Army retools to lean force

But policy is debated as urban warriors replace heavy armor

September 04, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT LEWIS, Wash. - "Outlaw! Outlaw!"

Four soldiers from Bravo Company shout their platoon code name as they storm into a building in this makeshift village at the edge of a pine forest. They scatter among two floors of rooms in a cacophony of shouts, cracking bullets and thumping boots, trying to root out an entrenched urban enemy.

It was less than 10 years ago that the Army squared off against the forces of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in a desert duel of tanks and artillery. Today, that is ancient history. U.S. soldiers are training for their likely 21st-century foe: small bands of terrorists or guerrillas, sheltered amid civilians in teeming cities.

Tomorrow's soldiers will operate in smaller, more lethal groups, using stealthy tactics and an array of sophisticated surveillance gadgets, computers and precision weaponry. They will trade their 70-ton battle tanks, designed to fight the Soviet Union, for smaller armored vehicles that can traverse narrow city streets and small, Third World bridges. They will train not only to kill but to separate hostile factions in a skillful blend of warrior and diplomat.

"We've really shifted," says Capt. Joe Paull, a burly 26-year-old platoon leader from Janesville, Wis., as he watches his soldiers dash through this urban training course. "Come in. Hit hard. Move out. You're not going to see the big armored columns anymore."

The 2nd Infantry Division soldiers at Fort Lewis are the vanguard of a $70 billion, decadelong effort by the Army to remake itself, which is taking place against the backdrop of a presidential campaign debate about the future of the military and its role in overseas missions.

As the Army shakes off its heavyweight Cold War look, it is trying to evolve into a more maneuverable force that can quickly hop aboard cargo planes. Under the plan, brigades of about 4,000 soldiers could be deployed within four days - rather than a week or more now - to tackle everything from humanitarian relief and peacekeeping missions to small-scale wars.

By the end of next year, the first brigades will be able to take their skills from the playing fields of eastern Washington to real-world missions. "This is a pretty monumental shift for the Army," says Maj. Gen. James M. Dubik, an infantry officer who studied philosophy at the Johns Hopkins University and oversees the training at Fort Lewis. "Almost everything that worked in the Cold War is now called into question."

Effort meets with skepticism

But the Army's transformation has drawn a number of skeptics, including some within its ranks.

Some defense analysts say the new units lack sufficient firepower to deal with potential threats. Lawmakers complain that the Army is moving too fast, committing itself to expensive new weapons before technology is developed. The Marine Corps and Navy worry that the effort will take money from their programs, and the Air Force does not have enough planes to move the units swiftly enough.

Privately, some Army officers question the need for radical change. Quick-responding airborne troops can deal with threats, they say. And those who've devoted careers to tanks doubt that a proposed 20-ton "Future Combat System" can replace the deadly and survivable M-1 Abrams tank, the 70-ton behemoth that helped defeat Iraq.

Army leaders see dire need

Army leaders shrug off the criticism and insist the service must reinvent itself. The Marine Corps will continue to be needed to storm ashore and take an airfield, they say, but only the Army has the strength of numbers and supplies to keep it.

And though Army airborne divisions can deploy quickly, they lack the firepower to hold ground against a well-armed foe. Heavyweight armored divisions are more lethal but take weeks or even months to get to the fight. A "medium-weight" force, such as the one being developed at Fort Lewis, will combine the best of both worlds, they argue.

"We were cautioned that naysayers would essentially try to slow us down," Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army's top officer, told Congress earlier this year. "We are resolute."

Army Secretary Louis Caldera casts the debate in dire terms. "To me, the Army had no choice but to transform," he says in an interview, "or cease to be relevant."

Far from this furious debate, Sgt. Jeremy Vondra, 23, of Dixon, Ill., couldn't be more content with his role in the new brigade at Fort Lewis.

Until recently, he operated a 25 mm cannon aboard a Bradley fighting vehicle, where he would sit in a turret and shoot. Now he's a rifle squad leader, in charge of eight soldiers.

"It's brought forth leadership skills I didn't know I had," he says.

Vondra and his squad will train at this plywood village well past sundown, switching to night-vision goggles and often using real bullets. To add a touch of realism, fellow soldiers often play the role of civilians.

"In the old Bradley unit, everyone out there was an enemy," says Vondra, his face streaked with black and green camouflage paint. "Now it's hard to differentiate."

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