Rethinking the U.S. Army

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Times Staff Writers

Absorbing the lessons of a troubled war, U.S. military officials have begun an intense debate over proposals for a sweeping reorganization of the Army to address shortcomings that have plagued the force in Iraq and to abandon some war-fighting principles that have prevailed since the Cold War.

On one side of the widening debate are officers who want many Army units to become specialized, so that entire units or even divisions are dedicated to training foreign militaries. On the other are those who believe that military units must remain generalists, able to do a wide range of skills well.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates is expected to weigh in today in a major address in which he will warn that the Army is unlikely to face a conventional war in the future and must reorganize to fight in unconventional conflicts.


According to senior Pentagon officials who have been briefed on the speech, Gates will not take a hard position in the debate over training foreign militaries but is expected to emphasize that the task is important and could prevent future wars. His comments are expected to accelerate the debate within the Army about how best to prepare for the next phase of the Iraq war and for future conflicts.

Gates also will single out the need for changes in Army personnel policies to better recognize and reward young officers who show promise in less traditional areas, including those skilled in foreign languages and in advising foreign forces.

Gates, who will address the largest annual gathering of Army officers in Washington, is expected to emphasize that many of these nontraditional skills were learned during the Vietnam War but quickly forgotten, leaving the Army unprepared for ensuing conflicts in Haiti, Somalia and ultimately Iraq.

“He doesn’t believe anyone is going to take us on conventionally in the near future,” said one Pentagon official familiar with Gates’ thinking. “We can’t forget the things we learned in Iraq after Iraq.”

Radically different view

The view of the Army in the current debate is radically different than under the previous Defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld advocated a smaller Army with faster, more technological units that did not participate in nation-building activities. Rumsfeld considered training foreign militaries to be the duty of small numbers of special operations forces, not conventional Army units.

The debate over training foreign security forces has grown more urgent following the decision by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, to begin drawing down forces in Iraq over the next year. Decisions over the shape and organization of the Army will directly affect the post-”surge” phase of the war, which will see fewer combat troops and an increased emphasis on training and advising Iraqi forces.


In sometimes emotional sessions underway at the Pentagon and military institutes, including a recent war game exercise, Defense officials have been weighing proposals ranging from modest alterations that would add new specialties to major changes in the way the Army fights.

Most officers believe the Army will need to focus on training other foreign militaries in years to come, both in Iraq and in other countries.

Some officers, including one of the Army’s most prominent counterinsurgency theorists, believe a designated force of trainers, or “advisor corps,” is needed.

But others, including Gates’ senior military advisor, oppose creating specialized units. They argue that a more effective strategy would be to ensure that all military leaders are able to train security forces.

Army officers at Ft. Leavenworth, where the Army’s most important doctrine is created, have been working for two months on specific proposals to create training units for the Pentagon’s worldwide commands. Last week, officials from the Pentagon, State Department, Special Operations Command and other military groups took part in the war game to evaluate various proposals for the teams.

Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, who oversees the Army schools and research institutes at Leavenworth, said the proposals would create a dedicated unit of trainers who could be assigned to each of the commanders of the worldwide regions.


“The concept here is a very specific focus: They do not do direct action; they do not command and control combat forces; they are not a combat force,” Caldwell said. “Their mission is to do security-force assistance.”

The size of the proposed units is undecided, and the war game at Leavenworth examined at least three different organizational structures. Army officers familiar with the proposals say the units could be supplemented by other soldiers when needed. But where those supplemental forces would come from is one of the key issues in the debate.

A senior Pentagon official said Gates in his address today would stop short of directly advocating an advisor corps. But Gates reportedly will emphasize that shoring up allies will be central to the Army’s mission, even after Iraq.

The leading advocate of establishing a stand-alone advisor corps within the Army is Lt. Col. John Nagl, a co-author of the Army’s new counterinsurgency field manual who is considered a rising star within the service.

In an article published in a policy journal in June, Nagl, who served as an operations officer in a battalion in Iraq three years ago, proposed a permanent force of 20,000 advisors.

“It requires a different focus in training. It requires a different mind-set,” Nagl said in an interview. “Forces practicing advisory skills also need a particular way of looking at the world.”


As the number of combat troops in Iraq goes down, the demand for advisors will increase, Nagl expects. Under current plans, the Army’s strategy to expand by 65,000 soldiers would add new combat troops to traditional infantry brigades. However, some have argued that these new soldiers could be assigned to the advisory and training missions as well.

“If we need advisory teams for a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, it makes sense to build this force structure permanently,” Nagl said.

In his speech, Gates is expected to emphasize that such training missions could prevent future wars. The senior Pentagon official said Gates still believed the Army should continue training for conventional wars -- skills that have begun to atrophy as it focuses on counterinsurgency missions in Iraq. But by emphasizing training and advisory missions, he appears to be aligning himself with reformers like Nagl.

“We don’t want to do the fighting; we want our friends to do the fighting,” said Nagl, who trains military advisors at Ft. Riley, Kan. “And the better our training teams are, the more rapidly we increase the abilities of our friends and our allies.”

High-level disagreement

But the proposal has sparked disagreement. In an article in the current issue of the academic Army journal Military Review, Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the former day-to-day commander in Iraq who is now Gates’ military assistant, argued against the creation of a dedicated advisor corps.

As a division commander in Iraq, Chiarelli was one of the first officers to create teams to train Iraqi forces. But Chiarelli argued that training should be performed by special operations forces, the military units that have traditionally done most advisory and training work.


When a training mission grows too large, Chiarelli wrote, the military should draw additional trainers from existing brigades. Such an arrangement would ensure that the trainers and combat units worked closely and supported one another’s efforts.

In the article, Chiarelli argued that the Army must adapt to changes in warfare but that specialized units would be a mistake.

“We simply don’t have the resources to divide the military into ‘combat’ and ‘stability’ organizations,” he wrote. “Instead we must focus on developing full-spectrum capabilities across all organizations in the armed forces.”