How big should the Army be?

The Army is currently roughly 48 ground combat brigades, with a number of supporting aviation brigades and “fires” brigades (what used to be called field artillery brigades). The strength very roughly equates to 12 divisions, or 4 corps.

Of the ground combat brigades, there are three main types: the Infantry Brigade  Combat Team , the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, and the Heavy Brigade Combat Team. The “Team” part of the name denotes that each of these formations has its own supporting arms and services organic to its design, such as artillery and logistics.  The Infantry BCT is primarily composed of light infantry forces, that is, those not mounted in either Bradley or Stryker armored vehicles. The Airborne and Air Assault units are IBCTs. The Stryker BCTs, are, of course, built around battalions of Stryker armored  vehicles. And lastly, the Heavy BCTs are built around the M-1 Abrams/M-2 Bradley armored vehicle teams.

Heavy BCTs bore the brunt of the fighting in the early days of the war in Iraq, and indeed, were a large part of the fight there, and continue to supply Advise and Assist Brigades to that theater. But Stryker and Infantry BCTs also made large numbers of deployments there.  Afghanistan has mostly been the province of the Infantry BCTs with recent deployments of Stryker BCTs to beef up the numbers there since President Obama took office.

The fighting power of the National Guard is organized along roughly the same lines, and their deployments have been roughly similar to the active components, but they lie outside the main scope of this discussion. It’s not that the Guard isn’t important, it’s that I haven’t really given much consideration to them, and want to digest that later.

Most unit deployments last about a year. And very roughly, about a third of the Army is deployed right now. There’s a rule of thumb that it takes three brigades to deploy one. One brigade deployed, one in training to replace it, and one recovering from its recent deployment.  So the question becomes, is the size of the Army determining the size of deployments, or is the size of the deployments driving the discussion on the size of the Army?

In an ideal world, I’d like to see an Army with roughly twice the number of BCTs that we currently have. But that’s just a fantasy. Almost certainly, given the reduction of operations in Iraq, and the likelihood of a drawdown in Afghanistan soon, we’re going to see calls to drastically reduce the size of the Army. And the Army, rather than cutting into its institutions, will trim that size by reducing the number of BCTs.  It will also resort to  leaning out the manning of those BCTs. For instance, if an Infantry BCT is supposed to have 5000 men, the Army will deliberately only man them at say, 4750, or 4500 men. That short handedness hurts the unit, but it is a lot easier to bulk up a unit in an emergency, than to reconstitute a unit from scratch.

In any event, for 20 years, since the fall of the Berlin wall, we as a nation have deliberately kept the size of the Army quite small. While recruiting to fill the ranks of a half million man active duty seems challenging enough, it wasn’t that long ago we were able to recruit for a much larger Army, albeit with marginally looser standards.  And ironically, as the size of the Army has shrunk, the number of missions it has been called upon to fulfill has grown greatly. While the number of troops stationed in Germany is a shadow of what it once was, we now have deployments throughout the world, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the 90s, the Army found itself deploying brigades to the Balkans to provide stability to that troubled region, and we’re still there.

How far can we safely shrink our Army? What should be the balance between heavy, Stryker, and light formations? What current missions should the Army convince the political leadership to slough off? Where is the Army deployed or stationed that it shouldn’t be? Where should the Army be that it isn’t?

Slightly off topic, if I was Chief of Staff of the Army for one day, the first change I would make? I’d go from a 9 man rifle squad to an 11 man rifle squad.

12 thoughts on “How big should the Army be?”

    1. I disagree with this. If you want to control costs, don’t be so quick to pay the high rates the contractors usually charge. I am all for that, and in my last job, I controlled that where I could. For example, one of my units wanted to spend almost $40k to have locals clean their headquarters, and I nixed that. But, I see no need to have US Soldiers handling the disposal of black/grey water on a FOB, pulling KP or cooking, even pulling security on less-critical posts. I don’t need a US Soldier doing my laundry, and to be frank, those times that they did, it didn’t get folded nearly as well…. We have been, currently are, and will be in the future, severely limited on our force structure and endstrength. I want that force structure to be guys that pull triggers, not guys that cook eggs and burn trash. I can train cooks for operations in austere environments. Even with regards to the cost, yeah we pay a fair amount to the contractors, but studies show that usually this support is coming in cheaper than the military can handle it. LOGCAP is not a new program, it has been around for decades. The use of a TCN or LN is particularly cheap as there are no long-term costs assocated with them. No VA bills, no eventual retirement, no GI paycheck, no life insurance payout and all the associated benefits that come with the death of a US Soldier; for that matter, less Americans getting killed, period. Control the contractual costs, don’t do away with the program. And get a handle on all the crooked contracting officers in the military.

  1. The number of BCTs was determined totally by developing enough headquarters to meet the anticipated mission in Iraq. That is, we need X number of BCTs (using the 1/3 ration that you mentioned) to conduct operations in OIF. Since we have a finite end-strength, the army was forced to man the IBCTs and HBCTs on the cheap by giving them only two maneuver battalions (Infantry Bns in the IBCTs and Combined Arms Battalions (CAB) (Tank and Bradley in the HBCTs) and a reconnaissance squadron, as well as the fires, support, and special troops battalions. On the other hand, the SBCTs have 3 Infantry Battalions, and one recon squadron, but no Brigade Special Troops Battalion (BSTB). The army has now removed the engineer companies from the CABs, placing one in the Brigade Special Troops Battalion,and doing away with the other, currently leaving an HBCT with one engineer company, which is totally unacceptable for maneuver warfare. The army has realized the error of its force structure and, with the drawdown in Iraq meaning that we don’t “need” as many BCT HQs, they are well along in the planning for putting a third maneuver battalion and an engineer battalion into the HBCT and IBCT. This is good since recon squadrons ARE NOT maneuver battalions by mission, skills, or manning. By the way, pretty much all maenuver above the squad is based on threes, so that third battalion will be handy. The future HBCT will probably look much more like the “battlegroups” that were described in the book “Breaking the Phalanx” which was the original call to end maneuver war-fighting based on the Division HQ. I concur that, once they establish these bigger Brigade Combat Teams, they will very likely be manned at something less than 100%. These BCTs will also take a hit in manning at the staff level, cutting several majors out of the staff. (For example, I had 17 majors on my staff; don’t ask me what they all did….)

    1. The current trend is away from contractors to maintain the equipment that doesn’t deploy (LBE), and toward leaving a larger rear detachment to maintain the equipment. When the Army went to the modular concept, the percentage of maintainers shrunk. If they deploy with even less maintainers, then they will have to contract for more. It is cheaper to pay a contractor at a stateside post that it is in SWA, but the money currently comes from a different pot. The other alternative would be to deploy more soldiers, but draw-down is the policy.

  2. Maybe I’m reading stuff wrong, but where are the extra guys going to sit in a Bradley or Stryker if you up the size of the squad? I thought that the compartments only held 7. Or do the crews of the Bradley not count towards the squad’s numbers? And Stryker carries 9 in the configuration we operate it in. But it looks like the max maybe 10 troopers.

  3. There are already too few combat aviation brigades to support the existing BCTs. If you increase the number of maneuver brigades, you need to increase the supporting elements as well. We’ve been at war almost 10 years and my aviation unit is about to leave on its 5th year long or more deployment…how’s that for OPTEMPO?

  4. This is not one Political Party vice the other Party, but American Citizens beginning to do a reality check. We will find the cost to be much higher then we ever expected over a multigenerational period of time. As a Nation, we need to work together and decide what we need, not what we want.

    As to your specific question, is in my view, off base. Rather than give you an arithmetic answer, I will give you a view of a view of my math process approach to this problem. Remember, this is just my thinking on this issue. You ask rightly, “How big should the Army be?” My change would be to exchange “Army” for “Whole Military”. Why? Our Military is an organic being of one mass. You don’t change just one part, you change the whole mass. I am most definitely not talking about downsizing the force in any branch. We do need to downsize our expectations, sadly, we can not solve all of the World’s problems.

  5. Army leaders better be stepping up, and quickly, to justify the need for boots on the ground and the TO&E to support that. Especially given the extra strong push in DoD in the direction of SeaAir to replace the AirLand Battle concepts. We’ll just bomb them all into submission, we don’t need no stinkin’ troops. I thought we’d already discredited power projection via air and sea at least twice, both times at cost to our young soldiers while we geared back up.

    I read recently that the move of Leon Panetta to Sec/Def is a signal that the reductions are coming. One move I liked by Sec. Gates at the end of his duties was the targeting of Flag/General office slots for elimination (over 140, I believe). Of course, that is only a good first step in evening out the tooth to tail ration of a gross over-saturation of chiefs to indians. Do that about 10 more times without cutting into the grunts on the ground and we’ll have come a long way in making a leaner, more effective force.

  6. How big should the military be? Big enough to handle any and all missions likely to be assigned to it by our civilian leadership. Plus enough to hedge against unforseen additional requirements. To rush in to cost-saving mode without a thorough and comprehensive bipartisan review of what the strategic mission of the US military is, exactly, is the height of folly. Mission sets aren’t predicated on how much money you intend to spend or save.

    1. I’m sure you don’t actually expect the Civilian “leadership” to actually sit down and think this through. I have as yet to see anything like that thought through in my short 56 years on the planet. The vultures see what they want and that’s what they go for. The rest can go hang for all they care.

      They’re about to take an ax to the military in hopes they can spend that money on their socialist dreams.

  7. Sure I expect the civilian leadership to do it. Both parties have in the past, and will continue to. There are certain documents, such as the National Defense Stategy, or the Quadrennial Defense Review that are produced on a recurring basis, regardless of what political party sets in the offices. They inform defense policy both broadly and in specifics. The current NDS was released a couple of months ago, under the current administration. These are the documents that state, for example, our old policy of being able to “fight two simultaneous conflicts” which morped into “near-simultaneous regional conflicts.” As you can see, simple statements like this can allow force structures of quite different size. If you tell me to fight two sequential regional conflicts, I can do it, but I can tell you that the hit to the force is going to be substantial, and don’t tell me to prepare for that, and then put me in three simultaneous regional conflicts. The key is that these strategies must be updated prior to “slashing” the defense budget. FYI, even the DOS has gotten into the act, and is preparing a State Department equivalent of the QDR. Not bad.

  8. First off, it’s great to see like-minded people concerned about the state of our Armed Forces.
    Second, to address the end comment, an Army rifle platoon contains 3 9/10-man rifle squads and a heavy weapons squad in addition to the platoon command element. Though the Marine Corps squads are 12-13 men strong, an Army platoon brings significantly more firepower to the fight thanks to its heavy weapons squad, as there are only 3 squads in a Marine Corps platoon and they are all rifle squads.
    I believe that our Army’s heavy forces are in dire need of our attention, as the Pentagon has become too enthralled in fighting urban counter-insurgency operations. IBCTs and SBCTs are taking priority over HBCTs, and two HBCTs (1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment) are actually being cut and restructured as Stryker Brigade Combat Teams. The Stryker is the Army’s attempt to bridge the gap between light and heavy forces, and while it has it pros and cons, if having 6 or 7 of them in the Army is what it takes to satisfy the leadership’s want of a fast motorized force (yes motorized, strykers by all accounts do not offer the protection levels, firepower, or off-road mobility of mechanized forces), then that’s okay, as long as it doesn’t cut into the heavy forces made up of M1A1/M1A2 Abrams tanks and M2A2/A3 Bradley IFVs and M3A2/A3 Bradley CFVs. If we were to ever face a conventional threat where the enemy has any sort of armored tanks or infantry fighting vehicles, it would not be the Infantry Brigade Combat Teams or the Stryker Brigade Combat Teams that respond, but the Heavy Brigade Combat Teams. An IBCT does not have the capabilities to deal with armored threats, and one SBCT comprised of almost 4,200 men and 335~ Strykers only has 9 Stryker TOW vehicles capable of destroying armored threats.
    Additionally, few people see the power of a heavy mechanized force in an urban environment. During the Second Battle of Fallujah (Operation Phantom Fury), 2-7 Cavalry and 2-2 Infantry (both mechanized infantry battalions with Abrams and Bradleys) were the key instruments in punching through insurgent defenses and allowing follow on Marine RCTs to clear houses without threats from major insurgent forces. it’s been proven in countless engagements in Iraq over the years that tanks and Bradleys do provide an excellent heavy combat force, should any serious threat arise. Now I’m not saying that heavy brigade combat teams are the end-all be-all of warfare on every level in any respect. Tanks are big and cannot fit down many streets in urban environments as well as pose a huge target and are just as easily disable by an IED as an MRAP is. Additionally, a tank rolling down the street at 3:20am in a quiet Baghdad neighborhood is not exactly the most tactful way to pursue “hearts and minds”, and the presence of a tank in general in a civilian environment creates a sense of occupation rather than rebuilding. IBCTs in humvees/MRAPs, and SBCTs in upgraded Strykers are excellent platforms to conduct COIN operations in an urban environment, as they allow the infantrymen to dismount and deal directly with the civilians as well as rapid response around a city should the need for the QRF arise. But the Stryker Brigade Combat Team fills a niche role, as they are not deployable to many parts of the world including Afghanistan (wheeled vehicles in general have a higher ground pressure per squad inch than tracked vehicles), and have an overall lesser level of mobilityand cannot counter heavy conventional threats that even 3rd world armies possess (7-72s, BMP-2s, BMP-1s, T-80s).
    At the end of the day, an increase in the number of HBCTs by as many as 3-6 (as well as maybe 1 or 2 more IBCTs) and supporting soldiers as well as an increase in the number of Aviation Combat Brigades to relieve pressure on their deployments would allow the Army to continue it’s operations in Afghanistan with less stress put on units, as well as enable the Army to be ready to deal with any future conventional threats or any future urban counter-insurgency operations.

    John

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