By DANIEL DAVIS
WASHINGTON – In October, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, said that because of budget cuts, only two of the Army’s 42 combat brigades were ready for battle. In November, he warned members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that if the nation had to fight in the near term, “it is unlikely that the Army would be able to defeat an adversary quickly and decisively.”
Such warnings have become common around Washington in the wake of the deep cuts to the Pentagon budget this year, and the likelihood of another round of reductions next year. Last month, for instance, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee warned that sequestration and other budget reductions “will bring our military to a force so small that a reassessment of our national security strategy will be required.”
But not everyone subscribes to the dire talk.
Last month, a group of retired senior-ranking officers argued before a packed audience at the Capitol Hill Club that despite the near certainty of shrinking military budgets, there are ways to trim the Defense Department’s spending without leaving the armed forces less-than-ready for combat. Their plan, they contend, could reduce the overall size of the military while actually increasing its combat power. And in doing so, it will support Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s call to revamp the military so that it remains sufficiently strong “under a cloud of budget restraints and uncertainty.”
Under the auspices of the Mitchell Institute, a nonprofit policy group founded by the Air Force Association, representatives of the Army, Air Force, and Navy presented a reorganization plan called the Macgregor Transformation Model. The plan is named after its architect, Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel who is the author of several books on reorganizing the military and also a decorated combat veteran. Mr. Macgregor says his plan can produce an increase in combat capability, even with smaller budgets.
In an August essay in The National Interest, two retired officers, Adm. Mark Fitzgerald and Lt. Gen. David Deptula, along with a West Point history professor, Col. Gian Gentile, described the Macgregor Transformation Model as “a comprehensive Department of Defense-wide reform plan.” The core of that plan, they said, would be reorganizing the Army and Marines combat forces into “plug-and-play” modules — that is, battle groups capable of deploying immediately for just about any contingency, without support units. The authors said that the plan had been recently updated to account for the president’s 2012 decision to focus more resources on Asia, as well as to the reality of reduced federal budgets. The model, they concluded, “enables the Army in particular to reduce its overall size yet increase its combat power and strategic flexibility.”
At last month’s Capitol Hill Club event, Mr. Macgregor said those deployable units, which he called “Combat Groups,” would replace the current brigade-centric system of organizing forces now. Combat Groups would include the major elements of fighting forces — maneuver, strike, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and sustainment units – making them self-sustaining forces that could still, as he put it, “punch above their weight.”
Mr. Macgregor also calls for shedding unnecessary or redundant personnel, reducing the layers of command while increasing the percentage of formations dedicated to war-fighting. He would, for instance, eliminate two-star division headquarters (whose function would be assumed by a smaller number of three-star Joint Task Force headquarters), reduce Combatant Commands to five from the current seven, and consolidate three different four-star headquarters (Training and Doctrine Command; Forces Command; and Army Materiel Command) into two three-star headquarters. The plan would also have a slightly smaller institutional Army than the one we have now by converting selected nondeploying positions from uniform to civilian jobs. All of these changes would be aimed at shortening the “tail” that supports the fighting force, while growing the “teeth.”
As a result, the plan’s supporters say, even at reduced budget levels, the Army would be able to field a greater number of combat battalions than it fielded in 2010, before reductions began. They estimated that even with 150,000 fewer troops, the reorganized Army could field an armored force containing almost 500 more tanks than during its peak year of 2010. A similar gain was projected for artillery, infantry, aviation and engineer units. All told, they say, the Army could reduce its current size of approximately 551,000 troops to as low as 420,000 without losing effectiveness. And more of those troops, they say, will be ready for deployment than is currently the case.
In his opening remarks at last month’s session, General Deptula, who is dean of the Mitchell Institute, said the Defense Department’s force structure had existed in its current form since 1942. “The time has arrived,” he said, “to reform and reorganize the Department of Defense toward joint operations in both word and deed. When a single service attempts to achieve war-fighting independence instead of embracing interdependence, jointness unravels and war-fighting effectiveness is reduced.”
Of course, a change as significant as the Macgregor model is likely to have its share of detractors both in the Pentagon and Congress. So far, the Pentagon seems to be silent on the plan. But two people in the audience at the Mitchell Institute event, one a liberal, the other a conservative, told me the ideas in the model are gaining traction among congressional staffers from both parties, spurred by the likelihood of new spending cuts.
“National defense isn’t a partisan issue,” said one. “It is an American issue.”
Daniel L. Davis is an active duty lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, stationed in the Washington, D.C. region. He has deployed into combat zones four times, and was awarded the Bronze Star for valor during Desert Storm and a Bronze Star in Afghanistan.
The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Department of the Army or Department of Defense.