More missions, less money: That’s the dilemma the U.S. Army faces as it looks beyond Afghanistan. The service is certainly grateful that the all-consuming commitments of the last decade are finally winding down, but it’s still struggling to shift gears on a shrinking budget. After ten years of optimizing itself for protracted counterinsurgency – a mission explicitly disavowed by the Administration’s new strategic guidance – the Army has to relearn how to do a wide range of missions all around the world, from advisor work to disaster relief to all-out combat against adversaries like Iran. With limited resources of money, manpower, and training time, there’s a big debate within the Army over how to prioritize. The intellectual storm center in this debate is the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where the service trains its next generation of generals.
“Fiscal austerity requires deep thinking about the purpose of land forces,” said Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, who will take command of the War College in June. “It kickstarts the mental change that must lead the physical change” in budgets and equipment that he now oversees as director of force modernization at the Army’s headquarters staff. Above all, he said in a recent interview with Breaking Defense, “it is grabbing by the lapels and shaking awake those who might seek the comfort of a single threat.”
Cucolo has seen the dangers of an overly narrow focus first-hand. As a young officer, he grew up in the Army of the eighties, which fixated on the Soviet threat and forgot what the previous generation had learned about guerrilla warfare in Vietnam. As a general, he led troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where a new generation has grown up doing nothing but counterinsurgency. “You’ve got this group of leaders who’ve grown up now – the privates are now staff sergeants[,] the lieutenants are now majors,” said Cucolo. “They need this direction as they head back into an Army that is on a perhaps slower operational tempo[:] ‘Boss, what do you want me to train on?”
Like many other officers, Cucolo is convinced that the Army must now rebuild its big-war capabilities without losing its small-war skills. That requires institutionalizing the ability to adapt: The Army must do smoothly and routinely in the future what it did painfully and ad hoc in the 2000s, when it slowly realized that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had not ended with the defeat of the enemy’s regular forces, only mutated into new and irregular forms.
For the leaders of the future Army, “the agility you have learned over the last decade is valuable and will be applied, will be demanded and applied again and again and again,” Cucolo said. “You have to be prepared to reinvent yourself.”
An Army unit on a “security assistance” mission, for example, needs to be attentive to all the nuances soldiers have learned in Afghanistan and Iraq. You have to “look at a criminal activity in your area of operations and not assume it’s just bad dudes stealing stuff to make a buck; maybe it has a [political] purpose,” said Cucolo. But that same unit, perhaps even on that same mission, must also stand ready “to duke it out with somebody who has run up and down the aisles of the international arms bazaar with a blank checkbook and picked up sorts of stuff”: the so-called “hybrid” threat of a guerrilla organization that’s acquired nation-state firepower, like the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon or for that matter some of the Shiite cells in Baghdad that were armed with tank-killing “explosively formed penetrators” provided, again, by Iran.
“I can’t say to you, ‘we’re training for Iran’ [specifically]; we’re not,” Cucolo said. “We’re preparing to deal with a threat on the ground that they might present in a certain type of scenario. The service is taking a similar approach to North Korea, he said. “But we’re not totally focused on one of those [countries],” he emphasized.” We can’t just focus on one thing.”
So which possibility must the Army prioritize? “You focus on the hardest one,” Cucolo said. “The hardest one is high-intensity combat operations…. It involves air-ground integration, it involves intense and adaptable logistics tails, it involves disciplined, drilled units that can react to different levels of violence.” Of the many missions outlined by the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chief of Staff of the Army, he said, “if we focus on ‘deter and defeat,’ I firmly believe we can do almost anything else.”
But doesn’t that emphasis on the “high-intensity” sound unnervingly like the pre-9/11 fixation on nation-states, which rested on the assumption that an Army trained to defeat tank armies could handle “lesser included” cases like guerrilla war as well – an assumption painfully disproven both in Vietnam and in Afghanistan and Iraq? “We got smart,” Cucolo said. “In Iraq and in Afghanistan, you took a general-purpose force, trained for a combat mission, and you gave them plug-[in] capabilities” for local languages, training friendly forces, and so on.
Above all, the most important difference in the Army is a new awareness that the local people are a player to be reckoned with, not just passive bystanders. When he commanded U.S. forces in northern Iraq, “the most critical piece of terrain in my area of operations was the human terrain,” Cucolo said, showing a complex multi-layered map of intermingled populations: Kurdish, Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, Turcoman, Coptic Christian, even Yazidi. “My personal opinion, I don’t see us ever being presented with a situation where the human terrain will not matter.”
What does all this imply for Army force structure and equipment? That’s Cucolo’s current job, until mid-June: As director of force development on the Army headquarters staff in the Pentagon, he said, “I’m the caretaker of the five years of money that’s applied to equip the Army” across the Future Years Defense Plan. With the emphasis on adaptability, the most attractive investments for Cucolo are those that apply across a wide range of missions.
Above all, that means “mission command” – upgrading the high-tech communications networks that Army units use to plan and coordinate their operations. It also means the reconnaissance and surveillance systems that commanders use to figure out what’s going on, whether in a combat operation or a natural disaster: Having relied heavily on drones in Afghanistan and Iraq, Cucolo said, his first instinct when he was attached to Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré’s headquarters during the chaos of Hurricane Katrina was “get the UAVs out.” It also means helicopters, workhorse players to move troops and supplies in every operation from Katrina to Afghanistan. (Both drones and manned helicopters are have done well in this year’s otherwise bleak budget). But that same across-the-board usefulness holds true for humbler, low-tech items like wheeled tactical vehicles – where the Army is investing heavily in replacing its venerable and vulnerable Humvees – and gear for the individual foot soldier.
Rebuilding the Army as a general-purpose force capable of combat and non-combat operations across the board will be a hell of a challenge, Cucolo acknowledged. But with the current budget crisis forcing real change, he said, “I believe we have an opportunity” as well.