army has too many officers. In WW II, there were 2,000 generals and admirals for 12 million troops (1/6,000 ratio); now there are 900 in charge of 1.4 million (1/1,500). In today’s Army, there are 97,000 officers commanding 427,000 troops, basically one leader for every 4 troops. The 20 years necessary to earn a pension keeps many mediocre officers in uniform too long. To get rid of the people least likely to change anything seems like a good solution. They are also the least prepared to shape the military for what lies ahead. Pay and fringe benefits have increased 52% since 9/11, twice the rate of increase of the private sector. The increasing cost of soldiers, now $60 billion annually, eats up an increasing share of military spending. It is turning into a benefits company that occasionally kills a terrorist.