The National Commission on the Future of the Army (NCFA) missed the opportunity of a generation to help place that Service on a sound strategic, structural and budgetary footing. Instead, the NCFA report is a politically correct document that focused more on trying to paper over serious disputes among the three components of the Total Force – Active, National Guard and Reserve – than on doing the right thing.
The issue that led to the creation of the Commission was opposition to the Army’s Aviation Restructuring Initiative (ARI). The ARI sought to rationalize the Army’s aviation force structure by pulling all the AH-64 Apache attack helicopters into the Active Component where they would also serve in the scout helicopter role, replacing the lost assets in the National Guard with new Blackhawk utility helicopters more suited for state and homeland security missions.
This issue kicked off a civil war inside the Total Force. The Commission was created first and foremost to heal the rift between the Active and Reserve Components. Its fundamental goal was political in nature: ensuring One Army. In this it may have been successful, recommending to keep some number of Apaches in the National Guard. But it did so by dividing up the baby and increasing costs for the Army. The Commissioners were asked to make a Solomonic decision on the future of the Army, but decided to divide the baby instead.
But the NCFA failed to take the opportunity, available in its charter, to propose fundamental changes in Army strategy, force structure and investments for the future. The real question was not who gets how many helicopters and what kind, but are the Reserve Components to be treated as an operational force, deployed alongside the Active Component in future contingencies, or, in its pre-September 11 configuration, as a strategic reserve? The fight over helicopters reflected the limited utility of Guard aviation brigades to act as an operational force due to constraints on training. But this was a surrogate for the real problem, one we have had for decades: it will take too long, years in most cases, to organize, train and deploy a significant number of National Guard brigades to any fight save that with a peer competitor. The Commission’s rationale for the recommendation to keep some Apaches in the National Guard was for wartime surge. The term “surge” implies big and long conflicts and using the National Guard as a strategic reserve. But this question was never addressed, at least not directly.
The NCFA did address some other big issues, albeit only indirectly. It points out that the security environment is becoming more difficult and dangerous. It painted a dire picture of the future of the military overall and the Army, in particular. But it somehow found the proposed reduction of the Total Force to 980,000 and the Active Component to 450,000 “a minimally sufficient force to meet current and anticipated missions with an acceptable level of national risk.” A very political answer. The truth is that the Total Force could not handle two wars – Iraq and Afghanistan – simultaneously even when it built up the Active Component to 570,000. How could it hope to be successful in one war at 450,000?
The failure to directly address the inadequate size of the Total Force is replicated in the discussion of modernization. It seems to have escaped the Commission’s notice that the Army has literally no modernization programs in any of its major platform categories. In addition, it is wildly shortchanging investments in such areas as communications, electronic warfare and cyber security. The Commission did identify critical shortfalls in such areas as short-range air defense, chemical/nuclear protection and watercraft. Watercraft??? Are you kidding me? Again, this serves to obscure the reality of underinvestment in Army modernization which goes hand-in-hand with undermanning.
I testified before the Commission. I told them they had the opportunity to do the Army a great service by confronting the issue of size versus modernization. Simply put, under current defense budget projections we are either going to have an Army that is relatively large, but obsolescent or one that is smaller, but more modern. The Commission gave us the worst of both worlds: slightly smaller, but without sufficient savings to pay for modernization. In addition, it proposed that the Army pony up hundreds of millions more dollars to pay for a building a Rube Goldberg combat aviation capability in the National Guard.
As one long-time expert recently observed, the Army is undermanned, underequipped and under resourced for half the threats it is facing today. This should have been the headline emblazoned at the top of the NCFA’s Report. But that would not have been politically correct. Instead, the Commission buries its lead while providing 63 recommendations on a wide variety of topics. Some related to changing laws and regulations in order to make the Reserve Components more accessible makes sense. But the vast majorities are small beer and obscure the reality that the force structure and budgets the Commission says are “minimally sufficient” are in fact inadequate, and could break the Active Component and destroy the Total Force. In an election year, when national security is a burning issue, the Commission missed a golden opportunity to help frame the debate on national security, defense spending and the future of the U.S. Army.
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