Politics & Policy

‘The Army We Need’

The McCain/Obama debt to Rumsfeld.

In remarks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in April 2007, Sen. Barack Obama told an audience that “if the need arises when I’m president, the Army we have will be the Army we need.” The phrasing was an obvious shot at Chicago’s own Donald Rumsfeld, who in December 2004 in Kuwait told a deployed National Guard unit that the nation goes to war “with the Army you have.”

Given Obama’s hostility to Bush’s strategy in Iraq overall, it is probably futile to suggest that he owes Donald Rumsfeld an apology. But in fact, Rumsfeld was a key enabler to success in Iraq — no figure was more important in transforming the United States Army since the late 1990s, from a fixed, defensive force to a deployable, agile force capable of long-term expeditionary operations abroad.

Should he be elected, Obama could be forgiven for not acknowledging the debt. One unfortunate (if ultimately transient) side effect of the recent signs of progress is the perception that success came only when the new U.S. leadership at the Pentagon and in Baghdad undid everything that came before. That perception has been stoked during this presidential campaign; Sen. John McCain has run against “Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon” in a fashion reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s use of a short recession in 1991 to paint the entire Reagan era as a failure.

But whoever occupies the Oval Office after next January will have benefited immeasurably from the tough, even controversial decisions by Rumsfeld that led to many of the capabilities we see in Iraq — and Afghanistan — today. In particular, two widely criticized decisions within the first two years of the Bush administration — canceling an out-moded and costly (but politically popular) weapon system and naming a retired four-star general to become the first Army Chief of Staff with roots deep in the special-operations community — helped accelerate the Army’s transformation.

Also, the expansion in the numbers and capabilities of U.S. Special Forces and their centrality to key achievements in Iraq had no stronger push behind it than from Rumsfeld; ditto with the growing use of increasingly capable unmanned aircraft by the Air Force.

It is helpful to reflect on what the Army looked like at the end of the last century. Some will recall the late 1990s, and the difficulty that U.S. ground units had when sent to Albania to possibly support the Kosovo bombing campaign. The large echelons would have had difficulty getting into the fight if called upon, because there were so many bridges that would not support the weight of the tanks. After a half-century of presence in Europe and just a few years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Army was optimized for staying in defensive positions to deflect and destroy attacking Soviet divisions.

There was general acceptance by defense thinkers, including many inside the Army, that the future of conflict would be different from the past, and that U.S. forces — the Army in particular — would have to be organized and equipped differently than they had been. No one quite knew what that meant or how to get there.

This transition was a key element of a 1999 national-security speech at the Citadel by then-candidate George W. Bush. The parallels with Obama’s speech to Chicago last year are noteworthy: an untested leader aspiring to be commander-in-chief lays out his national-security priorities.

Governor Bush’s Citadel speech was clear on some points that even his detractors will have to acknowledge. Two years before 9/11, and a year before the attack on the USS Cole, the Texas governor declared: “I will defend the American people against . . . terror.”

More generally, Bush’s Citadel remarks reflected nearly a decade’s worth of thinking by many who believed, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, that the Cold War Army had served its purpose as a defensive bastion against Communist expansion in Europe, and that future capabilities must be quite different. Bush laid down this marker for what he ultimately asked his secretary of defense to undertake:

Our forces in the next century must be agile, lethal, readily deployable, and require a minimum of logistical support. We must be able to project our power over long distances, in days or weeks rather than months. . . . On land, our heavy forces must be lighter. Our light forces must be more lethal. All must be easier to deploy. And these forces must be organized in smaller, more agile formations, rather than cumbersome divisions.

As obvious as that may sound today, these ideas generated controversy within the Army in 2001. The serving Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, was an advocate for such transformation and had to tell his reluctant comrades: “If you don’t like transformation, you are going to like irrelevance a lot less.” (Rumsfeld liked that statement so much he later added it to his collection of such aphorisms known as “Rumsfeld’s Rules.”)

The effectiveness of the Army “industrial establishment” at sustaining the status quo was nowhere more evident in 2001 than in their chosen weapon of the future, the Crusader artillery system. Ready for full-scale production, the Crusader weighed more than 30 tons and required multiple cargo aircraft to deploy. While it may well have added significant capability to traditional standing divisions, even its most ardent advocates recognized there was nothing rapidly deployable, agile, or light about it.

In April 2002, after many months of assessments, the relevant program assessment and budget offices within the Department of Defense recommended to Rumsfeld that the Crusader weapon system be canceled; Rumsfeld accepted the recommendation. Given the success of General Franks’s war plan in Afghanistan — a model of rapid deployment, speed, and lethality — and with planning underway for a possible regime change in the Middle East, even the name “Crusader” became seen by many inside the Department of Defense as symbolic of the Army’s flirtation with irrelevance

The Crusader cancellation was a wildly unpopular decision inside the iron triangle of defense spending in Washington. An influential cadre of retired Army general officers immediately took up the cudgel against the decision, and the termination was actively opposed by then Army Secretary Tom White, himself a retired general officer. Rumsfeld and others conducted a systematic counter-offensive, and spent a great deal of time explaining the rationale to members of Congress in both parties. By narrow margins, the relevant committees agreed to suspend funding.

The decision eventually unlocked tens of billions of dollars for developing a networked artillery system designed around greater deployability, agility, lethality, and precision. There were other positive effects. Canceling the Crusader forced a discussion on terms with which Rumsfeld and others were quite comfortable: Are we going to transform the Army into something notably different from what it was during the Cold War, or not? The Crusader decision also made the subsequent cancellation of other costly, anachronistic systems, including the Comanche helicopter, much less controversial.

The second decision that proved key to Army transformation was Rumsfeld’s success in persuading retired special forces four-star Pete Schoomaker to return to active duty as the chief of staff of the Army, to follow General Shinseki when his term ended in June 2003.

General Schoomaker was a highly regarded officer, a former commander of Delta Force whose final position was as commander of the Special Operations Command from 1997 to 2000. Selecting an officer from this community sent a strong signal that Army transformation was real. In General Schoomaker, Rumsfeld found someone with the credibility, intellect, and impatience to accelerate the shift.

For the traditionalists, nothing symbolized the debate more than the question of just how many divisions the Army should have. Schoomaker’s answer was: wrong question.

The tradition of organizing and measuring strength around the division system has origins that extend back across centuries of American tradition. In defense of fixed positions or lines of security, such as the inner-German border or the Korean DMZ during the Cold War, the division-based force had merit.

For today’s era, though, there are drawbacks. First, it is difficult to “break apart” a division and deploy just part of it. To create the gradual build-up during the pre-invasion period in late 2002 and early 2003 needed for diplomacy to take its course, Gen. Tommy Franks did just that; this disrupted units and families, and greatly stressed the outdated logistics process.

Another problem is that divisions tend to be organized around particular functions: heavy armored divisions, more maneuverable cavalry divisions, and the like. The ten or so active divisions are in many ways uniquely organized, trained, and equipped. During a rotation of forces, replacing one division with another does not necessarily result in the consistent application of similar capabilities over time.

Schoomaker and his leadership team refined the Army’s reorganization plan around so-called enhanced brigades. They created about 35 or 40 brigades comprised of a similarly equipped and sized units, and about that number of reserve brigades of nearly equal capability. This has led to an unprecedented degree of Army flexibility and deployability.

To many, fiddling with the division system was seen as un-doing the Army, and the traditionalists balked about Rumsfeld “breaking the force.” Certainly there is stress on today’s force; can it ever be otherwise during wartime? It is undeniably true, though, that the Army today does what would have been very difficult just a decade ago, in sustaining a rotation force of about 150,000 troops in Iraq. The enhanced-brigade concept is the underlying enabler of the continuous presence that the United States has maintained in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Equally critical to continued success in Iraq and Afghanistan is the growing relevance and capability of the Army Reserve and National Guard, which in many instances had failed to keep up with the active Army in terms of war-fighting capability. Rumsfeld, Shinseki, Schoomaker, and others have given true meaning to the Army’s long-time moniker “One Army.”

When it comes to his relationship with the Army, Rumsfeld has been wrongly maligned for his comments to a National Guardsman in Kuwait. Even as he spoke those words, the Rumsfeld Pentagon had embarked on a program of accelerated Army transformation. Without this, it is possible there would have been no surge in Iraq, because there would have been no stable, sustained presence from which to surge. These were not easy decisions, but they turned out to be critical and correct ones. And either Senator McCain or Senator Obama will benefit, whether they acknowledge it or not.

– Lawrence Di Rita held various civilian positions at the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2006. A former naval officer, he served on a guided missile cruiser in Operation Desert Storm and was on the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1991-1993.


The Latest