web counter Media Lies: How the military got to where it is today

Thursday, December 23, 2004

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How the military got to where it is today

Dead Serious must be prescient. He just posted two articles that directly address this issue. The first points out that Congress and the Clinton administration cut troop strength by one-third during the 1990's. The second points out that we have far too many troops in the wrong places, too many "chiefs" and not enough "indians" and too many troops in the wrong occupational slots.

This article is excellent and details many of the problems the current military has. Even though troop strength has increased by 27,000 since Bush took office, we still have drastic shortages of personnel in certain specialties. Peacekeeping, for example, (Kosovo, Bosnia, etc.) puts extreme pressure on the MPs, because we just don't have enough of them. So we supplement them with combat troops. But those troops are needed for combat.
For most civilians, the notion that a military with 1.4 million full-time men and women under arms is unduly burdened might seem counterintuitive. But of that number, only a fraction are what are known as "trigger-pullers"--that is, front-line troops in combat divisions. Of the Army's 460,000 soldiers, for instance, only about 120,000 are part of the service's 10 active-duty combat divisions. And only about one-third of each 15,000-man division consists of actual combat troops. Of the rest, most are part of the military's vast overhead and logistics apparatus, from mechanics to quartermasters to secretaries........That makes it hard to solve the current overstretch problem in what would seem to be the logical way: increase the number of soldiers. Add a few thousand trigger-pullers, and you have to add seven times that number, on average, in support personnel.
Why are we configured this way? Because the Pentagon is still fighting the wars of the last century.
The problem is not just the increasing number of missions, but the decades-old system by which soldiers are organized and deployed. Since before World War I, the military has used a centralized personnel management scheme, known as the individual replacement system, originally designed to fight what military wonks today call "second-generation" warfare--wars of attrition between industrial nations. Since those conflicts tended to have long lead-ups, what mattered most was how many guys you could get to the front line, rather than how fast you could get them there. Consequently, readiness was primarily measured by a given unit's "fill"--how many troops it could deploy--instead of how much time those soldiers had spent training together. Soldiers, in turn, were viewed as interchangeable cogs in a machine, to be replaced as needed like spare parts. And to make it easier to organize and administer those modern armies in garrison, units were kept "branch-pure;" that is, tanks in one battalion, infantry in another, engineers in still another.

The system came in for criticism almost as soon as it was inaugurated, but though warfighting has changed dramatically since 1917, the individual replacement system remains in place today.
Today's battles are rapid, short-lived affairs that require a force that is nimble and highly adaptable, exactly the opposite of what we actually have.
The more missions the military has, the more it has to move around, reassemble, and retrain its soldiers. And instead of fighting one big war or two medium-sized wars, today's military has lately been charged with lots of minor operations, known as small-scale contingencies, and the occasional medium-sized one, like the upcoming war in Iraq. Even the small-scale contingencies are no picnic. As a 2001 RAND study noted, "Even relatively small operations require large amounts of leadership time, cause turbulence from cross-leveling and tailoring of the force, and require specialized training." It doesn't help that most of the military is still arrayed to fight World War III. A large fraction of the United States' manpower is deployed to permanent garrisons in Germany, South Korea, and Japan. That doesn't mean these troops sit on their hands. (Most of the peacekeeping soldiers in Bosnia and Kosovo, for instance, rotate out of bases in Germany.) But it does mean that many soldiers are primarily trained and organized for battles that will never occur, which means that they must constantly be trained for their actual missions as well, like patrolling Croat neighborhoods in Brcko, and then trained back again to prepare for their theoretical missions, such as battling hordes of Soviet tanks smashing through the Fulda Gap. Perversely, the current system produces units that simultaneously train more and are less ready.
Is it any wonder we're struggling to keep up?

And what about the reserves?
The most visible symptom of overstretch, however, is its effects on the Guard and Reserves, who make up a little less than half of the Pentagon's available personnel and two-thirds of the Army's. In daily life, reservists (the term applies to members both of the Guard and the Reserves) are civilian citizens, many of them doctors, police, firemen, or nurses. When the military can't meet deployments with active duty personnel, they call up reserve units and individual reservists, who must take leave from work and family at a moment's notice. Three-quarters of U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan today are National Guardsmen, for instance, in part to free up active-duty troops to prepare for war in Iraq.

Most of the reserves, however, consist not of combat troops but of logistics and support soldiers who undergird the big combat deployments--from engineers and MPs to civil affairs officers and truck drivers. Indeed, nearly all of these specialties are concentrated in the part-time reserve forces, rather than the active duty force. Unfortunately, those are the same specialties most needed in peacekeeping and humanitarian deployments, where the bulk of the work isn't duking it out with enemy infantry but establishing constabulary forces, providing clean water, and fixing bombed-out power grids. So, ever since the Persian Gulf War, the Pentagon has leaned more and more heavily on the reserves--using them as a crutch to avoid reconfiguring the active-duty force away from the heavy divisions that remain the Army's pride and joy.
One specialist who studies deployment problems puts it like this - "We call up the reserves basically because we can," says John Tillson, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses who studies the effects of operations tempo on soldiers. "Since we have all these tempo problems, we need to find some way to mitigate them. It's easier to call up the reserves than to change the personnel system."

Calling up the reserves has even greater impacts than you would imagine.
The active-duty force has, for instance, exactly one civil-affairs battalion--that is, the specialists who set up courts and train police forces in the wake of a conflict. The other 97 percent of the Army's civil-affairs specialists are in the reserves. Once the shooting stops, these and other elements of our already overstretched reserve force will bear the brunt of rebuilding, caring for, and policing Iraq. And when they get called up for duty, they'll leave behind understaffed police stations and fire departments. A survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum found that half of all law enforcement agencies in the United States have already lost personnel to reserve call-ups since September 11, while another, conducted by the International Association of Fire Chiefs found that more than 70 percent of fire departments have members in the reserves. "We have only two paid firefighters," noted one response to the latter survey. "Both have been called."
Whose fault is this? Rumsfeld's? Not hardly. This is a failure of leadership within the military, not a failure of leadership at the level of the SecDef. It is not, however, a failure of the current military leadership. They are playing with the cards that they were dealt.

If, ten years from now we are configured the same way, then you can blame Rumsfeld for not having enough persuasive power. And you can certainly blame the current military leadership for not changing the system in the face of its obvious deficiencies.

Should we blame the Clinton administration for today's problems? I don't think so. Clinton had three SecDefs in his eight year tenure. I don't think there's any way you can change the military bureaucracy without a SecDef in place for at least four years and more likely eight. Even then it's a monumental task that takes someone with an incredibly thick skin and bulldog determination. (Sound familiar?) It also requires someone who understands the military and its bureaucracy. Who better for the job than a man who has already served as SecDef in a previous administration?

The real blame lies with Congress. Many congressional leaders have been in office for a long time. They had to have been aware of the problems, yet they have done nothing to push the military to change. In fact, as I've written before, the very men who are criticizing the Secretary now have resisted the changes that he has tried to make.

I call that hypocrisy.