WASHINGTON — The United States Army is undergoing one of the most wrenching re-evaluations of mission in its 200-year history. This effort is, in essence, a search for the Army's soul, a look back at its historical roots and forward to the role the nation's ground forces might play in the '90s and into the 21st Century.
The other military services--the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force--are also confronting change, driven by shrinking budgets and the shift from the Soviet Union as the principal threat to other, more diffuse threats, including Third World dictators and international terrorism.
But none of the other services is going through such an agonizing redefinition as the 760,000-man Army. Leading the effort is Chief of Staff Gen. Carl E. Vuono, a thoughtful, intense former artillery officer.
Vuono's deep-set eyes and close-cropped hair give him an uncanny resemblance to University of Nevada/Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. Those who have watched him during his 33-year Army career say he thrived not through force of personality but through the power of his intellect.
He said in a recent interview that the current huge deployment to Saudi Arabia will be a decisive test of his and his predecessors' vision and planning.
In a white paper issued earlier this year, that spells out where Vuono believes the Army is headed in the next decade, the chief of staff said the new Army must be deployable, flexible and lethal. He believes the Saudi operation has proved the aptness of these standards, but acknowledges that events have yet to prove whether the Army can meet them.
Vuono declined to discuss the Mideast operation in detail, clearly concerned that the then-small Army contingent on the ground was vulnerable to the large Iraqi force massed on the Saudi border. But he expressed firm conviction that the principles he laid down for the service were sound and that the investment in equipment and training in the fat years of the early Reagan Administration were paying large dividends.
Vuono, age 55, was named the Army's 31st chief of staff in June, 1987. He graduated from West Point and has held command positions from platoon to division level.
Question: Let's talk about the deployment . Where has air- and sealift proven inadequate?
Answer: I wouldn't say it's proven inadequate yet. I think that the plan that we had in terms of the mix of air- and sealift was a good plan because . . . you've got to look at the threat and the force capability--you've got to provide to offset that threat. That's why we need the combination of air- and sealift. We have certainly exercised that in terms of our heavy-, light-, special-operations forces. So I think the flow has gone, frankly--considering all the circumstances and the fact that we started without any long lead time or buildup time--it's going well.
There are certainly areas we need to work on. I would like to have had the heavier forces there just as rapidly as I could have gotten them there. As you know, we're off-loading Abrams and Bradley tanks today in the 24th Division. That's in less than three weeks from the start of the operation for that part of the world.
Q: Some have suggested that there was a period of severe vulnerability until this equipment started to arrive. Some senior officials in this building suggested that we were ready. Even (Defense Secretary Richard B.) Cheney said if they should be foolish enough to attack we're going to put their forces and their facilities in Iraq at risk. Could you have backed up those threats?
A: . . . . This was a joint operation . . . . We had systems in place who could have carried out what these officials have said. I will tell you this, what your objectives are, determine a great deal whether you had enough capability on the ground or not. But I think it's an air-land-sea operation. That's what it is. Of course we didn't have Abrams and Bradleys on the ground, but we had a number of tank killer systems on the ground early on with our Apaches. I mentioned that to you earlier.
So I guess I would say depending on what option you pick, our job is to develop the force capability to meet that option. I will certainly be comfortable as we bring in our Abrams and our heavier forces, but I'd rather not get into that. That doesn't do any good because you're dealing with options.
Q: This apparent pause to let diplomacy work--that works in our favor, doesn't it? Or at least in the favor of the ground forces--giving them a little time to get acclimatized, to get equipment in place.
A: Every day we improve our capability as we bring in our heavier forces and our sealift.
Q: One marker you've set out for the '90s Army is an emphasis on sustainment, which is going to be--considering the length of the supply lines and where we're set up--critical in this. We can get the men over there. The equipment is on its way. What about just plain old boring sustainability? Food and water and everything else.