On Point

Shinseki's Berets Endanger Medium Brigade

by Austin Bay

In the mid-1970s, I served in an armored cavalry regiment positioned in Germany's Fulda Gap. As troops in a crack unit assigned to blunt the first waves of a surprise Soviet tank thrust so the rest of NATO could rev-up, we wore berets.

Berets are hats with hauture. While Parisian artists may have given the beret its first touch of international class, Britain's World War II paras and tank troops, and Gen. Bernard Montgomery branded it with military imprimatur. U.S. Army Special Forces (with media pump from John Wayne) added to that tradition.

It's too bad that U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki's decision to plonk black berets on the heads of all Army troops gave him a political black eye. After the EP-3 incident, the discovery that most of the berets were knit in mainland China added another bruise.

The beret fracas cost Shinseki political capital, the ammo of Washington. That hurts, because Shinseki needs clout to take his savvy medium brigade concept and field it, creating a "real world" unit for building the Army's "Objective Force," the goal of 21st century "Army transformation."

The most recent impetus for "transforming" the Army was the flop called Task Force Hawk. TF Hawk, which deployed to Albania during the Kosovo War, didn't get into the fight. Strategically, Army deployment was a secondary effort. The Clinton administration, reluctant to engage in ground combat, believed the Serbs would melt after three or four days of "precision" air war. Air war preparation came first.

While TF Hawk provided Albania with critical "political security" (a key point often missed by critics), logistical problems added to the usual crisis herk and jerk. TF Hawk arrived slowly. At least in terms of public perception, TF Hawk failed to meet Gen. N.B. Forrest's dictum for winning battles: Get there "fustest with the mostest."

Ironically, the Army has been seriously debating new combat organizations for three decades -- organizations designed to get there at the decisive moment with decisive combat power.

Shinseki's "interim medium brigade" is an attempt to move from critique to deployed capability. At the same time, the brigades would serve as "test beds" for technological advances the Pentagon anticipates over the next 15 years.

I've explained the Army's concept in "L's and S's." The Army intends to build forces that are.

  • Leaner: The new brigades cut supply requirements. For example, "hybrid-engine" vehicles reduce fuel requirements.
  • More Lethal: The units can coordinate fire support from space, air and sea, as well as employ new ground combat systems.
  • Speed: Lighter vehicles don't require as many air sorties to deliver from continent to continent; that's strategic speed. Helicopters can lift the vehicles from battle to battle; that's operational speed. The vehicles themselves provide tactical speed.
  • Increased Survivability: Brigade infantrymen ride armored vehicles. Paratroopers, once they hit the ground, move on foot and lack armor.
  • Silicon: The units maximize digital communications, leveraging surveillance capabilities, rapidly assimilating and disseminating intelligence and targeting information. High-speed information improves battlefield awareness, so that fire smacks the decisive target and troops take the decisive position.

While leveraging advanced technology is impressive and so necessary, what impresses me is the concept's strategic awareness.

With a little tinkering, the medium brigade slides into evolving Pentagon doctrine for standing "joint capability forces." The unit could provide the "fast strike but sustainable" ground component for a USAF "air expeditionary force." From an American warfighter's perspective, that's a plus.

But building a unit like this has an even more important (though perhaps subtle) strategic point. I don't diss technology, I advocate it. But the goal in warfare is victory, not gadgetry.

Smart weapons may "hold targets at risk," but they don't "seize and hold," and often seizing and holding is what is strategically and politically decisive. On the 21st century's media-intense battlefields, ground troops will often be the most politically decisive military force. In the war for hearts and minds, robots and smart munitions do not substitute for boots.

The medium brigade is about getting the right kind of boots ready for America's next war. I just tossed my beret back up on the shelf. It's sad that time has been frittered debating hats.

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