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Pentagon’s Plan to Eliminate US Army Division-Based Force Structure Unwise
by David T. Pyne
07 November 2003US Army

The Rumsfeld plan to convert each of the Army’s divisions into five brigade units of action is reminiscent of the Army’s failed Pentomic reorganization.


Following his unprecedented premature retirement of forty-seven US Army generals and with his installation of hand-picked replacements to lead the US Army nearly completed, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is on the verge of moving full bore to begin implementing long-planned reforms. The most radical of these reforms envisions the complete elimination of the Army’s division-based force structure. Rumsfeld and his hand-picked replacement as Army Chief of Staff, General Shoemaker, plan to replace it with a force structure based on dismounted infantry-centric mini-brigade units of action consisting of about 1800 men each more optimized to fight small wars, but less suited to fighting major conflicts.

General Shoemaker recently announced his plan to immediately begin implementing this reformed structure with the 101st Air Assault Division and the 3rd Infantry Division, which have just returned to the US following a long-term deployment in Iraq. Five mini-brigade size units will be derived from each of the two divisions, which will then be ready for action about a year from now, at which time they will be redeployed to Iraq. Each ‘brigade unit of action’ will consist of only two battalions, rather than the three to four battalions found in each of the Army’s current combat brigades. These mini-brigades will have a much smaller compliment of men and fighting vehicles than current brigade combat teams, but may have limited integrated artillery and aviation assets, as divisions do today on a much larger scale. The divisions themselves will then become similar to Army corps headquarters, which are little more than command and control units for attached subordinate elements. Once the reorganization of these two divisions is complete, General Shoemaker will then report back to Rumsfeld with a recommendation on the size of the Army, presumably a recommendation to reduce it by a yet to be determined level.

The Rumsfeld plan to convert each of the Army’s divisions into five brigade units of action is reminiscent of the Army’s failed Pentomic reorganization, which was implemented in the 1950’s, only to be abandoned several years later. The plan’s creators attempted to pass off these new 1800 man understrength regiment-sized units as brigades, despite the fact that they are planned to be between one-third and one-half the size of a modern combat brigade. This is reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s obsession with increasing the numbers of divisions in the German Wehrmacht during the Second World War and his insistence at manning them at only one-third to one-half of the division’s normal manpower to present the illusion of greater numerical strength. That is exactly what this reorganization would accomplish by replacing the Army’s current thirty-three large combat brigades with forty-eight much smaller regiment sized units. This planned reorganization of the Army from a division-based force structure to a brigade-based force structure, resulting in an apparent increase in the number of ‘brigades,’ would potentially enable Secretary Rumsfeld to conceal his planned reductions of between twenty and forty percent of overall Army manpower.

At the annual Association of the United States Army conference earlier this month, top Army officials including General Shoemaker confirmed plans to disband all of the Army’s heavy divisions and discard its tanks and tracked vehicles by 2025, without which major wars cannot be won. Shoemaker is also reportedly considering ‘transforming’ one of the Army’s six heavy divisions into a light infantry division by removing all of its tanks and tracked vehicle assets in the near term to provide more optimized units for ongoing occupation and peacemaking duties in Iraq. Given that the 3rd Infantry division is a heavy division and is already slated to undergo a major reorganization, it may well be the division selected for transformation from a heavy mechanized force to a light unarmored infantry force. 

This planned transformation of the Army to a smaller, less capable force seems to indicate that the Army leadership does not anticipate that major conflicts such as the recent US invasion of Iraq will be waged in the foreseeable future. It reflects the prevailing viewpoint in Pentagon circles that Operations Other Than War (OOTW) such as UN peacemaking missions and occupation duties will remain the primary focus of the US Army and that the Army must transform itself accordingly, if it hopes to remain ‘relevant.’ Secretary Rumsfeld has expressed his belief that all future wars the US military fights will be small wars like Afghanistan, requiring no more than 50,000 special forces and light infantry troops supported by airpower. However, if history teaches us anything, it is that the US will fight a major war that it did not plan on fighting sometime in the next decade or two. That being the case, any transformation effort that does not recognize that fact and disarms the Army of the very weapons that it needs to fight and win major conflicts will almost inevitably result in the unnecessary deaths of countless thousands of US soldiers in the future.

Army generals successfully defended the Army’s force structure from a two-division cut contemplated by Rumsfeld during the 2001 Quadrennial Review process, but it is doubtful that they will continue to resist such cuts for long in opposition to the autocratic Defense Secretary. Rumsfeld is accustomed to getting his own way and sometimes even resorts to firing those who disagree with him on matters of principle, as in the case of former Secretary of the Army Thomas White. The elimination of the Army’s divisions would provide Rumsfeld with cover for his longtime plan to slash tens of thousands of troops from the Army’s payrolls, despite the fact that the Army remains severely overextended in Iraq. It is unable to sustain the current level of deployments, forcing the call-up of tens of thousands of Army reservists and National Guard troops to fill the gap.

As recently as last year, Rumsfeld and his top confidante for transformation issues, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Steven Cambone, were reported to be continuing to plan to reduce the number of US Army divisions from ten to as few as six for a reduction of up to forty percent. The few remaining Army divisions would then be transformed into an all-wheeled force of motorized light infantry brigades without the tanks or tracked vehicles necessary to fight and win the major conflicts which will inevitably arise in the future. This plan would likely meet with considerable opposition in the United States Congress. However, Rumsfeld may find a way to bypass the congressional authorization necessary to approve his planned force reductions. A recent poll conducted by the Department of Defense funded Star and Stripes newspaper found that 49% of those questioned described their units’ morale as low and responded that they are “very unlikely” or not likely to re-enlist when their current service obligations are completed. 

There is another reason behind Rumsfeld’s plan to radically reorganize the Army’s force structure. Since the Vietnam war, the Army’s mobilization plan has ensured that the Army would have to rely upon reserve and National Guard units in any major or protracted conflict by ensuring that sufficient specialized units necessary to fight major wars could only be found by drawing upon the reserves. This policy, devised by former Army Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams, was intended to prevent the US Army from being used in no-win wars in the future. Now this policy is causing the Bush Administration headaches as reservists and their families complain about being sent to Iraq for twelve to eighteen months at a time, creating potential political problems for the president’s re-election campaign, so Rumsfeld is trying to change it. While changing the make-up of the active and reserve components of the Army will take several years to fully implement, once the changes are completed, it will make it easier for future Presidents to bog down the US Army in future no-win wars like the one now being waged in Iraq, without widespread public support.

David T. Pyne, Esq. is President of the Center for the National Security Interest, a national security think-tank based in Arlington, VA.

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