FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Senior leaders here call it the "Army of preparation," but it sounds more like the Army is returning to the pre-9/11 years when readiness was reserved for a handful of select units.
As U.S. troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, the Army is struggling to redefine itself in a post-war world plagued with financial uncertainty. Over the next four years, the service will reduce its active force from 570,000 to at least 490,000 soldiers.
On top of that, additional defense cuts under sequestration, slated to begin March 1, threaten to devour training and equipping dollars for all but units preparing for deployments. Should sequestration hit, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said the training budgets for 80 percent of the service's units will be cut.
This is a dramatic shift from the last decade when operational Army units spent most of their time conducting intensive, mission-oriented training in between combat deployments.
"The youngsters in our Army, the lieutenant colonels on down, have only known one thing … the world is defined by having everything you need to do all the training that you want. If there is a problem, it's somebody's job to get it for me," said Gen. Robert Cone, commander of Training and Doctrine Command. "We are about to cross into an environment where that will change.
Right now, Cone and other leaders are trying to guide the service as it transitions from an "an Army of execution to an Army of preparation," Cone told an audience at the Association of the U.S. Army's Winter Symposium.
The sweeping changes ahead will be a tough sell to today's combat leaders, Cone said.
"The problem we have is they have very high expectations, and one of my greatest concerns is severe cutbacks to things like home-station training, or the ability to conduct exercises, or the ability to make being a professional soldier very much linked to real-world problems," he said. It "is going to have a very serious negative impact on retention."
But slowing down the exhaustive pace of training and deployment cycles is not all bad, Cone said.
"I think the critical point will be to reassert the role of the commander in developing and assigning and executing and assessing training events," Cone said.
The challenge will be for the Army to make training less complex and time-consuming.
"Every time senior leaders at TRADOC get together and discuss this we always ask how many people in the room could pick up right now and go outside to an MRAP or Humvee and turn on a SIGNARS Radio, and I think what you would find is the vast majority of our soldiers and leaders are incapable of that task," Cone said.
The Army four-star emphasized that the technology the Army introduces into its force must be intuitive. He said that soldiers expect the same simplicity of operating their smartphones or video games in the gear they are issued by the Army.
"When you look at the complexity of user-interface, we have got to get more to an iPad-like approach to things," he said.
Service training leaders can expect to save money if Army can do a better job at buying equipment that is simpler to use.
"The cost to training with these more complicated user interfaces is significant," Cone said. "You have to remember these young soldiers come off the street and compare every product we give them to something like ‘Call of Duty' or any of their video games and they don't understand why they can get online and figure something out without any instruction and everything we give them requires x-number of weeks of instruction. I'm not trying to side-step the issue of training, but I think we could be more intuitive in the things that we do."
Another challenge for many combat units will be to remain relevant in a peace-time setting.
There will always be smaller-scale operations, Cone said, which may fall to specialized units as was the case in the 1980s.
"The world as we know it today is as dangerous and complex as anytime in our past," Cone said, describing how enemy forces have learned how to fight American military power and will likely depend on area-denial tactics in the future.
"Every war game in the last year has concluded. The enemy understands that once we get our feet set in lodgment areas, we can project the combat power that we need to, so the trick from their perspective is to prevent us from establishing that sort of lodgment within the theater of operations, Cone said.
"We are working largely with our forced-entry, airborne community in terms of a joint-entry operations concept," Cone said. "We just completed a war game on Thursday out at the Army War College talking about the need for speed of response, the importance of these force-entry capabilities and the Army's role in sustaining and continuing those capabilities."
Future missions for heavier units are not as clear, Cone said.
Under the Army Force Generation model, "everybody gets to be an eagle; everybody gets the full benefit of all the Rapid Equipping Force kit, all of the uniforms and all of the technology" when on a continuous mission rotation cycle, Cone said.
"You have an Army that really likes that construct, and they are horrified of the idea of going back to some type of tiered readiness," Cone said, referring to the system combat units operated under in the 1980s and 1990s.
The flaw of that system became extremely clear to soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) when they were deployed to Afghanistan in 2001 without enough Small Arms Protective Insert plates for their body armor. Soldiers were issued their front plates, but had to wait for several weeks for their back plates.
"I think the reality is we are going to maintain an [Army Force Generation model] cycle, but the fact is when we identify units that are not deploying, their readiness cycle has to be tailored to what missions they are actually going to do, and I'm not sure we can afford to bring everybody to the highest level," Cone said.