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Lightening the Army: Déjà vu all over again

 More than a year before the beginning of our recent military unpleasantness in Iraq and Afghanistan  the latter not yet concluded, we should remember  the Washington Post reprinted a Constitution column resulting in its brief notoriety in military circles. 

Entitled "Rethinking The U.S. Army's Need For Speed," the column argued that overemphasis on strategic mobility risked fielding an Army that, however rapidly deployable, might prove ineffective and even unsurvivable on arrival in the battle area.

"Successful deterrence," the column argued, "may depend far less on the speed of external intervention than on the perceived inevitability of its results. Not how quickly U.S. forces confront an aggressor, therefore, but rather how powerfully, may be the vital factor in deterring a war just as it is in winning one."

An article this week in the on-line journal DefenseNews recalled that column. It reports a renewed effort by service planners to "lighten" Army forces with a view to making them more "expeditionary"  that is, more readily transportable to future overseas trouble spots.

"To that end," the article notes, "the service is looking for technologies that will allow it to piggyback on existing communications networks while deployed, and wants lighter vehicles that can be quickly shipped to a hot spot should US ground forces be called upon for combat or stability operations."

"Lighter vehicles," of course, means less protected vehicles. We learned what that meant to our sorrow in Iraq and Afghanistan, where lightly armored vehicles such as Strykers and armored Humvees proves easy victims to IEDs, never mind any insurgent with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

One result was the purchase of more than 27,000 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs, in the jargon)  effectively massively armored trucks  at a cost of more than $45 billion. Nearly as heavy as Bradley fighting vehicles at close to 20 tons, but lacking their firepower and off-road mobility, MRAPs were anything but poster children for rapid deployment. 

Indeed, what to do with them now is a challenge. Asked that question awhile back, former Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Conway replied, "Wrap them in shrink wrap and put them in asphalt somewhere is about the best thing that we can describe at this point," adding unnecessarily, "As expensive as they are, that is probably not a good use of the taxpayers' money."

Meanwhile, lighter and more readily transportable combat vehicles like Stryker have their own problems. In a recent force-on-force exercise at the Army's National Training Center  the first in many years to confront the friendly force with a conventionally-armed mock enemy  one Stryker-equipped unit relearned the penalties of inadequate armor protection dramatically.

 As reported in the Tacoma News Tribune, tasked to recon the top of a hill, the troop of three Stryker platoons was destroyed in minutes by a single "enemy" armored vehicle, which killed the first two Strykers as they tried to reach their objective and the last as it attempted to retrieve the resulting casualties. 

That wasn't the first time that NTC had demonstrated the shortcomings of efforts to lighten ground combat units with a view to enhancing their strategic mobility. In the late 1980s, Army experiments with high-tech but lightly armored "motorized" forces proved uniformly unsuccessful.

 The irony is that, as the DefenseNews article points out, echoing that column of fifteen years ago, "While the service is selling the message that speed is of the essence as it transforms to meet an unpredictable future, history shows that mass concentrations of US ground forces have rarely, if ever, been called upon to strike at a moment's notice."

In that regard, it's worth recalling that neither of the U.S. Army's most successful recent campaigns  in Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003  followed precipitate deployments. On the contrary, both followed lengthy build-ups of heavy combat formations. 

Indeed, it can be argued that, in both cases, the speed, ease, and relative dearth of friendly casualties with which U.S. and allied forces demolished their Iraqi opponents was a direct benefit of those build-ups and the superior combat power they furnished.

What was true twenty-three and twelve years ago hasn't changed materially since, except that the weaponry available even to unconventional enemies has only become more lethal. Hence the advantage accruing to protected mobile ground combat power has if anything increased commensurately.

Given that reality, revived proposals to lighten the Army have all the flavor of Einstein's famous definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Instead, Army leaders need to demonstrate what anticipated threat so clearly demands the precipitate deployment of Army combat forces that responding to it justifies jeopardizing their ability to defeat it.

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