Reconfigure Army divisions to make military stronger

February 15, 2002|By Jack Kelly

PITTSBURGH - There was irritation in the Army over the starring role played by the Marines in Afghanistan even though it is hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.

"Does it bother anyone else that the Marines are the first regular forces in landlocked Afghanistan?" The Washington Post quoted Capt. Robert Krumm as asking in December. "We get to watch the Marines perform Army missions because they can do them better."

Maj. Donald Vandergriff, one of the Army's brightest thinkers, thinks the Army is in danger of "becoming irrelevant" because it hasn't moved fast enough to make its combat units lighter and easier to deploy.

Though the Army is moving more slowly to adapt to a changed world than are the other services, I think much of this angst is overblown. Our Army was designed to meet the Soviet hordes on the central German plain, and designed well for that purpose. Of the 10 divisions in the active Army, six are "heavy" - armor or mechanized infantry.

Heavy divisions have been of diminishing utility since the end of the Cold War. But they still have their uses, as the Persian Gulf war showed. Not a single American tank was lost to hostile fire. No other army in the world can stand up to ours on a conventional battlefield. That is not a capacity we should be quick to discard.

Five qualities are desirable in ground combat formations: strategic mobility, tactical mobility, firepower, forced entry capability and sustainability. No formation possesses all of these qualities, and it would be insane to try to create one that did. The key is to have the right mix. Since the War of 1812, all of our foreign wars have been "away" games. We need forces we can get to the theater of war quickly.

Once we get to the battlefield, we need to be able to get around it. This is why tactical mobility is important.

Firepower is even more important because the point of the exercise is to destroy the enemy. The bad guys don't want us around, so we have to be able to get our foot in the door even if they oppose us. And once we get to the battlefield, we need to be able to stay there until the job is done.

The 82nd Airborne Division is our most strategically mobile formation. Since they can jump behind enemy lines, paratroopers also have forced entry capability. But they pretty much have to walk to work after they jump, so tactical mobility is poor. And paratroopers have little firepower.

Heavy divisions have superb tactical mobility and unparalleled firepower. But it takes a long time to move them anywhere, and there had better be a seaport or a railhead nearby.

Our most tactically mobile formation, the helicopter-heavy 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), also has plenty of firepower. But though the 101st is easier to move than a heavy division, it isn't strategically mobile.

The least useful Army formations are the light divisions. They lack forced-entry capability, have little tactical mobility or firepower and mostly rely on other units for logistical support.

This is because the light divisions were created not for any rational military purpose but to compete with the Marines for budget share.

We already have a Marine Corps, which is why we should be careful how we "lighten up" the Army. The Army should supplement and expand upon the capabilities of the Marines, not try to duplicate them.

When he was chief of staff in the early 1980s, Gen. Edward "Shy" Meyer proved, in his experiments with the 9th Infantry Division, that it is possible, at reasonable cost, to create a strategically mobile division with great tactical mobility and considerable firepower. But his successors killed the high-technology light division because the dinosaurs in the armor community perceived it as a threat.

If I were chief of staff, I'd deactivate one of the heavy divisions and use the money saved to convert another into a replica of the 101st, the most potent overall of the Army's divisions, and to upgrade one of the light divisions into the high-technology light division envisioned by General Meyer.

This would strengthen our defenses without emptying our wallets, and might quell some of the grumbling among junior officers.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached via e-mail at jkelly@post-gazette.com.

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