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Going for Lofty Goals

Congratulations to the United States Army. When Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki gave his recent “Army Vision” speech to an Army audience, he offered a set of goals that are correct, compelling, and–if aggressively pursued and adequately funded–the best thing to happen to the service since Desert Storm or the day they consumed the last of their Nam-era C-rations, whichever came first. As a former Marine, I find his intention to turn the Army into the “most feared ground force” in the world, well, commendable. As for the rest, after a decade of stagnation and deterioration (and a decade in which a lot of ideas slowly percolated) it’s good to see the Army on the move.
Still, questions arise. Not criticisms, but the kinds of questions generated by a wondrously ambitious vision. To take a few.

“Strategic Dominance” General Shinseki speaks of “Strategic Dominance across the Entire Spectrum of Operations.” A wise approach that steers between a hoary “Sorry, we only fight the wars we want to fight” intransigeance and that too-glib-by-half “911 Force for the Global Village” slogan of a few years ago. But there may be a danger here. Today, the Army maintains ten active divisions of various kinds: airborne, air mobile, air cavalry, light infantry, mechanized infantry, armor, etc. These forces are traditionally decreed “General Purpose,” available for most anything. Yes, when the balloon hits the fan, you go with what you got. But experience shows that peacekeeping and other operations short of war not only require special skills and training; they blunt and exhaust combat units. Combat forces should, to the maximum extent possible, be protected from such assignments. Ten divisions ain’t much. And the total Army, active, reserve, and National Guard, numbers a million or more. Surely specialized ops-other-than-war units would pay their way.

“Smaller Units, Greater Lethality” General Shinseki calls for restructured units that draw upon advanced technology. The era of ponderous Industrial Age warfare, of armies piled on armies, is over. He proposes both new kinds of weaponry and new organizational arrangements, including the ability to “task organize on the move.” Yes, absolutely. But the question arises: Is the traditional division/corps (a group of divisions) structure still relevant? An Army general told me, “We know we can take out one level of command. We just don’t know which one.” But taking out one level would mean sacrificing the command and staff billets so prized by the officer corps, and so necessary for career advancement. Is the Army ready to follow the logic of restructuring wherever it leads, or will the tendency to applique technologies onto existing units and then furiously cross-patch prevail?

“Gettin’ There” General Shinseki sets a breath-taking mobility goal. He wants to be able to put at least one combat brigade team (several thousand people) anywhere in the world in 96 hours; a division (currently 10,000 – 18,000 people, plus support) in 120 hours; and 5 divisions in 30 days. Five divisions means moving millions of tons. That means sealift. Lots of sealift. And sealift to meet these requirements must be as advanced as the gear they’ll carry: fast ships (50 – 60 knots) that can load and unload in hours, with or without extensive and vulnerable port facilities, then scoot. Such ships are possible; some are under civilian development. A mixed fleet, military and civilian on-call, will be vital. Finally, an item General Shinseki didn’t mention: the Citizen Soldier.

For obvious reasons, not everybody, active or citizen, needs to be good-to-go all the time. Also for obvious reasons, some units will get the new stuff long before others. But in an era of rapid technological change, “tiered readiness” can lead, de facto, to forces so differently trained and equipped as to make inter-operability or reinforcement extremely difficult. Will the Army Reserve and Guard retain the relevance mandated by the Total Force Policy?

This matters for two reasons. First, despite all the lamentations over the loss of “connection” between the military and the people, that connection remains (as the Founders intended) in the citizen soldier. Second, as the Army moves ever more deeply into homeland defense–read here “consequence management” and “support” of law enforcement and other civilian activities–that linkage must be strengthened.

In sum, despite the questions, General Shinseki has demonstrated the potential to become a genuine military statesman (Another fine indicator: upcoming talks with Marine Commandant James Jones on expanding co-operative endeavors). Of course, he can’t do it alone, any more than General Creighton Abrams could when he undertook to redeem the post-Vietnam force. And therein lies the human beauty. It will take ten years to realize this vision. The captains who take up the challenge now will be colonels then; today’s colonels, generals. General Abrams and his legacy brought forth the leaders of Desert Storm. General Shinseki and his legacy should be no different.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.