The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
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Dirty Little Secrets
The Army Tries to Fix an Old, Old Problem
Discussion Board on this DLS topic
by James Dunnigan
February 15, 2004
After World War II, there were many studies into what made for effective combat units. One finding was that units that had troops who had been together for a long time in training and combat were much more effective. But for the past sixty years, the U.S. Army has not been able to implement that kind of wisdom. Instead, it sought to give everyone the maximum amount of experience and move them around every 2-3 years. Most soldiers admitted that the constant moving was bad for morale and combat readiness. But several attempt to fix this system have failed.
Now the army has announced the details of how it is going to fix this long standing problem and thus improve morale and combat effectiveness. The process will take several years, but starting this September, one brigade a month will begin the new 36 month cycle system. During that period, which begins with six months of intensive training, followed of 28 months of being designated as "ready for deployment" and then two months of preparation for another cycle, troops will be assigned to the unit who have the most time left in their service obligation. Most recruits opt for the three or four year enlistment (rather than the five or six year term.) Thus it will be important to fill a brigade up with a lot of new recruits each time it begins a cycle, and try to get more recruits to sign up for four years. Most recruits will need about six months of initial training before they can be sent to a brigade.
About half the brigade's troops will be careerists, so they can handle being there for the 34 months of training and deployability. Currently, it's common for a brigade to lose over half it's troops over a three year period, with many of those leaving because of a re-enlistment option (getting a new assignment as an incentive to stay in the army.) The new procedure is aiming to keep that kind of turnover to less than ten percent. This would include troops lost to injury or involuntary discharge (for bad behavior), as well as enlistments ending. It will take several years before this level of stability is reached. But just getting the turnover down to 30-40 percent will be a major improvement.
It's unclear if the army is going to confront one of it's major problems during the last sixty years; rapid turnover of combat unit commanders. In an effort to "give everyone a chance to command," there's been a policy of having officers command companies and battalions (the most crucial units when it comes to actual combat) serve short tours (one or two years) leading a unit. To make the new system work, you would want your company and battalion commanders running their outfits for the full three years. Actually, it should be possible to keep most of your NCOs in these brigades for multiple cycles. There are plenty of promotion opportunities for sergeants in the brigades, and having a core group of NCOs who had come up through the ranks in one brigade would provide tangible continuity. Other armies do this, and it works. Even in the United States, this approach is common in reserve and National Guard units. Having NCOs around who have been with the brigade for ten years or more adds a lot of stability and contributes to unit cohesion as well.
This is apparently what the army has in mind as it introduces another innovation; homesteading. This policy keeps a soldier at one base for 6-7 years. Currently, most troops get moved around every two or three years. This is very unpopular with wives and children, and over half the troops are now married (compared to 25 percent two decades ago). Since World War II, "homesteading" had been a dirty word, as it implied that someone (usually a senior NCO) had pulled strings in order to stay at one base for up to a decade. The implication was that the guy must have been up to no good. Times, and attitudes, have changed.
One thing that hasn't changed is the way "unaccompanied" (by family) tours of duty. The most common one is Korea, where for over half a century, troops have been sent there for 13 months of service. The army will keep sending troops over for those 13 month tours as individuals, but the subject of sending entire brigades over as a unit has been discussed. It has been announced that brigades, while on their 28 months of high readiness, can expect to be sent somewhere as a unit for six or 12 months. This might include service in Europe, where some combat brigades are still stationed. Over the next few years, it will also include Iraq and Afghanistan.
There will be a lot of institutional resistance to the new 36 month cycle and homesteading. Since World War II, the army, as an institution, has developed regulations, procedures and customs that demand moving people around frequently, and as individuals. The army has already identified several hundred of these "obstacles", and a lot of effort will have to go into working through them.