Thursday, April 05, 2007

It's Still the Force Structure, Stupid

Update/1109 A.M. PDT

A hat tip to Greyhawk at the Mudville Gazette, for this item from James Joyner at Outside the Beltway. In futher de-bunks the story that Private Zeimer's death was the result of insufficient training. Apparently, the allegation first surfaced in a Savannah, GA newspaper, almost two months ago, and Mark Thompson repeated it--without attribution--in his Time article. As Mr. Joyner reminds us, troops rotate in and out of military units all the time, and it's up to commanders and NCOs to get recently-arrived soldiers up-to-speed.

Interestingly, the Savannah Morning News account describes the missed training as a "dress rehearsal," and not a formal training course, as Mr. Thompson implies. There is a difference. A formal training program is one that is organized, manned and equipped for a specific purpose, such as basic training or advanced infantry tactics. Completion of these courses are requisites for entering more advanced training, or serving in a combat unit. A "dress rehearsal" (like the one staged by the 3rd ID) is conducted in-house, using personnel, resources and equipment that are normally devoted for other purposes. This type of training is designed for a single purpose--in this case, getting ready for an Iraq deployment--and more importantly, completion of the dress rehearsal was apparently not a requirement for serving in combat. If it had been, the "untrained" personnel would have remained behind at Fort Stewart.

Greyhawk also uncovered this story from Army Times, profiling the soldier who died with Private Zeimer. Specialist Alan McPeek was just days away from completing a 14-month tour in Iraq when the attack occurred. He was teaching Zeimer how to respond to incoming fire when they were killed in action. The veteran training the rookie; it's a scenario as old as warfare itself.

One final thought on this non-scandal: in the past, the U.S. has sent troops into battle with far less training and rehearsal than Private Zeimer received. During the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, the sudden German counter-attack decimated U.S. tank units (and crews), necessitating a stop-gap replacement program. As outlined in Belton Cooper's book "Death Traps," the Army's solution was to take infantry replacements, just off the boat in Antwerp--and with no prior armor experience--train them on the M-4 Sherman, and send them into combat with only four hours of preparation.

Now that's what I call an inadequate training program.


Time's latest covery story analyzes "America's Broken-Down Army," a subject of obvious concern in both political and defense circles. According to that liturgy, our nation's army is worn out after four years of war in Iraq, and almost six years of fighting in Afghanistan. Increasingly, our soldiers are having to make do with limited training, poorly maintained equipment and more frequent combat tours, realities that sap the strength of combat units and the morale of their personnel.

To help make that case, Time defense writer Mark Thompson cites the case of Army Private Matthew Zeimer, who was killed in Iraq on 6 February. At the time of his death, Private Zeimer was on his first combat deployment and had been in country for only one week. Thompson reports that Zeimer, assigned to the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, arrived at the unit's home garrison (Ft Stewart, Georgia) only weeks before it rotated to Iraq. Consequently, Private Zeimer and about 140 other members of his brigade missed an intensive, four-week combat training program designed to prepare soldiers for the deployment. Instead, they got a "cut rate" 10-day program on weapons employment, combat first aid and Iraqi culture. Thompson archly observes that the truncated program is same length as the course that teaches soldiers assigned to generals' household staffs the finer points of table service. His insinuation is clear: with more/better training, Private Zeimer might be alive today.

That's a cheap shot, and quite frankly, I'm surprised that it came from Mark Thompson. He's been covering the defense beat for Time for more a decade, and certainly knows his way around military issues. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Thompson for a project in the late 1990s. He struck me as an intelligent, serious observer of military issues, and less prone to hyperbole or exaggeration than other defense reporters.

Perhaps I was wrong in my initial judgment, or maybe Mr. Thompson has changed. In any case, his article is a major disappointment, long on sensationalism, but oddly short on fact. With only a cursory reading of his cover story, I found a number of errors and distortions that seem toreinforce his central thesis, but at the expense of the article's veracity. Here are a few of the "inconvenient truths" that Thompson ignores in his story:

Private Zeimer's Training. According to Time, Zeimer was a recent recruit. He enlisted in the service last summer, three weeks after graduating from high school in Montana. After nine weeks of basic training, he attended advanced infantry training in Oklahoma--standard practice for someone entering that combat branch. The Oklahoma course provided the fundamental training that all infantry soldiers receive; while it's not a top-off session for combat in Iraq, it does provide detailed instruction in ground combat duties and tactics. The 10-day program at Ft. Stewart offered additional training, specific to Iraq. It may not have had the same level of detail as the month-long session, but I guarantee you that it was intense and combat-focused. The only similarity between that course and the table-serving program was their duration: 10 days.

Moreover, there is ample evidence that Zeimer knew his job and acquitted himself well during a brief stint in combat. When their post came under terrorist attack, Zeimer and his fellow troops responded. Private Zeimer and another soldier took cover behind a 3-foot concrete wall, which (in most cases) provides sufficient cover from enemy bullets and RPGs. Unfortunately, Zeimer and the other solider died when a blast ripped the wall apart. That suggests that the enemy was using a larger-caliber weapon to punch through the barrier, or that they were killed by friendly fire. Whatever the cause, their deaths appear to be one of the tragic consequences of war, and not necessarily the product of training or equipment issues.

Unfortunately, that sort of "reporting" is evidenced over and over in Thompson's report. Remember those 140 troops who got the abbreviated training course at Ft Stewart? That's only 3% of a 4,000-member combat brigade. Perhaps I'm a bit biased, but getting that many soliders through an intensive battlefield prep course would appear to be a major achievement, given the rampant problems that Thompson finds in today's Army.

Training, Equipment and Retention Issues. According to Time, the service's relentless ops temp have created a vicious cycle; men and women are being sent into combat with less training, shorter breaks and disintegrating equipment. And when those stories get out, it becomes more difficult to retain soldiers and recruit them in the first place. We've heard these horror stories before, and there's no dobut that today's Army is stretched thin. But where's the statistical evidence to illustrate these trends? Aside from some random numbers inserted here and there--one artilley unit is only 72% manned; other units are returning to Iraq without a year's rest--there are few totals to substantiate the amount of broken equipment, missed training, or personnel who don't plan to re-enlist.

What's more, much of this information is readily available. All units publish readiness estimates (usually referred to as C-ratings) that measure such areas as personnel, training, and equipment status. While some of those reports are classified, I'm sure that Thompson could come up with that information, but it might not necessarily support his contention. Instead, he reprints Colin Powell's assertion that the Army is "just about broken." Never mind that General Powell left active duty a decade ago; meanwhile, contradictory comments from the current Army Chief of Staff, General Peter Schoomaker, are buried toward the bottom of the article.

On the recruting front, Thompson grudgingly admits that the Army is meeting its goals--but only by accepting less-qualified applicants. But once again, readers get only half the story. Mr. Thompson is concerned that only 81% of the service applicants have high school diplomas (down from 94% a decade ago). But since the rest have GEDs, that means that eveyone entering the Army has the equivalent of a high school education--and that's significantly higher than the general population of 18-34 year olds, who have an overall graduation/GED rate of less than 80%. Naturally, Mr. Thompson doesn't tell us that. Nor does he inform us that re-enlistment rates among combat troops are extraordinarily high, despite the strains of constant rotations and time away from families. Doesn't exactly affirm his "tired troops that want out" scenario.

Waivers. Long-time readers of this blog know that we've covered the topic before, in fairly extensive detail. Using Time's numbers, we can estimate that about 10% of the Army's recruits required some sort of waiver last year. But only 2-3% needed a waiver for some sort of criminal offense, typically some sort of petty theft or drug possession charge. That's a tiny fraction of the 80,000 new soldiers who join the Army each year. The overwhelming majority are like Private Zeimer; educated, physically fit and highly-motivated.

It's Still the Force Structure. To his credit, Thompson does address some of the long-term trends that have created problems from the Army, noting that the service fared poorly in the Pentagon's budget wars of the 1990s. But--predictably--his analysis is a bit short-sighted. For example, he notes former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's efforts to build a "lighter, more agile force," but ignores the wholesale force-structure cuts that occurred long before "Rummy" returned to the Pentagon. Once again, for those who rode the short bus (and write for Time), the U.S. Army once had a standing force structure of 16 combat divisions. Two were eliminated under the administration of President George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton got rid of four more. The number of troop billets eliminated? About 160,000--enough 18 additional combat brigades, plus the required support formations.

Put another way: if someone in DoD had enough sense to keep thouse units, we'd have a standing Army of roughly 650,000--getting close to that optimum "700,000 level" cited by former Chief of Staff Gordon Sullivan in an interview with Time. But Mr. Thompson, like so many other MSM reporters before him, fails to connect the dots. The decision to get rid of those divisions were made by our military and political leaders, with nary a peep of opposition. As we've noted many times in the past, the seeds of the Army's current problems were sown in the decade before the invasion of Iraq, and there's plenty of blame to go around.

Don Rumsfeld was right about one thing: you go to war with the Army you've got, and our leaders of 10 and 15 years ago committed us to smaller ground forces that were less-than-prepared for counter-insurgency operations. Recently-announced plans to expand the Army are a step in the right direction, but it's unclear if our political leaders-let alone the media--are willing to stay the course.


sgspires said...

Mark Thompson's piece objectiveness could be a push from Time's senior leadership to have more "anti-war" news. I've noticed, more and more, major media turning against the war/troops since the shift in power in Washington DC. Which means, to me, we've gone to a phase in this war similar to that of the closing years of Vietnam when editors pushed their writers for more sensational coverage and less about the tactics of a particular battle and day-to-day fighting. Facts sometimes get in the way of "sizzle."

Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here: