The Reagan Era and 18 Divisions

So Barack Obama has been elected. One of his campaign promises is to raise the strength of the Army by 65,000. That should be good for a couple of divisions. Right now, there are only 10 in the active Army. Back in the Reagan Era, there were 18. All things being equal, we’d say that the Army was just about cut in half. But all things aren’t equal.

When Reagan was elected, on of the major planks of his platform was a promise to rebuild a military that found itself in sad shape after Vietnam and the somewhat unkind ministrations of Carter. And for the most part he did what he set out to do. But it wasn’t just a matter of saying so making it so. You can’t just throw money at a problem and assume it goes away. For one thing, there is a limit to just how much money is available. And one of the biggest expenses in an army is personnel costs. So Congress was hesitant to drastically raise the ceiling on manpower for the Army. So, if you can’t add all the new people you want, how do you raise more divisions? You cheat a little.

Now, Reagan didn’t do this all by himself; he had a lot of help from the Army and the Department of Defense in coming up with this. But here are the three big steps they took.

1. Cut the fat- there were a lot of soldiers doing jobs that anyone could do. Things like running the gym on post. There’s no reason a civilian couldn’t be hired to do that. They also took an awfully hard look at the manning tables in existing organizations and trimmed a lot of slots to free up some bodies.

2. The light divisions-in addition to a manpower shortage, there was the problem of mobility. The Army had divisions that they couldn’t get into the fight because there was no way to move them from the US to wherever the fight was. The light division was the answer. By stripping a regular infantry division of every vehicle they could, they devised a division that could be transported by air. With fewer vehicles, the division didn’t need as many people either, since there were fewer drivers and fewer mechanics. Instead of having 14-15,000 people, a light division had about 10,000 soldiers. Now, once the division got to the fight, most of the troops would have to walk, but that wasn’t considered a terrible drawback for a division that was mostly intended to fight counter-insurgency operations.

3. The round-out brigades- the big way the Army found to save manpower was to do without. We’ve talked numerous times about the triangular structure of Army units. Under the “round-out” brigade concept, each active Army heavy division stationed stateside would only have 2 ground brigades. The third brigade would come from the National Guard. The thinking was that if a situation came up that required a stateside division to be shipped overseas, there would be plenty of time to call up the assigned National Guard brigade and ship them out as well. When Desert Storm came and the concept was put to the test, it failed miserably. I don’t mean to knock on the National Guard guys, but there was no way for them to reach the same standards of training as the active duty folks in such a limited amount of time. The Army ended up stripping a brigade from an active division that wasn’t being deployed and using it to round out the regular Army division.

While these steps were necessary to build an 18 division Army, it was a short lived creation. Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, under pressure to deliver a “peace dividend” the first Bush administration shrank the Army to twelve divisions. Under President Clinton, the Army shrank again to its present 10 division size.

4 thoughts on “The Reagan Era and 18 Divisions”

  1. the U.S. 3rd Armored division went on to glory in Desert Strom, but few people today know the a SGT Elvis Presley and a 2LT Collin Powell served together (briefly) in that division.

  2. Don’t forget basic training. Several Forst used to have basic and AIT before the 1980’s. Fort Bliss used to have basic until 1990, when basic went to Fort Sill.

    I remember a speeding ticket my father got on white sands missile range back on ’85. He went to traffic court (run by a BG, yes a general) who struck down the fine and gave him a warning. His signature took up the ENTIRE page. It seems being a “swivel chair” warrior did not agree with him.

  3. Hmm maybe. Obama also said he’d cut funding by 25%. That is rather a lot. He could of course cut research and equipment, not that that’s necessarily a good thing.

  4. To be fair, it was Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) who mentioned cutting the DoD’s budget 25%, not Senator Obama.

    Even if Obama did want to make rather drastic cuts in the defense budget, He’d run into strong congressional opposition, since even Democrat politicians like to see large defense contracts come to their districts.

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