The U.S. Army has 10 active-duty fighting divisions. Almost all are at 100 percent strength, thanks to Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who cut some of the blubber from those bringing up the rear in an attempt to build more muscle up at the front.
But while Shinseki has shanghaied thousands of soldiers from depots, schools and headquarters – where about 70 percent of Army personnel are dug in – and shipped them off to fighting battalions, combat readiness hasn't improved down where the rubber hits the track. Scores of unit leaders from fighting squads to battalions say that when they deploy to a hot spot, they're lucky to put two-thirds of the soldiers they've trained into foxholes.
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"Unit manning continues to haunt us," says an infantry captain who asked that his name not be used. "General Shinseki might have had the best intentions by flushing out the TDA units – those outfits that bring up the rear – to fill the divisions 100 percent, but the reality is something else. When forced out from their ROAD – Retired On Active Duty – hiding places, most combat-arms soldiers, permanent profile in hand, report to the battalions where they're useless as they can't deploy. My 800-man battalion is currently over 100 percent strength, yet the equivalent of a rifle platoon doesn't man their assigned billets."
The 30 percent or more who are AWOL are somewhere in the division or post area. You'll find an infantry platoon sergeant working in the division protocol shop looking after the VIPs, grunts handing out towels at the gym, rifle-squad leaders keeping the how-great-we-are charts glowing at brigade and division headquarters.
This is an old problem and one that won't go away until the Army takes a hard look at itself. In Vietnam, my 884-man infantry battalion hit the paddies with less than 250 soldiers when I first took over. After much arm-twisting, we got our paddy strength up to 400, about half of our authorized strength. The rest were on profile – sick, lame and lazy, on R and R, at school, transferring in or out or detailed to higher headquarters, reinforcing that already-oversized octopus.
Shinseki is right that the solution is to cut the fat – he just needs to go deeper. For example, there are so many active-duty military around the D.C. flagpole that it would take at least one full day at four abreast for this mob of staff weenies and support troops to pass in review at the Lincoln Memorial. If I were secretary of defense for just one day, Mr. Rumsfeld wouldn't recognize the Pentagon or the Washington metro area when he returned to duty 24 hours later. At least three out of four of the military types in and around the Pentagon would be on their way to fighting units.
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The Army has two other huge make-work headquarters – TRADOC in Virginia and FORSCOM in Georgia, each headed by a four-star with all the attendant pomp, ceremony and sycophants – that should be merged and then cut by 50 percent. Charts, staff papers and red tape don't kill enemy soldiers – trigger-pullers do.
Then there are the Army division headquarters, which are as obsolete as the horse cavalry. They should be replaced by agile, lean and mean regimental combat teams as was so brilliantly advocated in the book "Breaking the Phalanx," the author of which – Army Colonel Douglas MacGregor – was rewarded for his honest sounding off about needed reforms by being shuffled off to Fort Nowhere.
Of course, posts and bases must be staffed with the permanent manpower they need to support the line units. But these essential jobs – running ranges, doing instruction and maintenance – could be well-filled by retired soldiers instead of stripping the line units of able bodies.
Training and sending combat units into battle without all their players produces the same results as allowing the Baltimore Ravens to go out with only seven players against a full-strength New York Giants squad: the kind of slaughter that went down in North Africa in 1943 and South Korea in the summer of 1950.
The grunts who get to know the enemy on a very personal kill-or-be-killed basis deserve better.