What Next for Army Force Structure?

Two weeks ago, Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno announced significant Army force structure reductions. The impending reorganization helps meet an Army obligation and an Army desire. First, the obligation—it allows the Army to satisfy the fiscal demands required by 2011’s Budget Control Act (BCA). Second, the desire—as the Army eliminates brigade headquarters from its structure to meet budget requirements, it can at the same time increase the fighting potential of its brigade combat teams (BCTs). Specifically, the elimination of BCT headquarters frees up an additional maneuver battalion for each of the Army’s infantry and armored BCTs.

The reduction and reorganization of Army forces is not insignificant. As in the case of rebalancing all U.S. forces toward the Asia-Pacific region, Army force reductions are a visible acknowledgment that the Department of Defense (DoD) is entering a new postwar era. It roughly returns active Army force structure to its pre-9/11 configuration, leaving 33 deployable BCTs in the inventory, after having achieved a wartime high of 45 BCTs. There are clearly important, unanswered questions on the table with respect to the Army.

Q1: How should we look at the postwar Army and its contributions to joint operations?

A1: The U.S. Army remains the nation’s principal ground force. It makes two important contingency contributions to joint operations. First, Army forces—active and reserve—provide U.S. decisionmakers with the capability for sustained ground operations abroad and potentially in U.S. homeland security contingencies. In reality, Army forces—often reinforced by the U.S. Marine Corps—are tangible demonstrations of American resolve. To paraphrase a senior Marine Corps officer interviewed during the course of a recent CSIS study, when the U.S. Army arrives on scene, it is an unmistakable indication that America means business.

Indeed, the United States’ continued ability to project large numbers of ground forces overseas for sustained operations is a key metric of its remaining the world’s dominant military power. Second and often less appreciated, Army enabling capabilities—logistics, communications, intelligence, engineers, air and missile defense, etc.—“set” foreign theaters and support deployed forces from the other services and foreign partners. This latter function provides a solid backbone for sustained military campaigns of all types under a variety of circumstances.

Q2: With respect to the first contribution and in particular sustained ground combat, what does the planned mix or distribution of BCTs—Infantry (IBCT), Armor (ABCT), and Stryker (SBCT)—say about the U.S. Army’s ability to meet future contingency demands?

A2: After the Army completes its reorganization, it will have 14 IBCTs, 12 ABCTs, and 7 SBCTs in the active force. Our recent CSIS study found that the likeliest future ground warfighting contingencies will involve what we termed “distributed security” operations, wherein some combination of general purpose Army and Marine units will have to fight to secure at-risk foreign populations, institutions, infrastructure, territory, and military assets against lethal irregular and hybrid opposition. Events precipitating intervention are most likely to stem from some failure of competent authority in an important state or region. As a consequence, strategic warning may be more limited than is generally associated with conventional warfighting scenarios.

This implies the need for forces that can deploy on very short notice, employ capabilities immediately on arrival, and operate for extended periods over significant distances in ways that are less reliant on sophisticated support infrastructure. Infantry-heavy forces will clearly be at a premium under these conditions, and the planned reorganization is consistent with this specific demand. According to Army figures, 21 of 33 remaining BCTs will have foot-borne or motorized infantry at their core.

However, the bulk of U.S. infantry forces (principally, the Army’s 14 IBCTs) will still lack the inherent protected mobility and firepower essential under the likeliest combat conditions identified in our recent report. This is true for the Marine Corps as well. Clearly, the armored capabilities resident in the 12 ABCTs will offset some of this risk. But, ABCTs are not nearly as responsive as their infantry-heavy counterparts. Significantly up-armoring infantry forces will, however, further complicate an already growing deployability problem.

Therefore, going forward, some combination of targeted innovation in mobility, protection, firepower, and deployability will be required to make Army infantry formations more broadly employable. This kind of innovation is not cost free, and the Army will likely see declining resources in the post–Iraq/Afghanistan era. As a consequence, the Army will likely need to make prudent internal trade-offs to achieve a satisfactory outcome. To be sure, this is a Joint Force imperative that requires significant future attention.

Q3: How will Army enabling capabilities contribute to future joint operations?

A3: As outlined in the first question, the Army remains the principal enabling force for all sustained operations abroad. Often, it is Army forces that provide the force protection, logistics, communications, and command and control architecture that allows third parties—including the other services and foreign partners—to conduct sustained military actions. This demand will likely remain stable or grow, especially as the United States seeks to deal effectively with an increasingly assertive China across the expansive Asia-Pacific theater, as well as underwrite the efforts of foreign partners who are actively defending common core interests.

Future enabling efforts will involve provision of extensive air and missile defense, ground-based precision long-range fires, key point security, and myriad combat support and combat service support assets essential to successful operations across the range of military activities. In addition, the Army will increasingly have to employ all of its assets in direct support of foreign partners confronting shared security threats worldwide. In an era of declining resources, the enabling role will become increasingly more complex as the Army will be taxed to maintain a variety of diverse and essential enabling capabilities while meeting the continuing requirement to maintain ready maneuver forces for sustained ground combat.

Q4: As the Army navigates the post–Iraq/Afghanistan transition, how should it think about its future role and communicate that role inside DoD and across important defense-interested stakeholding communities?

A4: A clear-eyed and honest appraisal of the character of future demand is the best starting point for rational decisions about future Army capabilities. The Army has an important story to tell, but, by necessity, that story must increasingly go well beyond “fighting and winning the nation’s wars.” This is especially true, if by “wars,” Army advocates always mean large-scale conventional conflicts against competitor states.

As a rule, general purpose ground forces—both Army and Marine—are by definition less specialized and, therefore, more adaptable than their air and sea counterparts. To the extent future land-based contingencies require large-scale U.S. responses, Army forces are certain to figure prominently. In addition to their explicit requirement to effectively execute sustained ground combat and security operations, Army forces remain well positioned to provide the requisite ground-based security and support essential to success under a variety of contingency conditions.

As such, a compelling Army story could reasonably center on the five archetypal contingency conditions described in our recent report Beyond the Last War—humanitarian response, distributed security, limited conventional campaigns, enable and support actions, and peace operations. These—coupled with steady-state deterrence and shaping demands—provide the Army with an effective narrative to define future missions, evaluate capability choices, and demonstrate value in future joint operations.

Nathan Freier is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and the principal author of Beyond the Last War: Balancing Ground Forces and Future Challenges Risk in USCENTCOM and USPACOM (CSIS/Rowman & Littlefield, April 2013). Jacquelyn Guy is a project coordinator and research assistant in the CSIS International Security Program and a contributing author to Beyond the Last War.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Nathan Freier and Jacquelyn Guy