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Getting the Army Mix Right

Earlier this year, in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Army Chief Gen. George Casey said the service was “rebalancing” to emphasize more “relevant” skills needed to fight and win 21st century wars against hybrid threats.

Casey said the Army has eliminated 200 tank, artillery and air defense companies and stood up an equal number of civil affairs, engineers and other specialties needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The future force will feature a mix of heavy, Stryker and light brigades, all trained to fight across the now ubiquitous “full spectrum of conflict,” although some units will be optimized for specific tasks.

Addressing what has been the Army’s centerpiece since World War II, the heavy armor force, Casey said the Abrams main battle tank and Bradley fighting vehicle team will remain dominant for at least another decade, but that the heavy force will be further trimmed in coming years as the Army aims for a “middle weight force” sweet spot. What exactly that middle weight force looks like will no doubt be influenced by whatever comes out of the service’s recently formed Task Force 120, which is trying to come up with a design for a future Ground Combat Vehicle.

While the total number of heavy brigades is being reduced, most of that reduction occurs in the reserves. By 2013, the Army would still have 19 heavy brigades out of a total of 48 active duty combat brigades (the Army had planned on 48 but Defense Secretary Robert Gates has told the service to stop at 45). The balance of the active force would be 23 Infantry brigades and 6 Stryker brigades.

In Iraq’s urban battlefields, the Abrams and Bradley certainly proved their worth in providing troops mobile protected firepower, and, in the case of the Abrams, a very effective mobile pillbox. Yet, Afghanistan is primarily a light fighter’s war. While Canada has deployed a handful of tanks there, and to good effect, Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain limits the usability of all vehicles, not just heavy armor.

Looking at likely scenarios in an era of irregular conflict, Andrew Krepinevich, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, writes that its difficult to envision one in which armored ground forces would play a decisive role. Heeding the lessons of Desert Storm, as well as the 2003 Iraq invasion - where the Army seized Baghdad with three heavy brigades - future opponents are unlikely to field large tank armadas to take on the Army’s peerless tank killing weapons: the Abrams and Longbow Apache; not to mention a growing arsenal of long-range, precision-guided anti-armor artillery rounds and rockets.

If the Army intends to create a rotational model to lessen the burden on troops deploying to Iraq (if there is still a mission there after 2010) and Afghanistan, as Casey said, then why so many heavy armor brigades? Put another way, why is the Army planning to field the equivalent of four heavy armored divisions in its future force?

It will be interesting to hear Task Force 120’s views on the right mix of heavy, Stryker and light brigades. It’s also an issue that begs for guidance from the QDR team as it looks at rebalancing the entire military for a very different future threat environment.

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