WASHINGTON: “It’s not his call,” the Army general said.
The general was the Army’s director of strategy, plans, and policy, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow. “He” is the Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld, Snow’s superior by two stars and about three layers of bureaucracy. And “it”? “It” is all about how big the Army needs to be.
All the services are being squeezed by the sequester, as the ongoing automatic budget cuts are known. But none is under more intense assault from both inside and outside the Pentagon than the Army. And the Army — from Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno on down– is starting to very publicly fight back.
Another reporter and I cornered Maj. Gen. Snow just after his remarks to the Defense One conference here on what he called the “creeping hollowness” that sequester is creating in the Army. I asked the general about the pressure on the Army, citing Winnefeld’s argument that the nation can no longer afford large-scale, long-duration land wars, so the Army should not be sized to do them.
“It’s not his call, though,” Snow said at once.
“Listen,” Snow went on, “that future security environment… is going to require a suite of capabilities. OK, so Admiral Winnefeld, he certainly has got his thoughts, [and] in many cases, if you view the threat as things that can be addressed by technology, that leads you in a particular direction. [But] technology is not going to solve all of our problems in the future.”
“Look, I’m a guy in uniform who spent four-and-a-half years deployed,” Snow said. “When you got to make that call for fire, I want to know that plane [from the Air Force or Navy] can fire in support of soldiers in contact. But, but! At the end of the day, in this clash of wills” — the classic, Clausewitzian definition of war — “you’re going to require soldiers,” Snow said.
And you’ll need enough of them to handle a big war, Snow went on. “None of us want to do protracted land campaigns, but we don’t know” whether the nation can avoid them, as Winnefeld and many other strategists are arguing it must. “You can say things like that,” Snow said, but — to paraphrase the revered former Defense Secretary Robert Gates — when we try to predict what the next war will be, “we get it wrong every damn time.”
Snow wasn’t the only one to warn against the “no big land wars” assumption at the conference. “We would be fools if we think there’s never going to be another ground war,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican and Air Force pilot. After every major conflict, Kinzinger said, the temptation is to cut deeply into our conventional force, and every time it comes back to haunt us. “We do need tanks,” he told the conference. “We do need fighters.”
“None of us want to do protracted land campaigns, but we don’t know” if we can avoid them, Snow said. “We don’t where that next [war] is going to be, but I can tell you right there will be a next — and we just want to be able to fulfill our responsibilities.
That means, for now, restarting combat training — much of which was cancelled this year for lack of funds — and fighting against long odds to keep the Army’s manpower from being cut too deeply. Gen.Odierno has publicly said the “absolute minimum” is 450,000 regular active-duty soldiers, while the Sec. Chuck Hagel’s Strategic Choices and Management Review (SCMR) has proposed 420,000.
To protect manpower and readiness, the Army has basically given up buying almost any major new weapons systems for at least the next five years, the 2015-2019 period covered by the budget plan currently in the works inside the Pentagon. Assuming sequestration continues, as there’s every indication that it will, the service will prioritize near-term, incremental upgrades to existing equipment — though even there it is having to make cuts — and long-term, science and technology research to ensure new capabilities. But that leaves a gaping hole in the mid-term.
Most notably, Snow confirmed that the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle — for which two competing contractors have already submitted detailed designs and which was supposed to enter service in 2017 — is going to be, in essence, rolled back from its current “engineering and manufacturing development” (EMD) phase and turned back into a “science and technology” (S&T) program.
(“We are here to support the Army regardless of its ultimate decision on the GCV program,” BAE’s program director, Deepak Bazaz, told me in an emailed statement. You can almost hear the sigh behind the formal language. I’ve yet to hear from the other GCV competitor, General Dynamics).
While the Air Force and Navy try to protect their flagship weapons programs, the Army’s instinct under fiscal pressure is to keep people — if necessary at the price of modernization. That pattern dates back at least as far as the 1920s and ’30s, when the interwar army bought a bare minimum of those new-fangled things called tanks and airplanes.
“The Army’s capacity, our capability, is our soldiers,” Snow said, echoing a century of generals. “Our point is, hey, listen, let’s not be real quick to cut that capability, because once you separate these folks from the services, you’re not going to be able to get them back in the short term.” It can take 10 years or more to bring a new weapon from concept to fielding, but it also takes a decade to turn a new private into an experienced sergeant or a young second lieutenant into a mid-grade commander.
Today, after 12 years of war, the Army’s people have more combat experience than they have in decades, if not ever. (Rotation policies in Vietnam made for such high turnover that troops rarely had time to learn from experience, while World War II lasted only three years). So, said Snow, “we ought not to be too quick to shunt them aside.”
The difference between the Army today and the Army of past downsizings, however, is that while the service is still willing to cut weapons to keep people, it is not willing to cut training. But in the face of sequestration, it was forced to cancel most major exercises in 2013 because “operations and maintenance” accounts were the only ones liquid enough to pay for the sequester.
As a result, Snow told the audience at the conference, “there is a creeping hollowness in the force.” (He’s invoking the notorious “hollow Army” of the 1970s here). “We’re going to look good, we’re going to be getting paid” — in fact, Congress keeps increasing pay and benefits — “but we’re not going to be trained to respond to contingencies around the world and we’re certainly not going to have the equipment we need.”