FORT IRWIN, Calif. -- After a decade of counterinsurgency, the Army is trying to retrain the force to fight other types of conflicts. But budget cuts threaten that effort.
Sequestration is looming at a time when Pentagon officials are concerned that the Army's conventional warfighting skills have atrophied while the force has been fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. That decay would be problematic if the U.S. military had to carry out an operation similar to Desert Storm, which saw American ground forces pound Saddam Hussein's enormous army into submission in the early 1990s.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work explained the problem earlier this month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
He said that prior to 2001, officers and noncommissioned officers who had been in the Army for 10 years would have completed "numerous" full-spectrum combat training center rotations prior to assuming key leadership roles. But many of the junior company and field-grade leaders of today don't have that experience because they've been focused on counterinsurgency.
Getting the Army fully trained for a wide range of operations can't happen overnight, officials say.
"We're in a time problem as much as we are in a resource problem now because of the [training] hole we're in," Work said.
He said that "under the best of circumstances," the Army won't achieve full-spectrum readiness goals until 2020; and if sequestration returns in 2016, that will push things back another three to five years.
Outside experts share his concerns.
"For the most part you haven't seen ... brigade or certainly division-size maneuver and fighting operations [in the counterinsurgency wars]. The Army needs to get prepared for that in the future if [it's going to be] fighting an adversary that is able to aggregate and coordinate its forces," said Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger who is now the director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security.
At the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., soldiers are getting ready for that kind of fight.
Fort Irwin is massive, occupying a swath of desert the size of Rhode Island. And the NTC is the largest advanced training center of its kind.
Ten brigades -- about 50,000 soldiers -- rotate through there each year. But the training regimen is a lot different today than it was just a couple years ago, according to Gen. Ted Martin, because troops are no being readied to go to Afghanistan.
About 5,000 soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, based at Fort Carson, Colo., are at the facility going through "Decisive Action" Readiness Training, which lasts 14 days. When the Iron Brigade leaves, it will have engaged in four conventional battles against an invading army; taking on enemy tanks, artillery, infantry and aircraft.
The enemy forces consist of personnel from the 11th Army Cavalry Regiment.
The threat scenarios are overlapping so that troops learn how to deal with "hybrid" warfare -- which Pentagon officials see as the future of armed conflict. For example, during one of the conventional fights, the soldiers involved have to wear chemical suits after the enemy force launches a chemical weapons attack.
Soldiers also come under cyberattack, and they're forced to defend their networks and continue to operate when their systems go down.
"We are not here to fight the Warsaw Pact," Martin, the commander of NTC, told reporters Nov. 16. "We're way beyond that. What we're doing here is ... replicating what we believe to be the complex environment our soldiers may be forced into in the future."
But NTC has already felt the effects of budget cuts. The center typically hosts 10 rotations of about 5,000 soldiers annually. Martin said that sequestration had a "horrendous impact" on his command last year, and forced him to cancel four training rotations.
He fears that budget reductions will leave troops unprepared to fight the wars of the future.
"It's essential that we have the ability to train them to the very highest levels like we're doing here," he said. "If I lose sleep at night, it's with the uncertainty about will we be able to sustain this level of training and ... will the Army be able to provide combat-ready units if we're called."