Shadow Government

The many woes awaiting the Army’s next chief of staff

Last month, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that Gen. Martin E. Dempsey was his choice to be nominated as the next Chief of Staff of the Army (CSA). Widely respected and liked (not least for his sonorous singing voice), General Dempsey would bring a substantial store of goodwill and political capital to the job. ...

Last month, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that Gen. Martin E. Dempsey was his choice to be nominated as the next Chief of Staff of the Army (CSA). Widely respected and liked (not least for his sonorous singing voice), General Dempsey would bring a substantial store of goodwill and political capital to the job. He is going to need it. If confirmed, General Dempsey will confront a dizzying array of challenges in an Army run ragged. 

The multiple, extended deployments and operational tempo of current conflicts are unprecedented for the all-volunteer Force; nearly a decade of continuous war for the bulk of the Army’s active component as well as the Reserve and National Guard have simply worn out personnel and equipment. According to a recent RAND study, active duty soldiers have deployed, on average, every other year since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Though growth in the size of the force has ameliorated the problem, even the Secretary of the Army described soldiers and their families last year as "clearly, clearly fatigued."

The effect of America’s recent wars on soldiers and families is manifest not only in the dead and wounded, but the hundreds of thousands suffering from post-traumatic stress, a spate of suicides, and growing pathologies like alcohol and drug abuse, marital strife, and mental health difficulties in spouses and children. The hangover from these conflicts will last for a generation.

The deployment tempo, along with the nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has also made it difficult to maintain all of the Army’s skill sets. This includes not just armor and field artillery, but even skills needed to manage soldiers and business in garrison. According to a recent Army report, "time and unit resources are now focused on reset, readiness cycles, and pre-deployment preparation. These activities have tipped the balance from institutional readiness, measured by Soldier/Family wellbeing and unit good order and discipline in garrison, to combat readiness…"

In other words, units and soldiers are too busy recovering from one deployment and preparing for the next one to conduct many functions necessary to maintain the institution and take care of its people. In a memo last year, General Dempsey himself, as commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine command, noted that the demands on the force are eroding the Army’s ability to train its soldiers.

The primary fixes to these problems are either to increase the number of soldiers or reduce the frequency of deployments; too few people have been bearing the burden for too long.  If Iraq wraps up as planned at the end of December 2011, it will free up about 50,000 soldiers currently deployed there.  But there is no obvious end in sight in Afghanistan, and the secretary of defense has already pledged to reduce the size of the Army by 27,000 (though not until 2015, when Afghanistan is presumed to be drawing down) to respond to a shrinking budget. Meanwhile, the repair, reset, and recapitalization of worn out Army equipment is projected to cost in the tens of billions.

More fundamentally, the new CSA must help determine what kind of Army America needs, now and in future.  Should the Army continue to be America’s "nation-building" organ of choice, which it has undeniably become in the last decade? Can the Army excel at such tasks, deploy at the current rate, and also be capable of competently fighting the nation’s wars if and when called upon to do so? It is reasonable to wonder whether, at some point, something has to give (if it hasn’t already).

"Armies break anecdotally before they break statistically," retired General Robert Scales told a reporter recently. There are more than enough anecdotes to suggest that the U.S. Army has its share of troubles. If confirmed, General Dempsey must not only continue to resource at least one war, address the manifold challenges among soldiers and their families for years to come, and fix broken and worn equipment, all with dwindling resources. He must also ensure that the Army remains prepared for the conflicts of tomorrow. Whatever they may be, it is a pretty good bet they will not be the ones we expect. 

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