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Rethinking the U.S. Army

Some officials call for many specialized units to train foreign forces; others say the generalist approach works best.

October 10, 2007|Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Absorbing the lessons of a troubled war, U.S. military officials have begun an intense debate over proposals for a sweeping reorganization of the Army to address shortcomings that have plagued the force in Iraq and to abandon some war-fighting principles that have prevailed since the Cold War.

On one side of the widening debate are officers who want many Army units to become specialized, so that entire units or even divisions are dedicated to training foreign militaries. On the other are those who believe that military units must remain generalists, able to do a wide range of skills well.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates is expected to weigh in today in a major address in which he will warn that the Army is unlikely to face a conventional war in the future and must reorganize to fight in unconventional conflicts.

According to senior Pentagon officials who have been briefed on the speech, Gates will not take a hard position in the debate over training foreign militaries but is expected to emphasize that the task is important and could prevent future wars. His comments are expected to accelerate the debate within the Army about how best to prepare for the next phase of the Iraq war and for future conflicts.

Gates also will single out the need for changes in Army personnel policies to better recognize and reward young officers who show promise in less traditional areas, including those skilled in foreign languages and in advising foreign forces.

Gates, who will address the largest annual gathering of Army officers in Washington, is expected to emphasize that many of these nontraditional skills were learned during the Vietnam War but quickly forgotten, leaving the Army unprepared for ensuing conflicts in Haiti, Somalia and ultimately Iraq.

"He doesn't believe anyone is going to take us on conventionally in the near future," said one Pentagon official familiar with Gates' thinking. "We can't forget the things we learned in Iraq after Iraq."

Radically different view

The view of the Army in the current debate is radically different than under the previous Defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld advocated a smaller Army with faster, more technological units that did not participate in nation-building activities. Rumsfeld considered training foreign militaries to be the duty of small numbers of special operations forces, not conventional Army units.

The debate over training foreign security forces has grown more urgent following the decision by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, to begin drawing down forces in Iraq over the next year. Decisions over the shape and organization of the Army will directly affect the post-"surge" phase of the war, which will see fewer combat troops and an increased emphasis on training and advising Iraqi forces.

In sometimes emotional sessions underway at the Pentagon and military institutes, including a recent war game exercise, Defense officials have been weighing proposals ranging from modest alterations that would add new specialties to major changes in the way the Army fights.

Most officers believe the Army will need to focus on training other foreign militaries in years to come, both in Iraq and in other countries.

Some officers, including one of the Army's most prominent counterinsurgency theorists, believe a designated force of trainers, or "advisor corps," is needed.

But others, including Gates' senior military advisor, oppose creating specialized units. They argue that a more effective strategy would be to ensure that all military leaders are able to train security forces.

Army officers at Ft. Leavenworth, where the Army's most important doctrine is created, have been working for two months on specific proposals to create training units for the Pentagon's worldwide commands. Last week, officials from the Pentagon, State Department, Special Operations Command and other military groups took part in the war game to evaluate various proposals for the teams.

Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, who oversees the Army schools and research institutes at Leavenworth, said the proposals would create a dedicated unit of trainers who could be assigned to each of the commanders of the worldwide regions.

"The concept here is a very specific focus: They do not do direct action; they do not command and control combat forces; they are not a combat force," Caldwell said. "Their mission is to do security-force assistance."

The size of the proposed units is undecided, and the war game at Leavenworth examined at least three different organizational structures. Army officers familiar with the proposals say the units could be supplemented by other soldiers when needed. But where those supplemental forces would come from is one of the key issues in the debate.

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