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Critics Worry Army’s New Global Operations Plan Poaches On Marines

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

Defense contractors are gearing up to show off their latest at the Washington, DC’s biggest conference of the year, the Association of the US Army’s conference in town next week. Don’t expect many earthshaking announcements at AUSA from the Army itself, which is ramping down its presence and spending at the event significantly.

The real action can be found at the service’s in-house idea factory, the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), which is thrashing out new concepts it wants to road-test in a “winter wargame” at the Army War College in February, part of a series called “Unified Quest.” (A new Army Capstone Concept is now in its final revisions to update the counterinsurgency-focused edition issued in 2009, but it won’t be out until after AUSA). One thing, though, is already clear. As the service looks beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, it wants to start sending smaller, nimbler expeditionary forces around the world to support theater commanders — an effort Army leaders insist would complement, not compete with, the Marine Corps.

“One of the projects I’m leading is a study of how the Army is structured and postured to support each of the geographic combatant commanders,” Col. Robert Simpson, chief of the “tiger team” working on concepts for the Army of 2020, said in an interview with Breaking Defense. “We’re actually taking teams out to visit each one of them.”

“We’ve haven’t done a focused effort like that since the war [began],” Simpson said, but now better Army support to theaters beyond Central Command is a top priority for Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno himself. Instead of the current model of deploying multiple brigades to the same country, after months of training them specifically for a particular part of Afghanistan (or, previously, Iraq), the Army wants to be able to “make change” and flexibly deploy multiple parts of a single brigade to different places around the world.

“We have to be able to do operations that might require 500 people or 300 people,” instead of full brigades, said a top four-star general at a recent conclave of Army brass at National Defense University. “How do we ensure our formations are capable of tailoring and scaling themselves in order to do this support” to commanders beyond the post-9/11 warzone?

“We’re struggling a little bit,” added a three-star general at the NDU event (which Breaking Defense attended on the condition that we not name any participants). The current, wartime model is ill-suited to the “low-footprint” relationship-building and conflict-prevention missions emphasized in the new national strategy. So, the lieutenant general asked, “What is it that we bring in those smaller packages?”

Tailoring units to the mission is longstanding Army doctrine, formally known as “task organization,” and the Army has experience sending small forces to faraway lands. “Heck, we were sending companies to Macedonia” in the 1990s, Col. Simpson said.

So TRADOC is not planning a major reorganization of the Army — nothing like the creation of the current “modular” brigades back in 2003. “We’re not necessarily talking about changing the division-brigade-battalion-company design,” Simpson said, although they may be modified. (The Army is already beefing up its infantry, armored, and reconnaissance brigades). Instead, he explained, the goal is to have the training, mindset, and where necessary the additional command-and-control networks “to disaggregate to lower levels than we currently can.”

Future Army forces will need to rapidly “aggregate, disaggregate, and reaggregate,” added Col. Kevin Felix, chief of TRADOC’s Future Warfare Division, speaking to Breaking Defense alongside Col. Simpson. Even as Army forces pull back not only from Afghanistan but from bases in Europe, potential adversaries are building up “anti-access/area denial” defenses to stop traditional methods of deploying Army forces from the United States, which rely on well-established ports and airfields. Kuwait was the base for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Saudi Arabia for the 1991 liberation of Kuwait, but in future conflicts there may be no such convenient staging area. So the goal, said Felix, is an Army that is based in the US but responds rapidly to crises abroad, able to go directly “from fort to fight.”

TRADOC’s tentative term for this approach is “integrated distributed operations,” in deference to the even vaguer idea of “global distribution” expressed in the recently released Capstone Concept for Joint Operations. At a recent TRADOC seminar to thrash out specifics in advance of the winter wargame, however, at least one working group went into full revolt.

“We are wasting our time,” said one Army civilian, dismissing the idea as a mere buzzword. “We are consistently shooting behind the target, and we are reacting to things coming out of the building [i.e. the Pentagon]. Creating another bumper sticker and explaining it to us until we collapse is not going to help us as an army.”

“We’re going to end up with another bumper sticker,” agreed an exchange officer from a foreign military. “It’s going to go through the mill, and it’s going to get discredited.”

The moderator tried to regain control, reminding the group that he would have to present their assessment to TRADOC’s director of concept development, Brig. Gen. William Hix: “If I were General Hix and I saw this slide,” the moderator warned, “I’d think there was a rebellious element.”

It’s not rebellion, it’s feedback, replied the group’s leader: “We owe that to General Hix to circle that son of a bitch in red.”

Of course, hammering at the flaws in concepts until they get straightened out — or rejected — is exactly what TRADOC is trying to do. “Integrated distributed operations” is a brand new concept, said Col. Felix. “We’re just starting to hang more meat on the bones of that thing; we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. In the February wargame, one team of participants will go through a classified combat scenario applying current Army doctrine, while another will fight the same hypothetical battle using “integrated distributed operations.” Then TRADOC will compare the results and report back to Gen. Odierno and other top leaders at a March senior leader seminar.

“We may go through it this year and go, ah, we’re not sure,” Col. Felix said of the evolving IDO concept. “It may take another year of study on this thing, quite frankly.”

One particularly touchy problem is that the Army may be treading on another service’s turf, skeptics said. All this emphasis on getting to an operation quickly without relying on ports and airfields sounds an awful lot like what the Marine Corps does, said one participant in the TRADOC seminar: “We have that already. It’s called the USMC.”

Not so, the two TRADOC colonels insisted to Breaking Defense. “This is not about challenging Marine capabilities,” said Col. Felix. “This is not trying to steal thunder.”

The Marines are world-class experts at operating from the sea, but they’re not able to be everywhere at once, said Col. Simpson. Even in the January 2010 response to earthquakes in Haiti, the Army took the lead because no Marine forces were ready to hand. And Haiti’s an island: “Marines aren’t expeditionary at all for landlocked or deep [inland] operations,” Simpson said. That said, Marines did deploy to landlocked Afghanistan before conventional Army brigades (Army Special Forces, of course, went in before either).

More subtly, it is the Army that lugs supplies over land, not just for its own forces but for the Marines, Air Force, and Navy shore contingents as well. Marines can sustain themselves for short periods ashore, but a prolonged operation requires Army supply units. “They can look over their shoulder” to the Army for logistical help, said Simpson. “We’ve got nobody to look over our shoulder to.”

What do you think?