Remembering a Sine Wave
The 20th century gave us a long history in which the resources needed to fight wars and maintain credible fighting forces during periods of peace varied from surfeit to meagerness, from feast to famine. The impact of each of these identifiable periods on the mission effectiveness of the Army and on the lives of soldiers and their families is both a lesson of history and, perhaps, a worrisome portent for the 21st century.
Beginning arbitrarily in 1917, responding with fervor and patriotism and following reports of the German atrocities of those years, the nation went to war; and volunteer soldiers, partially trained and minimally equipped, earned respect and gratitude on the battlefields of Europe. The costs were almost ignored as the country made every effort to provide the tools and supplies that would create a modern Army. Almost immediately after the Armistice, however, the Army of about 3.5 million troops began a reduction that left about 200,000 soldiers in 1920, then 132,000 in 1923.
During that period, the antiwar, antimilitarists and those who believed in the League of Nations’ ability to guarantee the peace of the world demanded minimizing, if not eliminating, funds for the Army and Navy.
Until 1939, the size of the Army was always less than the 240,000 authorized. The result of those two decades of budget famine is addressed in The U.S. Army in World War II, the Army’s official history of that war: “That America was peace-minded for two decades is hardly worth the saying; what matters is that because of this state of mind the nation’s military strength was allowed to decrease and decay to the point where it became tragically insufficient and … incapable of restoration save after the loss of many lives and the expenditure of other resources beyond comprehension.”
Pearl Harbor, the Bataan Death March, the loss of Wake Island, Kasserine Pass and other defeats stretching into 1943, and the inability to launch the decisive operations to end the war until 1944, prove the validity of those observations. A feast period began in 1940 with the draft and a burgeoning budget that ultimately built land, naval and air forces of incomparable power and versatility. It also built an industrial giant that dominated the world economy for generations, guaranteeing the prosperity of the country for the entire century.
Nevertheless, it had taken four years to build, equip and train the forces and another year required to end that war successfully. The Army shared the prosperity of that period. New equipment poured in from industry, manpower was provided as needed, supplies were profuse, and money was printed or borrowed to pay for everything.
The nation went deeply into debt, but it had created the industrial base that would pay for it all with the profits from its products in the world markets. The Army did not share for long, though. Upon the surrender of Germany and Japan, the armed forces suffered immediate budget slashes as President Harry Truman and Congress eliminated or minimized funds for the services.
Army strength and structure evaporated as the country once again adopted peace as the national purpose and the atomic bomb as the guarantor of our security. Again, the consequence was tragic. The Korean War was thrust upon us and the Army had to commit an unready 7th Infantry Division, then stationed in Japan, and the ill-starred Task Force Smith to a period of excessive casualties and limited effectiveness in the early weeks of that campaign.
The troops were poorly trained, ill-equipped, and subjected to stinging and demoralizing defeats. It took months to restore the competence required to cope with enemy forces on the battlefield, a feat made possible only by the hasty recall of World War II soldiers, especially junior leaders, and the resilience of an industrial complex capable of a quick resurgence of wartime supplies and an acceleration of modern equipment production.
With the termination of hostilities in 1953, the Eisenhower administration returned almost immediately to a national strategy of promoting peace and relying on now even more powerful nuclear weapons and more robust long-range delivery capabilities. Once again, the Army was almost ignored as a required force, its budget pared and its strength reduced. It adopted a new, leaner, versatile pentomic structure designed to survive and succeed on a nuclear battlefield. Budget priorities went to nuclear warheads and bomber and missile delivery systems of the Navy and Air Force.
A high percentage of the Army budget bought the Jupiter, the Sergeant, the WAC Corporal, the Davy Crockett and two field artillery warheads to dominate the battlefields of the nuclear age. All other forces were hollowed out, training was minimized, and combat capabilities deteriorated. The principal concern of the era was passing the nuclear surety inspections of the Army Inspector General.
By 1961, the Army had become disillusioned with the pentomic organization, President John Kennedy became a promoter of Special Forces for engaging in counter-revolutionary actions to support the government of South Vietnam, and the Berlin Wall was erected. The Army suddenly became relevant to coping with both the Vietnam insurgency and the Warsaw Pact threat in Europe.
A modest increase in the Army budget provided for the reorganization of Army divisions (the ROAD concept), which restored a more conventional structure for land combat. It was not a feast period, but there was a decided improvement in Army battlefield capability and readiness. There was a growth to 960,000 soldiers in the active force, a structure of 16 divisions and a reorganization of the National Guard and Army Reserve.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson committed the armed forces to the Vietnam conflict. His decision was accompanied by a denial of any mobilization of the reserve components. Instead, he authorized an increase of 133,000 troops and the addition of one division and three independent brigades to the Army.
Those decisions resulted in a major increase in draft quotas and a requirement for a major reorganization of the active forces to produce units whose missions had been the responsibility of the reserve components. Over the subsequent three years, the Army grew to 1.5 million soldiers in 19 divisions.
Once again, the Army enjoyed massive budget support—not a feast, but adequate support for combat operations and a structure still sufficient for its role in the deterrence of Warsaw Pact operations in Europe and any hostile action by the North Koreans. Unfortunately, after 1968, popular support for Vietnam ebbed rapidly. Many personnel management decisions eroded the quality and commitment of our soldiers, and the Army suffered a serious deterioration.
Drastic strength and budget reductions contributed to a weakened mission capability and a disconsolate manpower contingent in the early 1970s. The situation brought an end to the draft and a commitment to an all-volunteer Army. It also brought a recognition among Army leaders of the need for a rededication to quality, along with a major effort to develop modern equipment and redefine Army doctrine and its training and education systems.
The creation of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and U.S. Army Forces Command began a transformation of the Army that led to the restoration of its capabilities and its competence. A new equipment program, the Big 8, was to produce a new tank, an armored personnel carrier, three new helicopters, two air defense weapons and a scout vehicle. Skills qualification tests were established for all soldiers, the Noncommissioned Officers Education System created the first ever formal education for the middle grade leaders of the Army, and the officer education system was reinvigorated.
A new doctrine, ultimately termed Air- Land Battle, was published, and new formal training tests were developed, establishing standards and requirements for mission performance by all elements of the total structure. Nevertheless, the Army budget, after a short burst of support for the all-volunteer Army, again began to shrink. The Big 8 lost the heavy lift helicopter, the division air defense gun and the scout vehicle.
It became the Big 5 and produced the Abrams tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Black Hawk and Apache helicopters, and the Patriot Air Defense Missile System. Budget limitations restricted training, operations and maintenance, and procurement, and resulted in the report by the Army Chief of Staff that the Army was “hollow.”
That term defined a condition in which the requirements of every unit’s table of organization and equipment for soldiers and tools needed for the accomplishment of the unit’s combat missions were not being met. When the condition of barracks and other living quarters, family housing, general maintenance and other demands were considered, the condition was not quite a famine, but the support was far from robust, and Army capabilities were suspect.
A new administration in 1981 brought another restoration—not a feast, but an adequacy that completed the purchase of new equipment and provided the support that resulted in the Army committed to resolve the crises of Just Cause in Panama and Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf, two military operations that deserve to be paradigms for future campaigns.
Both war efforts were afforded adequate preparation time, and both combat campaigns were completed in a few days. Both were examples of what can be achieved when sufficient resources are made available for true readiness. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War brought on a long-awaited “peace dividend” and another reversion to our commitment to a world without war.
The Army was reduced to 12 divisions and 540,000 soldiers by an outgoing administration that also decreed the abolition of all battlefield nuclear weapons, the shortrange, low-yield artillery, and missiles of the Army and Marine Corps. That move was meant to set an example for all nations that had or aspired to have such a capability.
So far, no other nation has followed our example. The list of those that have developed—or are developing—such weapons continues to grow, providing a threat that adds a serious complication to planning our combat operations of the future. Another administration reduced the Army again, to 10 divisions and 485,000 soldiers.
Thus began a new era of an Army too small for its missions and minimally resourced through the 1990s. Again, the national strategy relied principally on air and naval longrange firepower, and the magnificent landpower Army of the Persian Gulf War atrophied. As the 21st century began, new wars were thrust upon us. For the first time in our history, the Army was sent to war without a decision to increase its size.
Budget increases were substantial, and the Army enjoyed a feast period that sustained combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and reduced a great backlog of programs that had always been pushed into future planned allocations. Family housing, new headquarters, modern barracks, child care centers and other infrastructure were built. Contracts were awarded to provide combat support activities that the Army was too small to activate.
The Army deteriorated, however, because the resource shortfall this time was manpower and the funds for maintenance, repair and rebuilding of equipment did not keep pace with the damage and destruction that occurred during combat operations. The inadequate size of the Army resulted in the overcommitment of career soldiers, both active and reserve components, who had been deployed on multiple tours of duty in combat zones, a requirement that has played havoc with family life and job satisfaction.
Too many soldiers have abandoned plans for an Army career, and a wide range of distractions has plagued the Army as the manpower demands continue. Too many issues have diverted attention from the goal of maintaining a capable, trained and ready Army. For those who have remained in the service, military education has been minimized and depreciated as courses have been shortened and attendance postponed. Assignments have been conditioned by the need to fill deploying units, not by the need for leader development and a balanced career experience.
Nevertheless, the Army in the second decade of a new century is still at its authorized volunteer strength, still providing capable, formidable units for its combat missions, and still manned with dedicated leaders and soldiers who believe in their mission, are rightly proud of what they have accomplished and are confident of their ability to continue their prowess.
Portents For the 21st Century
The early decades of the new century bear an eerie resemblance to the last. After the challenges of war, we have again planned to embrace peace as a national strategy; a drastic reduction of military forces is already under way and not completely defined; AirSea Battle has been adopted as our military strategy; and sequestration threatens reductions to the inadequacies comparable to the 1920s and 1930s.
Our Army’s mission, sans the combat requirements scheduled through 2014, is to train other armies so they can supply any landpower forces needed, a proposition tried and found wanting more than once in the last century. We have abandoned major equipment and weapons development programs, are considering reductions of our nuclear arsenal, and are withdrawing forces from areas in which our principal enemies are growing stronger.
We are ignoring the lessons of military power employment in the past century, the disasters invited by weakness and the exorbitant costs associated with rebuilding strength after a crisis occurs. Rather than emphasizing mission first requirements—that is, the capability to deal with all and any threats to our national security—we have instead had our leaders focus on subordinate tasks.
There will be no restoration of the Army education system, little to no use of brigade training areas built in Romania and Bulgaria, and no major exercises or maneuvers that provide divisions and corps with the experience of managing major campaigns. The routine training of battalions and brigades at the national training centers will be curtailed, perhaps available only for units scheduled for deployment.
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has promised, “Our men and women and their families must never doubt that their leaders’ first priority is them.” The purge of career officers, NCOs and civil servants before they qualify for retirement benefits has already begun, and, for those who remain in service, a paucity or long postponement of promotions may raise some doubt as to their priority.
Army Chief of Staff GEN Raymond Odierno has promised that we will “shape the Army’s force [and] support the requirements of our combatant commanders to prevent conflict and shape a future consistent with U.S. interests. By retaining our most capable soldiers, we have an opportunity to further develop the versatility, agility and innovative spirit … to deter conflict and … win decisively.”
Observing that we today have the best Army in the world, he also promises that “10 years from now, we’ll be the best Army in the world.” No one doubts the Chief’s program or his determination, but the resources essential for the fulfillment of his intent require a cognizant, comprehensive and achievable national strategy, force structure adequate to the task, and a Congress willing and able to provide our common defense with the authorizations and appropriations required. The next Quadrennial Defense Review will be an interesting document.
Published in Army Magazine