The U.S. Army recently announced its plan to reduce its 45 combat brigades to 32 but to retain most of the combat capabilities of the 45 brigade force. This will be done by transferring many of the troops and equipment from the disbanded brigades to the 32 that will remain in service. This will increase most brigades to 4,500 troops. Each new brigade will have three infantry or armor battalions (instead of two, as most now do), 18 (instead of 16) 155mm self-propelled artillery vehicles (organized into three batteries instead of two), and more engineer troops (the equivalent of a battalion) for each brigade. The new BCTs (Brigade Combat Teams) will initially consist of 14 infantry (two infantry and one tank battalion), 12 tank (two tank and one infantry battalion), and seven Stryker battalions. Three of these 35 brigades will be disbanded over the next few years, but which ones has not been decided yet. By late 2017, the army expects to reduce personnel strength ten percent (to 490,000 troops from the current 547,000).
All this shrinking is due to the fact that the army is facing some hefty budget cuts (at least 5-10 percent over the next decade). Linked with growing costs (for equipment, supplies, and wages) it makes this cut even larger. For example, over the next decade, defense spending will decline from 3.6 percent to 2.8 percent of GDP. Several years ago the army did the math and concluded that it would have to cut manpower up to 80,000 by the end of the next decade and reduce combat brigades to as few as 32 (from the current 45) and total strength of 490,000 troops. Without the cuts training would have to be cut to the point where the troops would be unprepared for combat. The recent announcement simply confirms the initial army estimates.
These cuts are nothing new, as army leaders have seen it coming for some time. Four years ago, despite major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army went through a major reorganization. The end result was the increase in the number of combat brigades from 33 to 48 (soon reduced to 45 because of budget cuts). This required the transfer of over 40,000 people from combat-support jobs to the combat brigades. In doing this, the army got some experience in reducing personnel strength without losing capability. Most of this reset was completed, with all the new brigades ready for service, by 2010.
Six years ago, Congress ordered the army to increase its strength by 65,000 troops, and the army planned to add five more combat brigades. The army completed that personnel expansion, to 574,000 troops by 2009, but subsequent budget cuts reduced the combat brigade expansion. Then came confirmation of what the army expected all along, sharp cuts in the wake of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down.
The reforms and reorganization of the last decade make the brigades, not the divisions, the primary combat unit. The new brigades have more support units permanently attached and can be more easily sent off to fight by themselves. The most recent reorganization increased support even more. In the past, providing more support involved quickly adding (temporarily) a lot of support units to the brigade. But the new organization makes small support units part of the brigades and, more importantly, the brigades train using these support units and learn to work well with them. The divisions still exist but operate more like the corps has for the last two centuries (coordinating the actions of a few divisions and only having a few support units under its command).
Initially the new divisions had four of the new brigades but could control more (or less) in action. Now each division will go back to the old three brigades each. Initially each of the new brigades (or BCTs) had 3,500-4,000 troops (depending on type). There are three types of BCTs: light (infantry, including paratroopers), heavy (mechanized, including tanks), and Stryker (mechanized using wheeled armored vehicles). This larger number of combat brigades is achieved by reorganizing the combat units of each division into four brigades, instead of the current three. There are several independent brigades as well.
New weapons and equipment (especially satellite based communications and battlefield Internet software) enabled the army to get the same amount of combat power brigade, using fewer combat troops. The actual number of infantrymen and tanks didn’t change, but the number of communications, maintenance, and intelligence support personnel did. For example, increased use of robots, sensors, and computerized vidcam surveillance systems made it possible to do the same amount of work in combat with fewer troops. A lot of these new ideas, and equipment, were tested in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most of these items have worked well in combat.
This "reform and reorganize on the run" approach has enabled the U.S. Army to leap way ahead of its contemporaries in terms of combat effectiveness. This is causing a lot of unease in the military headquarters of the other major military powers.