The truth is in the TOE: What to look at to understand how the Army is changing
By Joseph Trevithick Best Defense directorate of force structure history and analysis The U.S. Army has changed dramatically after a decade of being involved in Afghanistan and Iraq. We will not likely know the true extent of this change for some time, especially if there are more major conflicts to come. I feel a lot ...
By Joseph Trevithick
By Joseph Trevithick
Best Defense directorate of force structure history and analysis
The U.S. Army has changed dramatically after a decade of being involved in Afghanistan and Iraq. We will not likely know the true extent of this change for some time, especially if there are more major conflicts to come.
I feel a lot of insight, however, can be garnered from the organization of the Army, both in terms of force structure and force posture. It had been very true over the years that one could modify the old adage and say that "no unit structure survives contact with the enemy," but how the Army organizes itself on paper is generally a reflection of how it expects to or perhaps would like to fight. How it then adapts to a conflict becomes a further comment on the institution.
When I saw Tom Ricks had written "My impression is that the Army is kind of all over the place these days," I suspected he was more right than he might know. The changes in the structure of the Army are also, in my mind, a lasting legacy of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In many ways the U.S. Army spent much of the time after leaving Vietnam being at war with itself over its role in a rapidly changing world. It tried very hard to distance itself from counterinsurgency on an institutional level and largely reoriented itself for a traditional combined arms battle in Europe or Asia. When the Cold War in Europe collapsed, the Army found itself in the midst of changes that were in many ways no longer applicable.
The upheaval can be seen in force structure initiatives, of which there have been many since the end of World War II. Between 1950 and 1975, the U.S. Army had six major force structure initiatives (f you separate out the two variants of the Pentomic force and the Air Assault Division). Three of the six were implemented in some form, although the Airmobile Division that came in to being was dramatically different from the original design of the Air Assault Division. Between 1975 and 2000, there were another six major force structure initiatives (seven if one counts the embryonic elements of what would become today’s modular force structure). The Army of Excellence is probably the only one that can be said to have been largely implemented.
In many cases, the Army was clearly not sure what it wanted. The Army experimented with a High Technology Light Division and subsequently a Motorized Division during the late 1970s and 1980s. Unable to define the many of the major equipment requirements, the test units made do largely with surrogates. The Army waffled so much on these proposed rapidly deployable light division concepts that by 1990 it had left the test unit, 9th Infantry Division (Motorized), with one of its three brigades converted to a motorized structure, one brigade half converted, and the last brigade a mechanized infantry brigade from the Washington Army National Guard, attached in an attempt to maintain its readiness to deploy to an actual contingency.
Even when the U.S. Army finally inactivated the 9th Infantry Division in 1991, it refused to make a firm decision on the experimental motorized concept, re-flagging the Division’s one fully converted brigade as the 199th Infantry Brigade (Separate) (Motorized) before finally inactivating the unit a year later. The rapid intervention mission was subsequently passed to the 7th Infantry Division (Light), which was subjected to major modifications to its organization before it too was inactivated in 1994.
The Army was moving so fast in the twilight of the Cold War that even the force structure initiatives that were viewed as more conventional could not be fully implemented. The Force XXI concept was still being fleshed out as the Soviet Union crumbled and in the end the decision was made to not fully convert all divisions to the new structure. Instead a modification of the previous Army of Excellence divisional structures was developed, which included some of the elements of the Force XXI structure, and units were reorganized as Limited Conversion Divisions.
The end of the Cold War also caused a reexamination of the need for a rapidly deployable element to tackle hotspots around the world. This requirement eventually led to the modular force structure and one of the biggest changes in the U.S. Army since the end of World War II: the brigade-centric deployment concept. Prior to the modular force structure, brigades were supported by a plethora of different elements assigned to their parent division. Portions, or "slices," of divisional field and air defense artillery, military police, chemical, and other units had habitual relationships with the division’s brigades. Only separate brigades had these elements directly assigned.
What was first known as the Brigade Unit of Action was designed to change this entirely, with artillery and other support elements organic to all maneuver brigades Army-wide. It was unclear what role, if any, the division as a concept would then play or what size they would be. For a time, there were plans to active two more brigades of 25th Infantry Division and base them in the continental U.S. In the end, it was determined that divisions would adopt a four-brigade or "square" configuration, even if they would not likely deploy as a complete division ever again. The division headquarters, as well as corps headquarters, have since become essentially deployable task force headquarters, capable of managing a multitude of units.
The problem with all of this was that while the modular concept was being explored and developed, a group of terrorists perpetrated major attacks in the United States on September 11th, 2001. In an instant, the U.S. Army was called into action and by the time the transition to Modular Force really got moving in 2004, it was heavily engaged. It was also heavily engaged in conflicts that brought home the legacy of institutional un-learning with regards to counterinsurgency over the better part of the previous 3 decades. In short, as the Global War on Terrorism (now supposed to be referred to even more broadly as Overseas Contingency Operations) ramped up the Army was already in the midst of an organizational transition and then found itself in another one.
If no force structure ever survives the rigor of combat, then Army units in the field between 2001 and 2006 were compelled to seek out expedients to expedients. For instance, during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, Headquarters and Headquarters Battery (HHB), Division Artillery (DIVARTY), 1st Armored Division had taken command of what amounted to a provisional brigade combat team and was tasked with securing the Al-Rashid District of Baghdad. Its attached units were largely artillery units that had converted to infantry and operated as motorized task forces. When the 1st Cavalry Division deployed in 2004, it added a level of formalization to this concept by standing up 5th Brigade (Provisional), led by HHB, DIVARTY, 1st Cavalry Division and taking control of many of the converted units already operating in Al-Rashid.
The improvised explosive device (IED) threat also provoked changes as the US military as a whole started making huge investments into various technologies like the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle fleet. For the U.S. Army, this meant that in many cases its coveted heavy vehicles, or even its new medium-weight Strykers, would be left on the sidelines. Last October, the U.S. Army announced that 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division would deploy to Afghanistan without its Strykers and would make use of a brigade package of MRAPs already in theater. The jury is still out on the Stryker family itself, a vehicle and associated concept that was clearly a spiritual successor to previous motorized force concepts, which received a similar level of support during its initial development.
Though the modular force has largely taken hold since 2006, the Army continues to modify it, and as one might expect, there continue to be exceptions. The change in focus to security force assistance in Iraq caused the U.S. Army to develop an "Advise and Assist" structure for modular brigade combat teams. For a period, 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division had the mission of training units for this mission and even deployed small groups as security force companies for Military Transition Teams. Also, though likely slated for inactivation in the near future, two "legacy" separate heavy brigades in Germany are organized along the old Force XXI structure. The cavalry regiment, of which the Army has two remaining with a combat mission, also occupies a unique place in the force that would require an entire separate examination of the changes in the cavalry branch over the years.
With the conflict in Iraq effectively over for the Army and the one in Afghanistan winding down, the U.S. Army is looking toward a "Strategic Reset," which will no doubt result in more upheaval as it tries to combine what it had planned for the force prior to September 11th, 2001 with what has been implemented since. To this end, last February the Army Capabilities Integration Center’s Future Force Integration Directorate became the Brigade Modernization Command (BMC). The Future Force Integration Directorate had been established to support the Future Combat Systems program, which was effectively canceled in 2008 (some elements were subsequently spun out into their own separate programs). The BMC is now focused on broadly evaluating technologies and tactics, techniques and procedures for the U.S. Army.
In closing, I would also like to make clear that I am not a member of the U.S. Army or any other service or a veteran. I cannot speak to additional dramatic changes in the areas of leadership or the significant subjects in the Army’s recently released Health and Discipline Report. The Army has changed in many ways and organization is just one of them. I clearly think it is an important piece to keep an eye on, but it is definitely only one of many.
Joseph Trevithick is a Research Associate at GlobalSecurity.org and a historical consultant for Ambush Alley Games. He co-authored Ambush Valley: Vietnam 1965-1975 which was published last October by Osprey Publishing.
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