Army must keep ready as it shrinks, SecDef says

Panetta says the service must get smaller, but agrees it must keep the across-the-board "balance" that its leaders prize.

Secretary Panetta locked in the official narrative for the post-Iraq and Afghanistan Army on Wednesday in a speech to attendees at the Association of the United States Army trade show: Yes, end strength must come down, but the Army also must keep the “balance” that its leaders prize, he said.

Not only does the Army need to revive its proficiency at big force-on-force engagements, Panetta added his imprimatur to a challenge that his predecessor and many Army leaders have laid down: The service must figure out how to keep as many of its highly skilled, highly experienced battle veterans as possible. The Army needs them to absorb the good and bad lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan and it needs them to help get set for the next wave of threats.

Said Panetta:

This nation needs an Army that can deter any potential aggressor – an expeditionary Army able to deploy to distant battlefields and, upon arrival, decisively overwhelm any enemy land force.  And if an enemy does challenge us in a conventional land war, we need an Army that can, as General George Patton used to say, “Hold the [enemy] by the nose and kick them in the ass.”

Still, the reality is there aren’t a lot of countries out there building massive tank armies – it is unlikely that we will be re-fighting Desert Storm in the future.  Instead, I see both state and non-state actors arming with high-tech weaponry that is easier both to buy and operate, weapons that frustrate our traditional advantages and freedom of movement.  Coming up with new ideas and operating principles to defeating these kind of enemies is a challenge I pose to this battle hardened generation of American soldiers.  War remains a very human endeavor, fought against thinking and adaptive enemies, and just as our enemies seek out asymmetric advantages, we need to think of smarter ways to counter them.  We need the Army, and particularly its seasoned junior leaders, to display the same creativity and adaptability to defeat these hybrid threats as they’ve shown in dealing with counterinsurgency warfare over the past decade.  We need today’s generation of battle-hardened soldiers, and thoughtful leaders who know the face of modern warfare, to build our future force.

That means we must put more trust in our junior officers and our NCOs.  It is from among our junior leaders, our cadre of experienced lieutenants, captains and NCOs, where the new operational concepts and ideas will come.  Today’s generation of young men and women in uniform are as creative and mentally agile on the battlefield as their contemporaries working in the high-tech idea-labs in Silicon Valley. These are bright, capable soldiers. And we need the best to figure out what the best will be. The excellence of our greatest asset, our soldiers, gives me confidence we can craft an Army organized, trained and equipped to prevail in the future.  They are, as General Dempsey says, our decisive advantage and our hedge against uncertainty.

Panetta did not give details for where he thought Army end strength should end up, or go into detail about his view of the fates of its heavy units. In fact his speech appealed to the Army itself to use the “strategic breathing room” opened up by the Iraq and Afghanistan drawdowns to figure out the details:

I need you to help me figure out what that Army must look like for the future.  How does the future Army contribute to a better and stronger joint force able to dominate any potential enemy?  What do we need to retain in a smaller force today, to allow us to rapidly expand in the future if necessary?  What is the Army’s role in a century that will present a variety of security concerns from Asia to the Middle East and beyond?

Good questions. What do you think?