December 1, 2010  

The advisory role

Training, assisting foreign forces must remain central to Army doctrine

Like the Swamp Thing of comic book legend, proposals to break Army force structures into “heavy war” and “light war” forces keep coming out of the mists, distracting harried staffs from serious work. Proponents of bifurcated force structures ignore recent history and seriously misread future trends. Here are some perspectives on current Army force structure challenges and likely future needs.

The first and most important influence on Army force structure for the foreseeable future will be, of course, the war. The U.S. and its Army are going to be fighting in Iraq — whether as “combat” or “adviser” forces — and in Afghanistan for a long time to come. The dynamics of war and the battlefield — always an inconvenience to theorists — will continue to affect the organization of the Army’s combat units for the next decade. Tailoring for the fight is not a small issue; the Army’s current “advise and assist” brigades are a direct result of lessons from the Iraqi battlefield.

Second, the Army has only recently completed the most wrenching reorganization since the end of World War II. The transition, in wartime, from a division-based to a brigade-based force and the retirement of artillery and armored forces in favor of engineers and military police not only reflected a decisive shift in the Army’s concept of war fighting, but also displaced thousands of personnel, uprooted skilled soldiers from their specialties and cost hundreds of millions of dollars for schooling, transfers and new equipment. Ripples from those actions are still spreading through the Army.

Third, budget deficits are going to cripple service modernization for years, and while the war goes on — and at a time when the Navy’s fleets are shrinking to dangerous levels and other strategic shortages grow more serious — asking for money to re-reshuffle the Army’s mortar platoons would be unwise, to say the least.

Further, the Army’s force structure, and its management thereof, is doing fine. As we enter the ninth year of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one can deny that the Army’s soldiers and fighting units have continued to fight superbly, rotation after rotation, year after year. What’s more, both combat and support units adapted quickly to the demands of the battlefield. The rapidity with which artillerymen and tankers learned to do foot patrols and building searches testifies to the flexibility of their troops and unit leadership — and, love or hate it, also validates the Army’s decision to keep whole units intact and rotate them together.

There has, of course, been a downside. The Army’s senior leadership, and in particular its doctrinal establishment, was too slow — far too slow — to understand and act on the urgent need to re-establish Iraqi and Afghan security forces. The reason was institutional shortsightness.

At the time of the invasion of Iraq, the Army was in the grip of operational concepts that closely resembled the German blitzkrieg. Like blitzkrieg, the Army’s operational concepts worked to destroy Iraqi forces but failed to win the war. Had Army leaders and their Defense Department superiors thought seriously about war, and not just fighting, they would have realized this fact: Every war the U.S. has fought since 1918 has ended with nation-building — more particularly, with the Army involved in re-establishing or retraining and equipping a host country’s military forces. So the business of training, advising and equipping other nations’ armies is not just a peripheral additional duty for the service, but is a core function, and one that is growing more important as terrorism and transnational violence spreads (as in Mexico, for instance).

Retraining and equipping, though, does not necessarily mean deployments of large numbers of Army forces; the most likely future model of assisting other armies will probably be more like Colombia than Iraq, in which small numbers of specialists will be needed rather than “advise and assist” brigades. In some cases, Special Forces will be sufficient; other times, the requirement may be for skills found in the regular Army. Requirements will be difficult to predict and not amenable to solutions by deploying large numbers of U.S. troops.

So considering all these easily predictable factors and most likely future strategic challenges, the Army’s most effective future structure looks generally like this:

The Army should maintain general-purpose forces trained for the middle of the conflict spectrum — or whatever the current buzzword is — for the very good reason that there are still national armies out there capable of maneuver warfare that may have to be fought and defeated. The Army’s combat and support brigades are not only the nation’s land-fighting force. They are also the incubators of American military art, and their training and development not only reflects the nation’s ultimate war-fighting potential, but also the standards of professionalism and technical expertise that we export through advise and assist missions. The Army’s structure should continue to maintain a strategic and operational forcible-entry capability — the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions are about right — but the overall mix should be mobile units of various types that can swing — as today’s units have swung — from one kind of fight to another.

Even though the importance of the train and assist mission is growing, it nevertheless does not call for large investments in Army force structure outside current requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army Special Forces, with some reinforcement, have been sufficient thus far to meet real-world requirements in El Salvador, Colombia and the Philippines. But the need for advisers and re-equipping missions will almost surely increase in the future. Rather than ad hoc reactions to predictable future requirements, the Army should take the following steps:

• Establish the training and assistance mission, in all its complexity, as a central part of the Army’s war-fighting doctrine — not just as an adjunct to counterinsurgency doctrine, but warfare overall. And the Army’s doctrine should accommodate and support other departments of the U.S. government. For example, the Drug Enforcement Administration has in some cases become a virtual paramilitary force in its own right and runs its own highly effective advisory and assistance programs.

• Assign a three-star proponent for advise and assist doctrine and for a schoolhouse to produce doctrine and to train soldiers and advisory teams deploying to such missions. The Army has been shamefully deficient in this regard, even after nine years of war.

• Revamp the military personnel system to identify, encourage and reward volunteers for advisory jobs. Successful advising takes a knack; not every successful sergeant, captain or colonel can be an adviser, but the job can hugely impact American policy. Stabilized tours, promotions and other incentives should be considered.

With two wars going on and budget deficits at home, the Army doesn’t need more reorganization. For the foreseeable future, pressure from continuing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan will shape the force more than theories. As the service emerges into an uncertain future, and transnational violence of various types joins more conventional military challenges, the Army in particular has to become more versatile at all ends of the conflict spectrum. General-purpose units, Special Forces and the capability to field discrete military assistance capabilities are most liable to meet requirements in coming decades.

COL. BOB KILLEBREW is a retired Army infantryman and former Army War College instructor.