Leadership: April 29, 2005


The U.S. Department of Defense has a big problem with the U.S. Army. And the problem is mainly one of figuring out exactly what the problem is. At the moment, the United States is at war. But the army is the only service that is really involved. The air force has a few percent of its aircraft providing support for what is basically an infantry war. The U.S. Marine Corps (which is part of the Navy Department, not the U.S. Navy) is almost as involved as the army. But its the army that's carrying most of the load. That, however, is not the major problem for the Department of Defense. For over a decade, the Department of Defense has been trying to get its arms around dealing with all the new military technology that is showing up. This is not a unique problem. Organizations of all types, and sizes, are being forced to deal with an unprecedented, in human history, avalanche of new technology. What to do?

The Department of Defense had planned on using a lot of this new stuff to reduce the number of American troops needed (and exposed to danger) while dealing with future wars. The U.S. Air Force was a big proponent of this approach. The Afghanistan campaign seemed to prove them right. Some 300 Special Forces troops, aided by a few dozen air force and navy bombers, took down the Taliban in a few months. Local opponents of the Taliban provided the ground troops. Then came Iraq. The local opponents of Saddam were not up to dealing with the remnants of Saddams forces, who continued to fight as irregulars. Over 100,000 American troops were needed to deal with this situation. More would have been helpful, but that would have meant not enough troops would have been available to rotate everyone in and out of Iraq on one year tours. You had to do this to avoid combat fatigue problems.  Suddenly the dreams of fewer troops, lighter tanks and technology taking over, seemed rather more distant. But not impossible. 

Actually, Iraq quickly turned into a combat laboratory  for testing all sorts of new technology. Few of the FCS (Future Combat Systems) stuff the army was planning for the future was ready, but the bits of new technology that were available were put to work. And they worked. The micro-UAVs, battlefield Internet and all manner of new computer software was tried, and the troops called for more. 

The army was also relieved to see that their long, and costly, investment in training, and careful selection of recruits, was working. This angle never got much press, it never does. And despite ample historical evidence, generals are always tempted to shortchange training in favor of new gadgets. At least you can show off the hardware to Congress, when you go begging for more money. No one has yet found a way to show off training, short of an actual war. And even then its difficult. But this time around, many more generals, and civilians in the Pentagon, became believers. 

But the plan is still for machines to replace troops on future battlefields. Combat robots are showing up in Iraq, and the troops are increasingly equipped with personal radios, computers and satellite links. Not all the FCS money was going into vehicles (just most of it), a lot is planned to wire the troops and tie them into a network that includes armored vehicles, tanks, helicopters, warplanes overhead and ships at sea. So Iraq will speed up some parts of FCS, and cause some rethinking on others.

Iraq is also forcing the army, and the Department of Defense, to reconsider what the army of the future should be trained and equipped for. Obviously, peacekeeping is one task. There are limits to how much technology can replace troops on the ground for these missions. But in other types of wars, you need far fewer troops. While the air force and navy are not really at war right now, they could be if things blew up in Korea or in the Taiwan Straits. Another North Korean invasion of South Korea would demand a major effort from the U.S. Air Force. They are the only combat power that could get their fast enough to make a big difference. The South Koreans have a lot of troops on the ground, and they could be a lot more effective with American warplanes overhead. 

Taiwan, on the other hand, would be more of a job for the U.S. Navy. The Chinese invasion force would be on the water, where the American navy is at its deadliest. The navy would also get to Korea in time to make some difference, and the U.S. Air Force would be available to help out in defending Taiwan. In neither of these places would the army be a major player initially. But if these conflicts went on for any length of time, the army could get involved. 

What the Department of Defense cannot get away from is the fact that wars are ultimately won by boots on the ground. As the army likes to point out, the ultimate form of air superiority is your infantry occupying enemy air bases, and the surest way to defeat an enemy fleet is to have your tanks controlling their naval bases. Warplanes have to eventually land, and warships must eventually return to a port. But the infantry live on the land, and ultimately control it. 

The fighting in Iraq has been a wake up call for those planning on transforming the army. There will be a transformation, but the current crop of ideas has to deal with reality along the way.


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