Warfare skills eroding as Army fights insurgents

October 24, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Pressed by the demands of fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army has been unable to maintain proficiency in the kind of high-intensity mechanized warfare that toppled Saddam Hussein and would be needed again if the Army were called on to fight in Korea or in other future crises, senior officers acknowledge.

Soldiers once skilled at fighting in tanks and armored vehicles have spent three years carrying out street patrols, police duty and raids on suspected insurgent safe houses. Officers who were experienced at maneuvering dozens of tanks and coordinating high-speed maneuvers with artillery, attack helicopters and strike fighters now run human intelligence networks, negotiate with clan elders and oversee Iraqi police training and neighborhood trash pickup.

The Army's senior leaders say there is scant time to train troops in high-intensity skills and to practice large-scale mechanized maneuvers when combat brigades return home. With barely 12 months between deployments, there is hardly enough time to fix damaged gear and train new soldiers in counterinsurgency operations. Some units have the time to train but find their tanks are either still in Iraq or in repair depots.

The Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. Richard Cody, recently told reporters that there is growing concern that the Army's skills are eroding and that if the war in Iraq continues at current levels, the United States could eventually have "an army that can only fight a counterinsurgency." Cody is broadly responsible for manning, equipping and training the force.

Looking beyond the counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army sees possible confrontations looming with North Korea and Iran. It sees potential crisis interventions in places such as Saudi Arabia, where the Army might be called upon to protect oil fields, and Pakistan, whose nuclear arsenal might have to be secured against extremists. None of these potential situations involves counterinsurgency warfare; any of them might require big, armored assaults of the kind the Army no longer practices.

To some, the notion of such future conflicts might seem far-fetched.

"But remember, in 1929 this country outlawed war - and 10 years later was in World War II," said Thomas L. McNaugher, director of the Arroyo Center, an Army-funded think tank in Washington. He referred to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, signed by 62 nations that agreed never again to take part in war. "Our ability to predict things is just horrible."

That uncertainty is what worries the Army. Young sergeants and captains, the next generation of Army combat leaders, know only counterinsurgency operations and, between deployments to Iraq, are not getting time away to study and practice high-intensity combat, Cody said.

"This is a readiness issue of 10 or 12 years down range," Cody said. "This country has entered too many wars unprepared."

Training officers say they are doing the best they can with units between deployments.

"Time is the most limited resource we have right now," said Col. Charles Hardy, who oversees the Army's domestic training. He said Army tank crews are able to practice some of their skills but acknowledged that "we are doing less on-the-ground tactical maneuver than we were in the past."

As a result, Hardy said, "there is a certain degree of loss of proficiency" in high-intensity warfare, a gap between what the Army can do and what it ought to be able to do.

"We are trying to determine right now what is that gap and how we mitigate that," he said.

Senior Army leaders are quick to stress that while the problem keeps them awake at night, the nation is not in immediate peril.

"Just remember, this is the United States Army, units [that] can beat any army in the world we have to put them up against," Cody said. "I am very confident that we have the capacity and the capability to deal with these threats."

But fixing the problem will be difficult without either a significant withdrawal of troops from Iraq or a major increase in the size of the Army, according to Army officials and outside experts. Cody said the Army is working on a number of ideas, including drawing more heavily on the National Guard to provide troops to relieve active-duty units in Iraq.

These ideas, contentious even in peacetime, are being tossed around in Pentagon strategy and budget sessions.

"I've been part of some of those meetings," Cody said. "I wouldn't call them cordial."

But "if we stay at this level of commitment" in Iraq, he said, it will probably take "three or four years" to manage the force in a way that allows each unit 24 months between deployments, instead of the current 12 months.

Outside critics say the problem is even worse.

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