Why America's Army Is Falling Apart
Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told President Trump's nominee for Army Undersecretary, Ryan McCarthy, a Lockheed Martin Executive and former aid to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, that “the U.S. Army is facing a crisis.” Senators drew attention to the Army's ever-growing multibillion-dollar acquisition graveyard including the titanic $20 Billion Future Combat System and the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, a six-billion dollar failed communications program.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that qualified, fresh blood is desperately needed in the Army’s general officer ranks, as well as, in the office of the Army Secretariat. The Army does not need an unqualified hedge-fund manager, a flamboyant social engineer, or another “revolving door” defense industry executive committed to “business as usual.”
The Army is on track to lose more than money unless President Trump appoints a forceful and informed Secretary of the Army—one who is prepared to impose accountability on his generals and demand sweeping change. It’s going to lose the first battle of the next war. And, in the twenty-first century, Americans may not get a chance to fight a second battle.
The Army’s problems are not financial. Thanks to the FY17 National Defense Authorization Act, the U.S. Army will receive an annual sum of $137 to $149 billion—a sum that is vastly larger than the Russian National Defense Budget. The failures in Army modernization and readiness are due to the Army generals’ fanatical resistance to fundamental organizational reform, prudent modernization and change in the way the Army must fight in the future.
Gen. George Washington told his officers, “If we are wise, let us prepare for the worst.” Washington’s wise words are being systematically ignored by the Army.
On July 18 the 173rd Airborne Brigade, along with allied NATO airborne units, will conduct a Joint Forcible Entry exercise near Bezmer Air Base, Bulgaria. The goal is to demonstrate an airfield seizure operation that will then allow for the “all wheeled” Second Cavalry Regiment to “build up combat power” and prepare for follow-on operations.
This exercise equates to practicing for suicide. Our East European partners know it and the Russians know it. Any joint theater-entry operation requires U.S. aerospace and maritime supremacy, as well as, overall battle-network superiority in the objective area. Try this “forced entry” against a defended Russian, Chinese or North Korean Airfield and the “exercise” would end in minutes with the total annihilation of the paratroopers and the brigade of light, armored trucks. The Army four-star generals are stuck in a World War II fantasy.
Civilians frequently assume that general officers are ruthless and unsentimental when it comes to discarding obsolescent tactics, organizations and technologies. They are not. How else did the U.S. Army enter World War II with regiments of horse cavalry long after the German army had overrun most of Europe with armored forces?
However, the Army four-star generals are ruthless when it comes to crushing innovation inside the regular army that threatens the status quo. They are more comfortable sinking billions into unproven technologies that promise war-winning capabilities in the distant, uncertain future, as well as spending money on the upgrade of old platforms and systems designed in the 1970s. Clearly, few in Congress object to these actions.
To the aforementioned disasters must be added the relentless commitment of nearly two hundred thousand of the regular Army’s 475,000 soldiers to overseas “train and advise,” “presence,” and special operations support missions in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. It’s no secret that counterinsurgency operations seriously eroded the U.S. Army’s capability for high-end conventional warfare, but the dispersion of two hundred thousand soldiers around the world is even more dangerous.
In 1932, General Douglas MacArthur, who was the Army Chief of Staff at that time, told members of the Senate and the House that “the dispersion of the Regular Army in small detachments throughout the continental United States makes it impracticable to have immediately available, an adequate balanced and efficient force of regular troops to meet the first phases of an emergency.” Congress punted, MacArthur retired and ten years later in 1942, Americans played catch-up in a war the U.S. Army was not prepared to fight.
Bad news is never welcome in Washington, DC but it’s necessary. The fighting power of an army lies in its combat formations, not in gross numbers of soldiers. Today’s Army is spread too thinly around the world and its fighting formations are Cold War relics. If today’s Brigade Combat Teams faced an air-defense threat, rocket artillery and loitering munitions (drones that loiter over the battlefield for hours and attack targets by flying into them), let alone a capable, opposing Army, then it would face certain defeat.
None of this means the nation needs a warmed-over version of the World War II/Cold War Army. Another transformation scam like the Future Combat System—a “Potemkin Village” system designed to attract money yet changes nothing of substance—is the last thing Americans need. Instead, the nation needs new combat formations designed for joint, integrated, “all arms” warfare in a battlefield environment more lethal than anything we’ve seen since World War II.
The world Americans have known for fifty years is crumbling. The potential for a 1950 Korean-style emergency grows with each passing month. History may well judge the Trump presidency by the selection of the next Secretary of the Army.
Col. (ret) Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army, is a decorated combat veteran, a PhD and the author of five books. His most recent book is Margin of Victory: Five Battles that Changed the Face of Modern War.
Image: A U.S. Army Soldier, assigned to 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, fires an M4 carbine rifle during partnered live fire range training at Tactical Base Gamberi, Afghanistan, May 29, 2015. Flickr / The U.S. Army