While few have really taken notice, the U.S. Army conducted a large, coordinated rollout of a bold, new procurement and force structure strategy last week. It wasn’t loud, it wasn’t splashy, but the path is unmistakable: the service is pushing the idea of the small unit as the decisive land force of the future.
In fact, at the service’s annual AUSA winter meeting last week, presentation after presentation touted the idea of the “decisive soldier” and the need to train small units to fight everything from big wars to hybrid or irregular conflicts, while at the same time the Secretary of Defense hammered home the reality that the money just won’t be there in future budgets for large “exquisite” weapons programs.
(Also see what I wrote recently about the Army’s big Brigade Combat Team modernization exercises this summer at Ft. Bliss, which is part of the shift in focus.)
Malcolm O'Neill, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition told the AUSA audience that he wants to see some of the big names in defense contracting get involved in providing wearable gear to the individual grunt. “How many U.S. aerospace companies looked at improving the rifle,” he asked, “how come none of the big guys have thought about body armor?”
Noting that even small pieces of gear, when worn by every member of the 1.2 million-soldier Army would makes a big procurement order, O'Neill said that he wants the big players to get “into the soldier business,” since the profits would come in the sheer volume of orders placed.
In keeping with this focus on small units and individual soldiers, Maj. Gen. Robert Brown, commander of the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence, has been tapped to write what is being called the “Tactical Small Unit Document” that spells out the Army’s plans for innovating at the soldier and small unit level. The document should be released in May. Brown told reporters that “I don't think it's been done quite this way in the past, where you look at the small unit—it was kind of [about] looking at the soldier separately from the vehicle, from the network.”
This focus on small units and individual soldiers comes, no doubt, from several sources. One, of course, is the decentralized nature of the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the slim possibility that even near-peer competitors like China and Russia would be eager to get into a conventional slugfest with the United States. The second is the sobering reality that defense budgets will likely stagnate in upcoming years.
In a much picked-apart speech delivered to the cadets at West Point on Friday, Secretary of Defense Gates said that in the future, the Army is going to have to confront “the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements” and that “the strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions.”
In other words, be light, be fast, and be flexible, since “as the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely, the Army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size, and cost of its heavy formations” to Congressional and White House bean counters.
When Gates speaks, the Army listens. At AUSA just a day before the SecDef’s speech, O'Neill said that potential enemies know better than to try and tangle with the superior technologies of the U.S. Air Force or Navy, preferring to “take it to the one-on-one” against American ground troops, where they can use the terrain or irregular tactics to stymie soldiers. “We have the best combat attack helicopter in the world,” he said, “we’ve got excellent rotary winged aircraft. We’ve got excellent armored vehicles,” but “we’re [still] working on the soldier.”