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CSBA: Army in Crisis

The influential Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank, recommends that the Army cut its planned force expansion of 65,000 new soldiers and comes mighty close to saying the service should axe its prized Future Combat Systems modernization program. The report (.pdf) was authored by renowned Army analyst Andrew Krepinevich and released at a conference this week in Washington, D.C.

Krepinevich’s report is titled “An Army at the Crossroads.” But a more appropriate title would have been an “Army in Crisis.” In the report he writes: “[The Army] risks a catastrophic leadership failure of a kind not seen since the late stages of the Vietnam War, a failure that took the Army over a decade to repair.”

His central message is alarming: the quality of the Army’s soldiers is in sharp decline, from enlisted personnel to NCOs to officers. It’s a “particularly discouraging” trend for the Army as it is happening despite the service’s “increasingly aggressive” use of financial incentives including bonuses and a salary increase of 33 percent between 1999 and 2005.

The Army has lowered standards to fill recruitment quotas, including weight and body fat restrictions, number of high school graduates and is allowing in more recruits with moral waivers. Krepinevich sees troubling signs of a repeat of the Vietnam era “shake-and-bake” sergeants, with the widespread promotion of inexperienced enlisted soldiers ill suited to the challenge of leading small units in combat.

The officer corps is also dropping in quality. Of the nearly 1,000 cadets from the West Point class of 2002, 58 percent are no longer on active duty. The Army is forced to pull soldiers from the ranks who have not graduated college and send them to OCS. Today, over 98 percent of eligible captains are promoted to major. The number of involuntary "stop loss" exensions has increased, by 43 percent between 2007 and 2008. Nearly half of those affected are NCOs.

This, at a time when the ongoing counterinsurgency wars demand much more intellectual horsepower in its soldiers. As the Army’s new doctrine manual FM 3-0, states: current and future conflicts “will be waged in an environment that is complex, multidimensional, and rooted in the human dimension.”

The Army says it can’t afford to specialize, that it must be a “full spectrum force,” capable of fighting high intensity conventional battles and counterinsurgency. By trying to make the Army equally effective in all conflict types, “it risks becoming marginally competent in many tasks, and highly effective at none,” Krepinevich says. “This approach becomes all the more problematic when one considers the ongoing erosion of quality in the officer and NCO corps, and in the Service’s recruiting standards.”

There are not enough hours in the day to train soldiers to be competent, let alone excel, at the very different skill sets demanded of every mission. The difference in competence between line infantry and artillerymen turned motorized infantry doing “cordon-and-knock” operations in Baghdad is night and day. The Army can have either a culture and language expert who can operate effectively amongst tribal cultures or a top drawer tank company commander skilled in fire and maneuver.

Krepinevich says the Army has no choice but to produce specialized soldiers as warfare, particularly irregular warfare, has grown far too complex to do otherwise. The Army has specialized for decades, he notes, with Special Forces, airborne, air assault and high end warfare optimized units. That specialization should be weighted toward irregular warfare, since the national strategy and pretty much every other planning document says the U.S. is in an era of persistent irregular warfare.

Because the Army’s “track record in reorienting conventional forces rapidly for irregular warfare is not encouraging,” he advocates conversion of 15 Infantry BCTs to Security Cooperation BCTs, to conduct stability operations. The Army should also develop a robust training and advisory capacity that can be deployed on short notice. The Army must also change its attitude and incentives towards officers serving in those capacities which are currently seen as a career dead-end.

Because of skyrocketing personnel costs and the decline in quality across the ranks, the Army should cancel its plans to increase end strength by 65,000. As for modernization, Krepinevich says FCS faces too many technical and cost risks. There is also the operational risk: “as the FCS is optimized for conventional warfare, it is not clear it represents the best use of resources in this era of protracted irregular warfare.” While the Army is “spinning-out” technologies into the current force, “to date, these capabilities are relatively modest compared to the program’s stated goals and the level of resources being invested.”

Krepinevich presents good recommendations for better balancing the Army between the demands of irregular war and conventional combat. As for arresting the decline in the quality of the Army, he has few answers. Clearly, the stress of repeat deployments to combat zones is driving problems recruiting and retaining quality people. Perhaps with the coming drawdown in Iraq, some of that stress may lessen. But if commitments in Afghanistan and other areas climb, the Army’s personnel challenges will likely continue.

One bright spot for the Army: as the U.S. economy contracts and the private sector continues to shed jobs at alarming rates, young Americans may consider the military a more attractive option.

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