Army looks to transform itself for new era

Copley News Service
December 16, 1999,
Stephen Green

Run, shoot, swim.

It's not an athletic contest but a demonstration for the Army of trailblazing military vehicles.

Left out of the Kosovo conflict, the Army wants to transform itself into a post-Cold war fighting force. It's begun by asking defense firms to exhibit their newest ideas for combat machines.

By summer, the Army hopes to start buying some of the equipment to outfit two new and highly mobile brigades.

The goal: to deploy one brigade of 5,000 soldiers and 400 vehicles anywhere in the world within 96 hours, two within 120 hours and five divisions within a month.

At the Army's invitation, representatives of foreign and domestic weapon manufacturers arrived at Fort Knox, Ky. this month to show off the prototypes of their latest medium-weight fighting vehicles and personnel carriers.

By mid-January, the machines will have participated in ''road marching'' off-road running tests; day and night live-firing, and ''swim exercises'' to see how they propel themselves across rivers. They also will demonstrate their agility in urban settings.

In May, the exhibitors will be invited back to Fort Knox for a ''drive-off, shoot-off'' contest. And, by summer, the Army hopes to begin buying new equipment for the two brigades that will be formed at Fort Lewis, Washington. Three more mobile brigades will be formed later under the plan approved by Gen. Erik Chinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, who has promised to modernize the service.

Army briefing papers said the mobile brigades will '''satisfy current needs to be more strategically responsive.''

But the documents caution there may be a downside: the risk of having ''potential adversaries and perhaps allies perceive our actions as a reduction in U.S. focus on fighting and winning a major theater war.''

During the Cold War, the Army focused on preparing heavy armored divisions to fight the Soviets on the plains of Central Europe.

''This is not just new equipment. This is changing the way the Army does business,'' Col. Michael Mehaffey, the Army's director of battle lab integration, technology and concepts, said Thursday at the Pentagon.

The question of whether the Army needs to be able to deploy faster arose during the Kosovo conflict earlier this year. The Army played virtually no role there except to send a detachment of Apache helicopters to Albania, a deployment that took weeks.

''It's clearly the case that a country with an Air Force that can win a war in a few weeks may not need an army that takes months to deploy,'' said John Pike, a military expert with the Federation of American Scientists.

The concept for the brigades was formulated with Kosovo in mind, acknowledged Col. Joseph Rodriguez, who is helping create the Army's new units.

''The core scenario was the Serbian tank scenario,'' he said. ''What it won't do is be successful in frontal attacks against prepared defensive positions with armor in significant numbers.''

Andrew Krepinevich, the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary assessments, said the Army is moving in the right direction but not far enough.

With more nations acquiring missiles, he said, units like the new brigades could end up deploying into an ''ambush,'' unless U.S. forces hit missile sites ''deep behind'' enemy lines. ''It could be like Custer at Little Big Horn,'' he warned.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, chairman of the House military procurement subcommittee, which authorizes new equipment for the services, urged the Army to move cautiously.

Hunter said the new units could be susceptible to armor-piercing artillery as well as chemical and biological weapons.

He suggested that instead of rushing to buy new equipment, the Army ought to consider buying a new armed attack vehicle, now under development for the Marines, that can carry about a dozen troops and operate at 40 miles an hour over water and on land.

The Army has not publicly estimated the cost of the new brigades, but suggested most of the expense could be borne by savings from cutting or trimming back weapon programs such as the $22 billion Crusader heavyweight artillery gun system, a self-propelled howitzer.

Copyright 1999 Copley News Service