The Army is currently roughly 48 ground combat brigades, with a number of supporting aviation brigades and “fires” brigades (what used to be called field artillery brigades). The strength very roughly equates to 12 divisions, or 4 corps.
Of the ground combat brigades, there are three main types: the Infantry Brigade Combat Team , the Stryker Brigade Combat Team, and the Heavy Brigade Combat Team. The “Team” part of the name denotes that each of these formations has its own supporting arms and services organic to its design, such as artillery and logistics. The Infantry BCT is primarily composed of light infantry forces, that is, those not mounted in either Bradley or Stryker armored vehicles. The Airborne and Air Assault units are IBCTs. The Stryker BCTs, are, of course, built around battalions of Stryker armored vehicles. And lastly, the Heavy BCTs are built around the M-1 Abrams/M-2 Bradley armored vehicle teams.
Heavy BCTs bore the brunt of the fighting in the early days of the war in Iraq, and indeed, were a large part of the fight there, and continue to supply Advise and Assist Brigades to that theater. But Stryker and Infantry BCTs also made large numbers of deployments there. Afghanistan has mostly been the province of the Infantry BCTs with recent deployments of Stryker BCTs to beef up the numbers there since President Obama took office.
The fighting power of the National Guard is organized along roughly the same lines, and their deployments have been roughly similar to the active components, but they lie outside the main scope of this discussion. It’s not that the Guard isn’t important, it’s that I haven’t really given much consideration to them, and want to digest that later.
Most unit deployments last about a year. And very roughly, about a third of the Army is deployed right now. There’s a rule of thumb that it takes three brigades to deploy one. One brigade deployed, one in training to replace it, and one recovering from its recent deployment. So the question becomes, is the size of the Army determining the size of deployments, or is the size of the deployments driving the discussion on the size of the Army?
In an ideal world, I’d like to see an Army with roughly twice the number of BCTs that we currently have. But that’s just a fantasy. Almost certainly, given the reduction of operations in Iraq, and the likelihood of a drawdown in Afghanistan soon, we’re going to see calls to drastically reduce the size of the Army. And the Army, rather than cutting into its institutions, will trim that size by reducing the number of BCTs. It will also resort to leaning out the manning of those BCTs. For instance, if an Infantry BCT is supposed to have 5000 men, the Army will deliberately only man them at say, 4750, or 4500 men. That short handedness hurts the unit, but it is a lot easier to bulk up a unit in an emergency, than to reconstitute a unit from scratch.
In any event, for 20 years, since the fall of the Berlin wall, we as a nation have deliberately kept the size of the Army quite small. While recruiting to fill the ranks of a half million man active duty seems challenging enough, it wasn’t that long ago we were able to recruit for a much larger Army, albeit with marginally looser standards. And ironically, as the size of the Army has shrunk, the number of missions it has been called upon to fulfill has grown greatly. While the number of troops stationed in Germany is a shadow of what it once was, we now have deployments throughout the world, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the 90s, the Army found itself deploying brigades to the Balkans to provide stability to that troubled region, and we’re still there.
How far can we safely shrink our Army? What should be the balance between heavy, Stryker, and light formations? What current missions should the Army convince the political leadership to slough off? Where is the Army deployed or stationed that it shouldn’t be? Where should the Army be that it isn’t?
Slightly off topic, if I was Chief of Staff of the Army for one day, the first change I would make? I’d go from a 9 man rifle squad to an 11 man rifle squad.