Changing an Army

by Tom Donnelly

Last week marked the beginning of the ninth year of the American campaign in Afghanistan, and in a few months the Iraq campaign will enter its seventh year.  Without even reckoning the ongoing level of U.S. effort in the Horn of Africa or elsewhere, or imagining anything else that might happen (though the Taliban raid on Pakistan army headquarters in Rawalpindi raises, yet again, questions about who’s winning that fight), you’ve got to admit it’s a Long War.

And it’s a land force war.  A visitor from Mars might reasonably ask why it is that American land forces haven’t changed more than they have in the past eight years.  To be sure, there is a lively debate about the proper consideration that irregular conflicts should play in shaping U.S. land forces, and there’s been a whole lot of tactical innovation.  But that’s about it.  The ways in which the Army, Marine Corps and Defense Department have not changed are a testament to how reluctant we are as a nation to accord the Long War due regard.

The most obvious measure of our lack of seriousness is the fact that our land forces are essentially the same size as they were on 9/11.  The active Army has grown from about 500,000 to 550,000, but of course this is not nearly commensurate with the demand. As Ann Scott Tyson reports in today’s Washington Post, the true level of effort in both Iraq and Afghanistan, including support troops needed to allow combat units to fully function, is higher than reflected in the headlines.  Thus we continue to mobilize reservists (primarily Army National Guard and Army Reserve) at unprecedented levels–more than 100,000, pretty much every day since 9/11.  And there is little prospect of increasing “dwell time” between deployments, particularly if the required troop increase for Afghanistan is authorized by President Obama.

Nor has the fundamental structure of U.S. land forces changed.  Indeed, the Marine Corps has hardly changed at all, structurally speaking, though they, too have grown by a few thousand.  There are still two Marine more-or-less corps-sized “expeditionary forces,” three active and one reserve division (mandated by law, no less!), and nine combined-arms, brigade-sized units that lack logistical staying power, absent Army help.  And the Marines’ number-one modernization effort, said to be on the chopping block in the Pentagon, is the fighting-vehicle on jet-skis–the “expeditionary fighting vehicle,” in case they have to go over the beach along the Kabul River.  Most troubling, successive Marine commandants have kept their heads down, hoping that this whole Long War thing blows over and they can get back to doing traditional Marine from-the-sea missions.  While that capability is indeed a good thing for a global and maritime power like the United States, it is an increasingly exotic luxury in the context of a too-small Army.

Army structures are changing, but incrementally and almost entirely without plan.  Ten days ago, noticed by no one but Tom Ricks, a fateful decision was taken to make the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps the permanent headquarters for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  From the perspective of the war, this is a superb idea and long overdue–this is the single most capable headquarters for managing a campaign in the entire U.S. military.  One can clearly see the hands of Gens. Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, both of whom grew up in XVIII Corps-owned units, at work.  But this will increase the structural strain on the Army, while tying down the true experts of expeditionary warfare.  The effect will also be magnified by the plan to rotate XVIII Corps officers to Afghanistan and back.

In effect, the U.S. Army is drifting toward an unconscious replication of the British army at its imperial Victorian height, which was structured by the “Cardwell System,” so-called for its creator, Edward Cardwell, secretary of state for war in the late 1860s.  As Harold Winton explains in his masterful book To Change an Army, the system restructured the British army around “linked battalions,” to split service at home (you could call it “dwell time”) and overseas.  In fact, “[t]he home army, however, remained an amorphous collections of battalions suited only to finding drafts for and rotating with units overseas, and the mounting of any protracted overseas expedition threw the system out of balance.  Furthermore, Cardwell’s system of linked battalions dictated that the organization of the army at home mirror the organization of the army abroad.”  The system creaked along while the British army’s single mission remained that of the imperial constabulary, but it found itself woefully unprepared for World War I.

Nor, finally, does it seem the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review will address these problems.  The QDR does raise the need to preserve the force, increase dwell times and jump-start the long-stalled effort to modernize land forces (though by terminating the Army’s comprehensive Future Combat Systems project).  But all that rests upon the presumption of an Iraq drawdown and before any Afghanistan surge decision.  In other words, it assumes away the most difficult part of the problem.

Tom Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies.