Plans to streamline Army under fire

Chief of staff's draft isn't 'bold enough,' critics on Hill say

October 04, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A day after becoming the Army's top officer in June, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki had a message for his troops: America's largest military service must change from a lumbering Cold War force to one that is more mobile and lethally flexible, versatile enough to win either brush-fire conflicts or large-scale wars.

"Our heavy forces are too heavy, and our light forces lack staying power," the chief of staff said. "Innovative thinking" will be needed to determine how the Army should be organized and what new weapons it needs.

Next week, Shinseki is scheduled to provide the first glimpse of this innovative approach. But congressional and Pentagon sources say early drafts of the Army blueprint reveal more caution than boldness.

They say the plan would largely preserve the service's unwieldy 10-division structure and fail to drastically reduce or eliminate pricey weapons systems that were designed to repel a Soviet force.

"Shinseki's speech sounds about right," said a Senate aide with long experience in defense policy who has seen various versions. But early indications, he said, are that the Army's plan does not appear "bold enough to execute that vision."

The Senate aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also expressed doubt that the Army's modest plans would receive support from lawmakers.

Richard L. Armitage, a former assistant defense secretary who has long pressed for a leaner and more mobile Army, criticized the plans to preserve the divisions, which contain between 13,000 and 16,000 soldiers within their ranks.

"Divisions seem to arrive too heavy, too late for the fight," said Armitage, who noted that it took six months for the Army to move its armored and mechanized divisions to battle Iraq in 1991.

Armitage, a top adviser for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, said the Army's seeming reluctance to make more radical changes reminded him of a line attributed to Mark Twain: "Even if you're on the right track, you can get run over if you're not fast enough."

Congressional and Pentagon sources say recent drafts of the Army's plans -- assembled by a taskforce led by the Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. Jack Keane -- show that while the 10-division structure will survive, one or more may be converted into "medium-weight" forces that can move more quickly to trouble spots.

Such a medium-weight force could replace the Army's planned "Strike Force," which was the vision of Shinseki's predecessor, Gen. Dennis J. Reimer, and has since been put on hold. Army leaders viewed the Strike Force, with about 5,000 soldiers, as a mobile unit that could deploy quickly and fight in a wide spectrum of conflicts beginning in 2003.

The task force also discussed killing the Crusader, a 155 mm howitzer, these sources say. Some see the 55-ton gun as obsolete for a more mobile Army. Two years ago, a top Pentagon panel recommended cutting the number of Crusaders. Defense analysts such as John Hillen argue that such heavy systems are too large to be shipped quickly to hot spots such as Kosovo.

Army officials have yet to reach a final decision on the Crusader. Sources say the planned purchase of 1,138 Crusader systems -- which cost $17 million each -- may be curtailed to finance lighter weapons systems.

One of them, sources said, will likely be the Armored Gun System, which the Army killed in 1996 in a cost-cutting move. The gun system can easily be airlifted and dropped by parachute. Army officials say the system can provide mobile firepower in crisis situations like those in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia.

The task force may also call for accelerating the production of the Future Armored Vehicle, a lightweight, agile armored troop carrier scheduled for delivery around 2010, sources said.

Army officials declined to comment on the work of the task force or the expected remarks by Shinseki on Oct. 12 at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference in Washington.

Though Shinseki is expected to offer his "vision" of the Army's future, he is unlikely to offer details on specific weapons systems until weeks later. The entire effort, Army officials say, is a "work in progress."

`Work in progress'

"The Army continues to develop its fully integrated strategic vision," said Maj. Gen. John Meyer, the Army's spokesman. "All options remain on the table."

Yet congressional and Pentagon sources say the Army's future vision will look too much like its past, owing to the conservative nature of the institution and to politics within the Army and Congress.

Sources say Keane and others pressing for change are running into an Army bureaucracy that wants to retain the armored and mechanized divisions. Some Army brass and bureaucrats argue that the traditional building blocks of the Army are part of its heritage and a plum command for aspiring generals. Chopping up the divisions, they say, could throw the promotion system into turmoil.

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