Archive for Monday, July 10, 2000

Army gets 21st century makeover

July 10, 2000


— In the evergreen foothills of the Cascade Mountains, among the same forests of pine and fir where young men trained for the trench battles of World War I, soldiers like Spc. Ragnar Schuett are leading the Army's march to a radically new approach to fighting in the 21st century.

There is an air of anticipation on the shores of Puget Sound -- and strong hints of anxiety, too.

"I'm not quite sure how it's going to work out," Schuett, 28, says as he stands atop a Light Armored Vehicle, a stand-in borrowed from the Canadian army to enable his 3rd "Arrowhead" Brigade to begin experimenting with new ways of maneuvering on the battlefield without today's behemoth tanks.

"We are like guinea pigs to see what works and doesn't work," he says.

The Army is in the early stages of a transformation that its chief architect, Gen. Eric Shinseki, believes will finally break the Cold War mold. It shaped the Army into the most powerful land force on the planet, but that no longer fits for smaller-scale, come-as-you-are security crises like Kosovo.

Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, envisions an Army more nimble, more deadly, more responsive and more relevant. It is not clear, though, how he will make that happen: He faces a money pinch, a time crunch and skeptics galore.

Shinseki sees potential for scientific breakthroughs that would enable American soldiers to fight without protection from today's 70-ton tanks yet survive through stealth and superior battlefield intelligence. He is counting on a slew of scientific advances, from propulsion and ballistics to medicines and fuels.

The four-star general, who fought with the armored cavalry in Vietnam and commanded U.S. peacekeeping troops in Bosnia, says the time is ripe for fundamental change. The Army has no choice, he believes. The price of failure, he says, will be paid in soldiers' lives when the next unexpected conflict erupts.

Yet like many of the soldiers who salute him, Shinseki is unsure whether his ambitious goal will be realized.

"Any large institution is challenged to make a radical change, and this IS a radical change," Shinseki said in an Associated Press interview one year after he took over as chief of staff.

He likens this moment in the Army's 225-year history to the peacetime years leading up to World War I, when U.S. military leaders failed to foresee the emerging importance of tanks and wireless radios -- tools of war that American "doughboys" went without when they headed for Europe from Fort Lewis and other training bases in 1917. The first tanks used by U.S. troops in that war were supplied by France.

"It's part of that historic continuum that says, 'Change when you have the opportunity, don't wait until the eve of battle,"' Shinseki said.

Stepping stones

On a recent summer day, Schuett and other soldiers from the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division gave Shinseki, dressed in camouflage combat fatigues, his first on-scene look at their progress toward creating the first "interim brigade combat team" -- a prototype combat unit unlike anything in today's Army.

This new fighting unit carries the label "interim" because it is only a stepping stone to Shinseki's ultimate objective of converting the Army into a force capable of moving a combat-ready brigade -- numbering roughly 4,000 troops -- anywhere in the world within four days, and a force three times that size within five days.

That kind of speed stands in stark contrast to what happened when the Army was ordered to move a brigade-sized team of Apache attack helicopters, rocket launchers and support forces into Albania last year during the Kosovo air campaign. It took weeks to get there, and more time for last-minute training. The team never did see combat.

Shinseki's goal is to have the first Fort Lewis brigade ready for a quick-response deployment by December 2001. It would be trained and equipped for the full spectrum of military operations, from peacekeeping to combat. Considering that the idea was not hatched until October 1999, the deadline may be hard to meet.

"That is speed-of-light stuff for a bureaucratic organization like the Army," says Maj. Gen. James Dubik, the deputy commanding general at Fort Lewis in charge of developing the prototype fighting units. "We're building a whole different kind of force."

On the Net: Army transformation sites:;

Commenting has been disabled for this item.