Commentary Magazine


Could We Fight a War If We Had To?

In 376 C.E., Rome did not know that it faced a deadly crisis. Although it had the best army in the world, its numbers were barely sufficient to meet the requirements of what we would now call two major regional contingencies (MRC’s). With great difficulty, one army maintained the stability of the Rhine frontier against the Germanic tribes. Another was mobilizing for war with Persia. As a result, there were practically no Roman units on the Danube frontier facing the Goths, who were then peaceful. In 376, circumstances did not seem particularly dangerous.

The next year a third MRC arose: the Goths along the Danube rebelled, destroying the few Roman detachments there and sacking a critical province. The legions marching on Persia abandoned their campaign and raced for the Danube, leaving the frontier with Persia bare of troops and vulnerable to attack. When the army on the Rhine turned to meet the emergency, the Germans quickly overran Gaul. Under the weight of this third, unanticipated, contingency the Roman two-MRC capability collapsed, and shortly thereafter the Roman army was destroyed at Adrianople.

The parallels with America’s current situation are ominous. Although it is extremely unlikely that American forces will suffer an “Adrianople,” they are spread as thinly today as the Roman legions were in 376. Not only can the U.S. Army not conduct two MRC’s simultaneously, unless it withdrew from most of its international commitments, it could not conduct even one.

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The post-cold-war world is a much more disorderly place—if not a materially more dangerous one—than was the cold-war world. During that conflict, the Soviet Union was for the most part successful in restraining its clients from aggressions which did not suit its purposes—and those purposes were narrowly defined. But with the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism around the world, Soviet clients have run unchecked and former Communist states have fallen into civil war. From Bosnia to Iraq to Korea, not to mention within the boundaries of the former Soviet empire itself, and also not to mention the rise of China, we are seeing the beginning, not the end, of the unrest generated by the fundamental transformation of the international balance of power.

The consequences for America have also been plain to see. During the six years of the post-cold-war era, two very different U.S. administrations have felt the need to respond rapidly and decisively to crises around the world. President Bush sent troops to Panama, to Somalia, and to the Persian Gulf; President Clinton has sent forces to Haiti, to Bosnia, to the Gulf again, and to the seas around Taiwan. Under these two administrations, we have dispatched troops abroad more often than we did during the previous twenty years under Presidents Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon. Although dispute still rages over the question of what America’s role should be in the post-Soviet era, by the most reliable measure of all—what we have actually done—that role is as extensive as ever, and there is no reason to think it will soon diminish.

It was, indeed, this reality which brought senior civilian and military officials to decide to base post-cold-war U.S. strategy on the need to meet two MRC’s simultaneously. (During the cold war itself, the need was to fight a war all along the Central European front, plus one other major conflict at the same time.) Former Secretary of Defense William Perry defined an MRC as one in which American forces could expect to face enemies fielding armies of up to one million men with between 2,000 and 4,000 tanks. To cope with one such MRC would require “four to five Army divisions, four to five Marine brigade-equivalents, and enhanced-readiness brigades from the Army National Guard.” To cope with two nearly simultaneous MRC’s would require ten Army divisions, fifteen Army National Guard brigades, and three Marine expeditionary forces reinforced by Marine reserves.

Of course, as the Roman example shows, a power with the vast global interests of the United States cannot be sure that two MRC’s are in fact the worst-case scenario. In the summer of 1994, for instance, tensions between North and South Korea rose dramatically, prompting the U.S. to send troops to fill out units stationed along the boundary of the demilitarized zone and to develop detailed contingency plans for large-scale deployments. Later that summer, with tensions in Korea still high, a supposedly beaten Saddam Hussein massed his troops along the Kuwait border. The U.S. responded with the fastest deployment in history of a brigade of soldiers, Air Force wings, and Navy battle groups. All this occurred at the very time the Pentagon was finalizing plans for the invasion of Haiti by 20,000 soldiers. The inadequacy of even a two-MRC capability in this situation was apparent.

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Today, defense cuts have made such a manifold response impossible. America’s armed forces have been cut by about a third across the board since 1991. Overall military spending has decreased by 24 percent and active-duty military manpower by 27 percent.

The reductions have affected all services. For example, Air Force tactical squadrons have been cut by 28 percent since 1991; the number of planes in those squadrons has fallen by 42 percent; and the Air Force’s ability to move forces rapidly between theaters has been reduced by about 22 percent. As for the Navy, it has lost 34 percent of its ships, among them 61 percent of the support ships critical for sustaining operations around the world.

But it is the Army that has been hit the hardest: spending has declined by 29 percent and active-duty manpower by 32 percent. The Army’s capability to deploy forces, moreover, has actually dropped by 44 percent. There were eighteen divisions in 1991; today there are ten.

Taken together, these cuts significantly reduce America’s ability to respond rapidly and with decisive force to two major regional contingencies, as well as to the many smaller crises and conflicts which currently occupy the armed forces. Acknowledging as much, some defense experts have begun to suggest that we make do with a one-and-a-half-MRC strategy. It appears, indeed, that the Quadrennial Defense Review scheduled to be released later this spring will recommend further cuts in the Army’s force structure below the ten-division level which is the absolute minimum for maintaining a two-MRC capability—even though the contingencies which the two-MRC strategy was intended to meet have far from disappeared. (Neither Saddam Hussein nor the North Koreans, for example, have materially altered their belligerent stands.)

But the situation is in fact worse than this implies. The Army today could not field the force which won the Gulf war. It does not have, in other words, even a one-MRC capability. Whereas the American land component of the forces that defeated Saddam Hussein comprised seven divisions, five heavy and two light (out of our then-total of eighteen divisions), today, out of ten divisions, only six are heavy, and five of these are already committed to defending American interests elsewhere around the world.

Thus, the First Armored Division is in Germany recovering from a year’s deployment to Bosnia, while the First Infantry Division now anchors the peacekeeping mission there. The Second Infantry Division guards the demilitarized zone in Korea. The Third Infantry Division, permanently headquartered in Fort Stewart, Georgia, has sent a reinforced brigade to Saudi Arabia, now replaced by a similar brigade from the First Cavalry Division, based in Fort Hood, Texas. Lastly, the Fourth Infantry Division has one of its three brigades fully committed to a military modernization campaign; because its equipment is experimental, this brigade is not easily deployable. The other two brigades are designated to train reserve and National Guard units called up in time of war and so are also not immediately deployable.

What this means is that in order to send five heavy divisions as we did in 1991, we would have to withdraw entirely our heavy divisions from Bosnia and Korea and also send all those now stationed in the U.S., save the one that would have to train the National Guardsmen called up to fight. But withdrawing from either Bosnia or Korea, let alone from both, would itself entail large costs, undermining the credibility of America’s commitments around the world and inviting instability and possibly war.

And this again is not all. Saddam allowed us six months in which to deploy, refit, and, most importantly, train for the Gulf war. We cannot assume that any future regional aggressor will move so slowly or so ineptly.

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Here, Indeed, is where the full extent of the predicament facing the Army becomes manifest. In order to grasp it, one needs to consider the new sorts of missions it is being required to carry out in the world, and their effects on its training programs.

As a fighting force, the Army’s predominance today results less from its technological superiority than from the extremely high level of training undergone by its soldiers and officers. The importance of this advantage was made clear during the Gulf war. At the battle of 73 Easting on February 26, 1991, for example, an American cavalry unit consisting of 9 M1A1 tanks, 12 Bradley armored-personnel carriers, and 140 soldiers encountered a much larger tank brigade of the elite Republican Guards and in 23 minutes destroyed almost all of it, sustaining no casualties and taking over 200 prisoners. The Iraqi brigade had been dug-in in a perfect defensive position and actually surprised the American troops. So well-trained were the latter, however, that with a single command, every soldier was able to deploy and bring to bear the unit’s firepower while on the move, engaging and destroying the Iraqi force without further orders.

This sharp warfighting edge was born of tough collective training in heavy-maneuver warfare. The skill demonstrated at 73 Easting resulted in the first place from cohesion within each tank and Bradley crew. To achieve such cohesion, a tank crew requires five weeks to practice loading, maintaining, aiming, and firing. At the end of that period, a crew can load and fire its main gun in three seconds, on the move, against a moving target, and almost never miss.

At the completion of crew training, each tank and Bradley crew must then integrate its skills and efforts into the unit as a whole. Thus, for another four weeks, crews practice maneuvering and firing as platoons, and then as battalions. During this time they rehearse responses for likely combat situations until those responses become second nature. And even when the battalion’s skills have been honed to this level, training is still not complete, for battalions must practice fighting together in brigades—a process which occupies the remaining two months of the standard four-month training cycle.

This edge is now being lost. The Army today is heavily engaged in overseas missions, but none of them involves direct combat. They are, instead, deterrence missions (in Korea and Kuwait), peacekeeping missions (in Bosnia, Macedonia, and the Sinai), and humanitarian missions (Bosnia again and recently Somalia and Haiti). Training for such missions differs dramatically from training for conventional combat. There is no time in the training cycle to prepare adequately for both, and there are not enough units in the Army to maintain both our peacekeeping-and-deterrence commitments and the capability to fight a major regional conflict.

Consider the forces involved in Bosnia. For the past year, the First Armored Division has patrolled that war-torn land with skills gained from training not in combat but in Operations Other Than War (OOTW) in Hohenfels, Germany. There, units learn to police urban areas, establish check-points, conduct search-and-seizure and disarming operations, detect and clear minefields, and resolve conflicts among local inhabitants of different ethnicities. In addition to learning about the military threat in Bosnia, they also receive detailed briefings on the geography, climate, people, history, politics, government, economy, and infrastructure of the region to which they will be deployed.

The Army’s success in establishing and maintaining peace and stability in Bosnia results directly from this extensive and innovative training program. In the process, however, and in an environment of reduced budgets, it has had to shortchange training to develop combat skills of the sort demonstrated at 73 Easting.

Thus, the First Armored Division has just been relieved by the First Infantry Division. If, as seems likely, the two divisions continue to swap places every six months, each will have only a half-year in which to complete its normal training-and-maintenance pattern—a pattern that previously took, and needed, a full year. From that half-year, moreover, it will be necessary to deduct at least two months for the unit to enter and exit the theater of operations and to conduct maintenance of its equipment. On paper, that leaves exactly three months for training and one month for recuperation.

That training will necessarily be in the skills suited to a peacekeeping mission and not to combat. It cannot be otherwise. Given the amount of time available in the six-month period between deployments, one can train either to conduct policing operations or to conduct maneuver warfare, but not both. Indeed, it would be as disastrous to deploy troops trained in maneuver warfare to peacekeeping operations as to deploy peacekeeping units to a Gulf war scenario. The commitment of these two divisions to Bosnia, therefore, will effectively prevent them from responding immediately to any contingency in which maneuver warfare is being conducted. And so it goes.

To be sure, the First Armored Division and the First Infantry Division are gaining valuable experience in missions that seem destined to be an important part of our national-security involvement around the world. But we have simultaneously put at risk the Army’s fundamental competence to fight wars.

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Peacekeeping and peacemaking missions have not only reduced the time available to heavy divisions for training in war-fighting—after all, the Army’s primary mission and reason for being—they have also encroached upon funding for such training. In 1994, for instance, Army units found themselves reacting to a host of OOTW and deterrence missions in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Northern Iraq, Korea, Haiti, and even in California to fight forest fires. The deployments to Korea alone cost nearly $2 billion, drawn from budgets which normally support training. Together with the diversion of soldiers, the net result of this loss of dollars was that three Army divisions reported slippages in their readiness ratings.

Finally, still another set of problems bedevils the Army in its reduced state. This one concerns the logistics units (known as below-the-line units or BTL’s) which support combat—and, now, peacekeeping—forces with everything from medical supplies to fuel, ammunition, food, and potable water, and thus make all movement and activity possible. There are simply not enough of these essential units to go around, and so when any single brigade is deployed on a mission, the rest of the division—along with other divisions within the corps—is essentially immobilized, able neither to train collectively at home nor to deploy elsewhere.

This, for instance, was the dilemma facing the XVIII Airborne Corps, whose logistical elements supported the fielding of the Tenth Mountain Division to Haiti in September 1994. So great were the requirements of that operation that within two weeks the XVIII Airborne Corps had run out of BTL units; it was forced not only to activate Reserve and National Guard replacements for its own missing units at home but to send additional support to Haiti in the form of BTL’s from other sectors of the Army.

Even when the Tenth Mountain Division was relieved in January 1995 by a single brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, the headaches remained severe. That one brigade required about half the logistical support of division and corps alike, which left the division’s other two brigades without sufficient back-up even for routine training. For the duration of the Haiti deployment, those brigades were not deployable and could not be trained to become so.

BTL’s maintain perhaps the highest operational tempo of any in the Army. For example, while the First Infantry Division and the First Armored Division rotate into and out of Bosnia every six months, their BTL support groups remain there year ’round. In the case of Haiti, logistics units were deployed a month before combat forces and remained for two months after those forces had withdrawn. What is more, about three-quarters of the BTL’s are drawn from the Reserves, forcing the few in the active Army to be constantly on the go. Soldiers in one military-police unit, for instance, found themselves deployed to Operation Just Cause in Panama, Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia, and Operation Restore Hope in Somalia—all in one tour of duty. This operational tempo cannot be sustained indefinitely, and the scarcity of available units of this kind could well hinder attempts to deploy a force to another Haiti or Bosnia tomorrow—even if we could find the soldiers.

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Advocates of spending cuts have an answer to all these problems. American technological superiority, they say, can overcome any numerical deficiencies, and in today’s world with its new military realities it is more important to develop and procure new technologies than to maintain sizable ground forces. Some have even argued that the Air Force’s high-performance aircraft and “smart” weapons, or the Navy’s long-range cruise-missile system, can replace the Army in many if not all MRC’s and lesser crises.

This view rests, in part, on the false assumption that armed force is mainly for killing people. As we have seen, however, the Army is now mostly otherwise engaged. Only ground forces (supported by air and naval assets) can perform peacekeeping chores—separating belligerents, establishing and protecting supply lines, and assuring orderly elections—and ground forces are similarly essential in what is today perhaps the Army’s most important role: deterrence. The deployment of ground forces to a region unmistakably signals American resolve; they are much more salient than carrier battle groups (which usually remain invisible over the horizon) or Air Force wings (which can depart as quickly as they arrived), and their presence demonstrates a clear readiness to take casualties if necessary.

But the high-tech view is no less misleading when it comes to actual warfare. The high-performance aircraft and precision weapons systems touted by the techno-advocates can indeed degrade an enemy’s combat power. But they cannot force an end to the conflict. For more than a month the most advanced weaponry pummeled Iraq from the air and sea, leaving Saddam battered but still defiant. It took 100 hours of ground combat to destroy his army physically and seize the territory at issue. This is the way of the world.

Today’s Army has reached its breaking point. A force structure of ten divisions is barely adequate to handle even the peacekeeping, stability, and deterrence operations which face it now, let alone those likely to arise as instability continues or flares into war in regions of vital concern to the United States. Crises, moreover, can arise quickly and without warning. In the summer of 1994, we were able to deter Saddam and North Korea and still invade Haiti. True, we may not have been able successfully to fight both Saddam and North Korea at the same time, as called for in our two-MRC strategy. But whether we could have done so or not in 1994, we would find it almost impossible to do so today.

Just as the Roman empire in 376 did not foresee the crisis that befell it the following year, we may yet encounter a situation for which we are not prepared. Fortunately, Americans can still choose to pay for an Army large enough to maintain and restore stability in regions of critical interest and still be able to face major regional contingencies as they arise. If we decline to do so, a threat may emerge without warning one day, and we will find ourselves without the legions to confront it.

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