A recent announcement by the Army to begin regionally aligning brigades with each of the six combatant commands is certainly an innovative idea. There is, however, more to this initiative than simply pairing up units with specific regions. While each aligned unit will undoubtedly benefit from the language and cultural training gained to better execute their respective missions, issues of how enablers will be used, the lack of an adaptive personnel system to accompany the effort, the threat of recidivism towards "unit favoritism," and a distinct lack of training focus are all critical issues that require further thought if this concept is going to succeed in the future.
This past March, the Army Chief of Staff, General Ray Odierno, announced a daring new initiative to begin aligning brigades with each of the six global combatant commands (GCC). This plan will allow Army units from the total force − the active, Reserve, and National Guard components − to better support the needs of each combatant commander. At the same time, it promises to generate individual soldiers and organizations who are better trained for specific regions of the world. Wishing to maintain an expeditionary mindset gained throughout the past 10 years of war, leaders are looking to capitalize on the recent success of the Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) cycle of reset, retrain, and deploy. This sequence has proven critical to providing trained and ready forces to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Aligning brigades on a regional basis is an option the Army is examining to see how the post-war service can better organize itself to deliver the "best capability it can to combatant commanders," said U.K. Colonel Andrew Dennis, an exchange officer assigned to the Army's G-3/5/7 office.
Driving this initiative is a combination of the newly published Department of Defense (DoD) Strategic Guidance - signed by President Obama in January - and the omnipresent budget cuts looming over every Pentagon planner's head these days. "Additional skills such as language and cultural studies would be added to a unit's normal training," Dennis said. Additionally, as General Odierno noted, "the regionally aligned forces concept will be especially important in the Asia-Pacific region as we move forward, home to seven of the world's 10 largest armies." In March of Fiscal Year 2013, a brigade from the Army's 1st Infantry Division will be the test bed to begin performing tasks in support of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Two more brigades could be on the hook for regional alignment by Fiscal Year 2014.
Benefits of Regionalization
Few would argue that this inventive initiative is, in fact, a bad idea. As General Odierno stated in a self-published article on Army Live, the official blog of the U.S. Army:
We have learned many lessons over the last 10 years, but one of the most compelling is that - whether you are working among citizens of a country, or working with their government or Armed Forces - nothing is as important to your long term success as understanding the prevailing culture and values.
Regionally aligning forces is a good approach for addressing the challenges of an uncertain global security environment. Having such a focus at the brigade level will undoubtedly result in the identification and ongoing resourcing of the proper training to sustain language and cultural awareness proficiency. This training, if properly resourced and learned, will become second nature to aligned units, thus improving operations, planning, and host nation partnering. Furthermore, soldier proficiency in language and culture can be immense combat multipliers - some might argue that these skills have even more value than the latest weapon or vehicle platform. Such specialization will allow for training that improves unit operational effectiveness beyond what their generic Mission Essential Task List (METL) can provide. The criticality of maintaining these skills is probably the largest lesson learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 10 years.
Regionally aligned forces will also inevitably reduce the cost of forward deploying or basing soldiers and families overseas in support of security and partnership operations. This will result in greater stability for troops at their home stations, a goal the Army has sought to achieve throughout the past 10 years of continuous combat operations. A great example of this is the current plan to reduce the number of combat brigades in Europe from four to two, while at the same time using US-based units to rotate in and out of theatre to partner with host nation and foreign militaries. While this benefit might result in more frequent short-duration deployments, Army families will enjoy greater stability, predictability, and quality of life in the long run. Such a plan will also positively impact soldier retention, a significant concern for senior leaders as the Army begins to draw down over the next several years.
Finally, an initiative to align forces regionally will allow the Army to regain its pre-9/11 focus on areas of historical or anticipated instability and strategic significance. At the same time, senior leaders will be able to leverage partner resources to extend U.S. operational and strategic reach across the globe. AFRICOM's handling of security operations over the past few years is an excellent example of this. The effective use of its own limited resources, while leveraging partner resources, to execute its operational objectives is a demonstrated model for future success. This is proven especially true when one compares the amount of resources provided to the Central Command (CENTCOM) theatre of operations at same time. Regionally aligned forces would undoubtedly assist both AFRICOM and Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), two of the less critical GCCs at the moment, to better execute their respective security cooperation missions.
While the benefits of this plan are certainly numerous, there exist several potentially critical pitfalls that, if not addressed, could ruin the initiative over time. The first of these problems is the integration of enablers from both modular support and functional brigades. Due to their limited availability in the force structure, the capabilities in these units are pooled in order to enhance flexibility to meet "big-Army" requirements. Modular support brigades (i.e. sustainment, fires, combat aviation, battlefield surveillance, and maneuver enhancement) with functional brigades (e.g. civil affairs, engineers, military police, signal, medical, etc.) are traditionally theatre capabilities assigned at corps and division level. The problem is there simply aren't enough of these units to commit them regionally while at the same time satisfying ongoing contingency operation requirements. While combat brigades can be regionally aligned without running out of units to cover the spectrum of demand, support and functional brigades would have to operate on a rotational basis, thus forfeiting the benefits offered by habitual relationships.
As any combat leader can attest, these units can have a critical impact on security-specific mission outcomes. Their unique capabilities tend to be very popular with local governments, and each unit typically conducts a wide range of missions over a vast geographic area, coming into contact with a large portion of the population regularly. This is all the more reason such units should receive as much or even more region-specific training than the average combat brigade. In essence, the nature of every region dictates a comprehensive review of the proper force mix. Consider the differences needed in sustainment operations between Iraq and Afghanistan alone - two combat zones under the same GCC that require very specific capabilities. To address this issue, support and functional brigades must either be scaled accordingly and made organic to corps and divisions, or additional capacity in each of these unit types must be built into the force structure to accommodate their inevitable increase in demand.
A second potential pitfall is the lack of an adaptive personnel system to accompany regional alignment. Over time, it makes little sense to train a soldier in a specific language and culture, only to have him or her move to a new unit aligned to a different region shortly thereafter. Prudent leaders understand that language training alone is costly, time consuming, and an extremely perishable skill. These constraints beg the question: will the Army ever encourage home-steading within units to retain the regional expertise and personal relationships built by soldiers during their tours in aligned units? With stark budget cuts on the horizon, one way to save funds might be to curtail soldier rotations between units of different alignments. Assigning soldiers and rotating them among similarly aligned units could significantly diminish the training resources needed to sustain this type of force. To achieve this, the Army must adjust the current personnel system to encourage retention within units and facilitate assignments of personnel based on individual language and cultural skills. However, this change, which could also offer additional stability to families, must be accomplished in such a way as to not afflict a soldier's opportunities for promotion over the course of a normal, lengthy career.
A third problem is the possibility of reverting back to a tiered Army, as seen in the pre-9/11 days, where units that support Pacific Command (PACOM) or CENTCOM receive the bulk of available funding. Those who served in the Army prior to the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan might remember this very vividly - select units received the majority of funding and new equipment, while other units were left with the vestiges of the defense budget. The Army must ensure that all available funds, as well as the modernization of equipment, continue to be distributed evenly among all units. This holds especially true since no one can predict exactly where the next major conflict will come from. One possible solution is to use pre-staged theatre provided equipment (TPE) for each GCC, as is being done in EUCOM and CENTCOM today. By doing this, aligned forces will already have modern and working equipment available for their use in the event of an emergency. Using this method might also account for the difference in equipment sets required for each region. For example, units aligned with a mountainous region covered by thick jungles might require a vastly different equipment set than a unit aligned with a region that is dominated by flat, open deserts.
The final and possibly most important pitfall is the lack of a clearly defined mission and training focus to accompany each regional alignment. There is a big debate among military scholars and practitioners today if units should be built with a specific Combined-arms Maneuver (CAM) (previously known as High Intensity Conflict [HIC]) or Counterinsurgency (COIN) training focus, or a more generic Full Spectrum Operations (FOS) training focus. According to the most recent doctrine, the Army has officially adopted FOS as its operational concept. This framework uses a determined balance of offensive, defensive, and stability operations, and is said to cover all aspects of conflict, including both CAM and COIN missions. However, critics argue that units cannot train and conduct both well - at least not well enough to be successful in combat.
To understand this argument, one must look no further than the mission-specific COIN training that units received prior to deploying to either Iraq or Afghanistan. As FM 3-0 states, "For maximum effectiveness, stability and civil support tasks require dedicated training similar to training for offensive and defensive tasks. Commanders adjust their emphasis by developing their core mission-essential task list." The problem is that, at least for some regions, the Army can expect all units to conduct each sub-set of FSO, but in reality peacetime readiness quickly hits a ceiling of effectiveness. Units who take this approach to training will eventually require specialized pre-deployment training in order to increase their preparedness in either CAM or COIN operations prior to a deployment. FM 3-34.2 notes, "Based on the mission, one type of operation may predominate. Commanders must shift to the predominant type of operation based on the current situation." The drawback to such specific training is that regionally aligned CAM/COIN units essentially become extra-specialized, which is a plus for effectiveness but an obvious drawback for flexibility. Most tacticians would agree, however, that CAM operations are less sensitive to regional differences when compared to COIN operations. A CAM-focused combat brigade that can destroy a tank regiment in Korea can destroy a tank regiment in Southwest Asia. Conversely, COIN operations are highly sensitive to cultural differences, so regional alignment is critical to success for a COIN-trained brigade. As a result, focusing these types of units in both region and mission has a tremendous payoff in the event of an incident in that area.
So, just as was seen in the "enabler pitfall" above, a comprehensive review and definition of the mission and force mix for each region is critical to ensuring preparedness and future success. If necessary, it is always possible to shift CAM-trained units to new regions since their mission type is less sensitive to cultural and linguistic differences. Similarly, since COIN operations typically follow CAM operations, there will usually be a natural time buffer to transition CAM-trained units to a COIN-focus within a single region, especially given they will already have the necessary language and cultural training within their existing skill sets.
The decision to align brigades with each of the global combatant commands is inarguably a good one. Benefits such as improved operations, planning, and partnering resulting from cultural and language proficiency, as well as decreased cost in overseas security operations, and a more refined focus on areas of strategic significance are just some of the bonuses of implementing such a plan. However, the training and use of enablers, the lack of an adaptive personnel system, a threat toward "unit favoritism," and the lack of a clearly defined training focus are each potential pitfalls that, if not addressed, could result in the long term failure of an otherwise excellent idea. The Army is on the right path to strategically align its units to best support combatant commanders, but it owes it to itself and its soldiers to make sure that this plan is well thought through prior to full implementation.