FORT HOOD, Texas ― The United States Army, citing threats from North Korea, Iran, Russia and the Islamic State, has put its most powerful combat units on a war footing, ready to slug it out, if necessary, in high-intensity battle.
Even as GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump claims the military is “in a really bad state” and “totally unprepared,” the Army’s data show it is more ready for major combat than it has been at any time since 2003.
Here at the home of the 1st Cavalry Division, one of the Army’s premier heavy combat units, preparations for the possibility of war are forcing a relentless pace, as busy as at the peak of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan a decade ago. Troops are constantly in the field training.
But they’re not practicing the counterinsurgency skills that were needed in Iraq and Afghanistan ― foot patrols, small-arms firefights, tribal leader engagement and humanitarian projects.
Instead, battalions of Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles are practicing maneuvers and firing their weapons in the dusty plains of central Texas. Commanders are honing their ability to coordinate those fast-moving tanks with long-range shelling by heavy artillery, strikes by helicopter gunships and Air Force jets, and the movements of infantry. Combat engineers are plowing up walls of earth and digging deep ditches to thwart enemy tank attacks and blowing through enemy defenses of coiled razor wire and (simulated) landmines.
This is what the Army calls “decisive action” ― massive and sustained heavy combat that requires the complex synchronization of multiple military forces on a fluid and unpredictable battlefield. Think epic World War II clashes or “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.” Among the U.S. military’s range of missions, decisive action is the most difficult and the most demanding.
Trump and some other senior Republicans like to argue that the military has been “badly depleted” by President Barack Obama’s policies. They warn that U.S. forces lack modern equipment and require “major rebuilding.”
But 1st Cavalry officers look blank when asked about shortages. “Money is not one of my constraints,” said Col. John K. Woodward, who commands the division’s 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team. “The finite resource is time.”
Capt. Jeff Feser, who leads a tank company of the 3rd Brigade, stood recently on a broiling hot afternoon watching tanks hurl 120 mm rounds at distant targets as they prowled along five miles of Fort Hood’s Jack Mountain range. Combat commanders, he observed, never think they have enough.
“But we get what we need,” he said. “We’re gonna make it work, no matter what. That’s what we’re paid to do.”
A New Sense Of Urgency
Training for heavy combat is a major shift for the Army, which along with the other military services came to an uncertain pause five years ago as U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq and forces were drawn down in Afghanistan. It wasn’t clear if the military’s future lay in more counterinsurgency or peacekeeping operations ― or something different.
It was something different. The Islamic State and its rampaging forces emerged as a major threat to Mideast stability. Iran accelerated its drive to become the regional superpower. Russia’s armed seizure of Crimea and its bullying threats against Ukraine and the Baltic states served as “a real wake-up call,” Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster told a congressional panel in April. For the first time since the Cold War, the top brass saw that the Army needed to be no-kidding ready to deter or even fight a major conventional war against a strong opponent.
Then, U.S. hopes that diplomacy and sanctions could force an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program were dashed in early September when Pyongyang tested a nuclear device that was thought to be small enough to fit on a ballistic missile. That seemed to move North Korea, too, into the ranks of major threat while narrowing U.S. options for responding.
So there’s a new sense of urgency at Fort Hood and other bustling Army bases.
“For 15 years, the enemy has not been an existential threat,” Woodward said, referring to the potential destruction of the United States. “Now, Russia, China, North Korea and ISIS are a threat to the homeland, so we face a decisive-action fight to defeat one of those threats if necessary.”
Amid the geopolitical unease, commanders are pushing to raise the full combat readiness of their troops.
Combat and support units are being ordered on no-notice “emergency deployment” drills, practicing the skills ― largely neglected since 2003 ― needed to pack up and ship troops and heavy equipment overseas quickly. The Army is also stocking the supply bunkers, pouring money into ammunition and spare parts, with funds in large part that had been earmarked for developing future weapons systems.
The demand for Army forces ― from the regional combatant commanders who must assess threats in Asia, the Middle East and Europe ― has jumped by 38 percent in the past two years. With 65,000 fewer soldiers than in 2012, the Army is telling new troops in the armored brigades to anticipate deploying on a regular basis.
“We’re expected to deploy this division on very short notice,” said Col. Robert Whittle, deputy division commander at 1st Cavalry, explaining the brisk training schedule. “The Army is doing everything it can to resource us to do that. We have what we need, but we need every dollar, every training event, every person.”
This fall, the 4,000 soldiers of the division’s 3rd Brigade are training in the California desert ― maneuvering under live fire with long-range artillery, airstrikes, cyber attacks and drones ― before they deploy overseas in December for nine months. The 1st Brigade is currently deployed on a nine-month rotation to South Korea. The 2nd Brigade just returned from Korea and is training to deploy again. The division’s 3rd Cavalry Regiment and the division headquarters staff, meanwhile, are in the fight in Afghanistan.
The Army’s six other active-duty armored brigades are similarly busy, rotating to bases in Kuwait and now in Europe, where the Obama administration decided earlier this year to permanently assign a heavy combat brigade against the Russian threat.
“What we want is to deter ― nobody wants a war with a near-peer competitor, a great power,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Army chief of staff, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Sept. 15.
He pushed back hard against those accusations that the Army is unready and issued what sounded like a warning to any foreign leader tempted to test U.S. capabilities.
“Lest there be any doubt about Army readiness today,” Milley declared, “we are more capable, better trained, equipped, better led and more lethal than any other ground force in the world today. … Our enemies know full well we can destroy them. We can destroy any enemy, we can destroy them anywhere, and we can destroy them any time.”
What ‘Combat-Ready’ Looks Like
Out on the campaign trail, the issue of combat readiness seems to be misunderstood or misconstrued.
Trump asserts that “only one-third of combat teams are considered combat-ready.” He and other critics imply that the remaining two-thirds of the Army’s armored, infantry and airborne brigade combat teams are in total disarray, that anything short of having all 482,000 active-duty soldiers certified “combat-ready” for “decisive action” operations is a dangerous abdication of responsibility.
In reality, there are tiers of combat readiness.
The military prepares for multiple missions ― from training and advising allied troops, to more complex counterinsurgency operations, to decisive action ― based on high-level decisions about what warfighting challenges are most likely and which potential adversaries are most dangerous. No soldier, and therefore no army, can be at peak readiness for every conceivable mission at every moment.
Thousands of soldiers are not even assigned to combat units. Many serve as drill sergeants, personnel managers, intelligence analysts or in other jobs. Some have been sent to advanced military courses.
Turnover is an issue. About 75,000 seasoned troops will leave the Army this year, and it will begin training 62,000 new troops. In some 1st Cavalry battalions, one-third of the soldiers are privates.
We have what we need, but we need every dollar, every training event, every person. Col. Robert Whittle, 1st Cavalry Division
Money is a factor. Training is expensive; training for heavy combat is more expensive. Deciding how much to spend on current readiness and how much on future weapons systems requires a judicious weighing of present and future risks.
Training for major combat takes a human toll as well. Unless there’s a good chance those skills will actually be used, it makes little sense to require all troops to maintain the exhausting performance standards for decisive action.
Today, 21 of the Army’s 59 brigade combat teams on active duty and in the National Guard ― nearly 36 percent ― meet the highest standards of readiness: They’re prepared to immediately deploy into and win a high-intensity war against a great power like China or Russia. That means the Army has tested and certified their ability to excel at all levels of decisive-action warfare. It means they are also able to execute lesser missions such as counterinsurgency and the train-and-advise efforts the Army is conducting in Afghanistan.
The other 38 Army brigades are at varying stages of training, some certified for counterterrorism and others for counterinsurgency or limited high-intensity warfare ― missions that are less demanding than decisive action, but more likely to be used in the current environment.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost no Army units were trained to the standards of high-intensity decisive action. They were trained in counterinsurgency because that was the mission.
And no one complained that the troops engaged in combat were not “combat ready.”
‘We Are Lying To Ourselves’
In the years following the end of the Cold War, when no existential threat loomed, the Army kept about half its brigades ready for heavy combat. Now, the plan is to bring two-thirds of Army forces up to decisive-action standards within four years ― if Congress can come up with the money.
Between the future budget reductions mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act and the automatic cuts known as sequestration launched by that law, billions of dollars could actually be sliced from the Pentagon budget in the coming years. That would jeopardize the ability of the Army and other military services to meet the strategic goals set by this president ― or the next.
When Congress will pass a new defense budget or fix the chaos caused by sequestration is anybody’s guess. Lawmakers recently passed a continuing resolution that will allow the military (and the rest of the federal government) to limp along under current spending levels until after the election.
“We are lying to ourselves and the American people about the true cost of defending the nation,” thundered Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, at the Sept. 15 hearing. “Who is to blame for the increased risk to the lives of the men and women who volunteer to serve? The answer is clear: We are!”
Beyond the budgetary logjam ― and despite Gen. Milley’s assurances ― there are questions about whether the Army, at its current size, can meet the demands of potential crises in Europe, North Korea and the Mideast.
The Army has nine heavy armored brigades in its active-duty force. Each one is already committed, either deployed abroad, just returning from a nine-month deployment or training to go. Five more armored brigades reside in the National Guard as a reserve force. “That’s it ― that’s all we got,” said Woodward, the 3rd Brigade commander.
Without mobilizing thousands of National Guard soldiers, the Army can keep only one heavy armored brigade in each of the three trouble spots at any one time. Is that enough? Couldn’t the Russians overrun that kind of force in Eastern Europe?
“Good question,” said Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost, who has served as deputy commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division and deputy director for operations at the Pentagon’s operations nerve center. He is currently chief spokesman for the Army.
Given the growing global threats, Frost said, the Army staff is studying whether it has the right mix of heavy armored brigades, infantry brigades and lighter units of Stryker combat vehicles. That analysis is ongoing.
At Fort Hood recently, Lt. Col. Andrew Kiser was running his tank battalion at an exacting pace. Only 10 percent of the troops he’s training have ever seen combat before.
There are few days off. With a spare hour, Kiser said, “you walk out into the parking lot and do battle drills.”
All his officers and sergeants participate in a mandatory reading program ― the current book is Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin ― and then write essays summarizing the main points. “We do PT [physical training], go to breakfast, then discuss,” said Kiser. Afterward, there’s a full day of tank gunnery.
And they keep an eye on the news. “You don’t know what [mission] you’re going to get ― Korea, Kuwait or Europe ― and counterinsurgency or decisive action or humanitarian operations. So you’ve got to train for all three,” he said.
“That’s why time is the resource that constrains us the most. Everybody feels the crunch.”