The Army after tomorrow

The Army will begin rotating into Europe and it may begin tasking units with 'regional alignment,' as it tries to keep evolving after the wars.

The Army is out of one war and trying to wind down its second, but service officials are not waiting until they cross the Afghan finish line to begin plotting for what’s next.

The service has two major problems. First: It will likely get smaller as it goes, winding up with an end strength in the low 500,000s or even high 400,000s. Still larger than it was before Sept. 11, but down from its wartime peak. Second: The Army really wants to keep its highly valuable corps of battle-hardened noncommissioned officers and mid-grade officers. But if it goes back to a “Sgt. Bilko” life inside the garrison, cleaning latrines with toothbrushes, those troops are going to walk.

So the Army brass is already doing something about this. Within 24 hours, in fact, came news of two developments that the Army hopes puts it into a good place to deal both with smallness and to offer soldiers some real soldiering into the middle of the decade. Secretary Panetta announced Thursday that two Army brigades now based in Europe would go away  –but that rotational units would take their place for regular exercises with the Europeans. And the head of Training and Doctrine Command told our senior colleague Matt Cox that tomorrow’s Army units could “specialize” in global regions or hotspots, like special operations forces, to stay ready for crisis response.

Ironically, Panetta’s announcement about American soldiers leaving Europe could ultimately mean that they spend more time training in Europe. The brigades based there today have spent a lot of time in Iraq or Afghanistan, but rotational units going over to Europe would mean troops would actually do stuff there in war games with NATO or other allies. The Pentagon is hoping for an elegant solution here: It saves the cost of American soldiers and their families living overseas, but preserves the U.S. commitment to NATO and Europe that has been in effect for decades.

That’s assuming DoD makes good on its rotations and the Europeans want to play ball with the kinds of war games the U.S. Army is interested in.

As for TRADOC’s “regional alignment,” this could give units the chance to deploy many places the Army may not have traditionally operated, and with their soldiers arriving as experts in the local dynamics. Here’s how Cox broke it down in his story Friday:

The concept, known as “regional alignment,” is similar to the way special operations forces assign areas of responsibility to its units. It’s one of the options Army senior leaders are considering as they attempt to plan how the service will operate around 2020, ensuring units are prepared to cope with the complexities of tomorrow’s battlefields.

“I talk to young soldiers all the time — if they are on the fast track to go to Afghanistan, they are focused, because they know exactly what they are going to do. But if they are not, they are saying, ‘What is this home station stuff? What do we do?’ ” said Gen. Robert Cone, commander of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

What they could do is get a slice of the globe and try master it, so that if anything unpleasant took place inside their AOR, they’d be ready to parachute in — perhaps literally — and go to work immediately. Army officials haven’t said this yet, so this is just Buzz talking, but “regional alignment” could be a first doctrinal step toward playing in the Air-Sea Battle game. If the Army knocks on the door of the Air-Sea Battle dorm room with armful of pizzas (in this case, a concept for how it would get ready to deal with the many Western Pacific powers) the other inhabitants might be much more welcoming than if the new roomie showed up empty-handed.

It’s equally possible that the Army brass could discard “regional alignment” for all the difficulties it might cause. How quickly could big Army units respond to crises, especially when the Marines are already forward deployed in Japan and Guam and already in sync with the Navy’s amphibious forces? And how well could the Army apply specialization — what size units would do it? Would they keep their areas permanently or rotate them, and if so, how often?

No answers yet, other than the Army is clear that it does not just want to go back to its prewar self — it wants to keep evolving.