- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist
When you need an army, you need it today; you probably actually needed it yesterday, but events will have moved too quickly. Marines can kick down the door quickly and special operations forces can advise and assist allies as well as conduct raids to eliminate terrorists, but you need an army to fight the really big battles. It needs to be an army that deploys quickly and arrives ready to fight. The next secretary of the Army will need to create such a force, and that will mean radically abandoning the mindset created by the last administration, and a departure from traditional army norms.
There are three things that the Army needs today to improve its strategic usefulness: increased strategic mobility, a flattened command structure, and improved situational awareness. The three improvements are interrelated.
First, the army needs a corps-sized armor heavy force that can deploy to a theater within weeks, not months, to deliver a decisive blow against an enemy which has a large conventional force. We can’t do that today. We need to reorganize. Today’s army has a corps structure of three divisions commanding regimental sized subordinate units of roughly 2000 personnel (brigades). Each division headquarters is huge and hard to deploy. Using existing technology, a corps headquarters can directly control up to nine brigades; divisions are no longer needed. Deploying division level headquarters eats up transportation and logistics assets that impede both deployment and employment of combat troops. Division headquarters may be useful garrison administrative headquarters for managing training, but they no longer need to have warfighting functions.
Second, the army needs to deploy those brigades quickly in the face of a potentially hostile environment. That means a mix of brigade combat team equipment on ships and pre-positioned land bases so that if an opponent pre-empts us on land or sea, we can still assemble a force capable of going to war quickly and winning by a number of alternative means. The Army needs two brigades of heavy forces pre-positioned in Europe, two in the Middle East, and two in South East Asia with six sets of brigade-sized forces on fast sealift ships in places like Diego Garcia, Japan, and Norway. A potential enemy may be able to pre-empt several of these forces, but not all. If a deployable corps-sized strike force headquarters is ready at all times, such a force can quickly assemble combat power capable of delivering a decisive blow to an aggressor.
Third, we need to improve the Army’s situational awareness. There are two key questions in combat: Where am I? And where is the enemy? For too long, the Army has counted on overhead assets and electronic intelligence to determine the location of the enemy. There is only so much that can be seen from the air. This is particularly true in urban combat where the enemy can use tunnels, rat holes to connect buildings, and awnings to mask maneuver. Despite American air support, Iraqi forces in Mosul are being stymied by ISIS fighters who cannot be spotted from the air. The army’s recent decision to do away with its human long range reconnaissance capability has exacerbated that problem. The army needs to augment its ground and overhead reconnaissance capabilities with micro-robotic scouts which can see and report what is happening and even call in fire on lucrative targets. These covert robots could spot enemy movement on key road junctions, bridges, and other choke-points critical to enemy maneuver against our forces.
Capable of laser-designating enemy targets, such robots could become a powerful force multiplier in combat, allowing our airpower to bring its full capability on an enemy no matter how invisible he makes himself from airborne reconnaissance. We have the technology to do this, but too much of our technological investment has been placed on large robotic combat systems.
Situational awareness also includes the capability to fight in an environment where the enemy has degraded our cyber systems temporarily. We have the capability to regain cyber-superiority after an attack, but in the interim, we need to assume that communications and navigation may be degraded for some amount of time. We need to train our soldiers to go back to more basic land navigation and communication techniques such as fiber optic land lines, motorcycle messengers, and grease board maps when cyber capabilities are disrupted for some amount of time.
We have a very good Army, but we need a great Army.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense