As revolution zigzags chaotically across the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. Army is sharpening its readiness to launch rapid-reaction, kick-in-the-door combat forces, adding capabilities and skills that had atrophied during a decade of counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the first time in years, the 82nd Airborne Division here has stood up its "ready brigade," trained to a razor's edge and poised to move instantly, as one of its paratroopers said, "to the sound of the guns."
This new capability gives President Obama the option to swiftly land powerful military forces anywhere in the world for missions that could include evacuating American citizens, safeguarding fragile new democracies from counterattack, or violently taking down a renegade regime.
At the same time, the Army is considering reinforcing this Global Response Force with heavier combat units that could swiftly reinforce the 82nd Airborne's lightly armed paratroopers.
With these steps, said the division commander, Maj. Gen. Jim L. Huggins, the United States is regaining the "strategic depth" it lacked during much of the past decade when the Army was struggling to man the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and simply lacked the troops to set aside for crisis response. "The resources are flowing, and we are building that capability back," he said.
And it's coming just in time. Few may hope more devoutly for peaceful, democratic change in the Middle East than
the division's 20,000 hardened war-fighters, many of whom are facing their fifth or sixth combat deployment.
But hope is not a strategy.
Instead, Huggins' soldiers are honing their skills at "forcible entry" -- the ability to parachute into enemy territory with their armored gun trucks and 155mm howitzers, seize and defend an airfield to enable reinforcements to land, and fight their way to the objective. Safely landing 2,000 paratroopers and equipment at night on a three-mile-long, blacked-out drop zone and then swiftly organizing and moving out, Huggins observed dryly, "takes some practice."
But as political upheaval boils, from nuclear-armed Pakistan to the oilfields of the Persian Gulf fiefdoms and North Africa, sending in paratroopers may not be enough if heavy armed conflict begins to threaten vital U.S. national interests.
With the encouragement of Gen. Martin Dempsey, selected to become the Army's new chief this spring, the Army is considering adding "medium and heavy combat brigades" to the Global Response Force, said Col. Dan Baggio, a spokesman for the Army's Forces Command. The units being evaluated, which could include elements of a Stryker brigade and even heavy armored brigades, are stationed in the United States and would have to be airlifted into combat.
The idea is to provide a heavy force quickly for major combat, Dempsey wrote in a new addition to the Army's operations field manual, to "gain the initiative . . . and set conditions for stability operations" to follow.
All these steps seem in sync with an emerging vision for a leaner, smaller, faster Army after Iraq and Afghanistan. In a widely noted speech last month at West Point, Defense Secretary Robert Gates memorably trashed the idea of sending a massive land force into war in the Middle East or Africa, saying big wars should be the responsibility primarily of naval forces and aviation. But he strongly endorsed the "strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces" as "self-evident" for counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, stability or security force assistance missions.
The Obama administration also has proposed cutting the size of the Army by 27,000 soldiers beginning in 2015, assuming that by then the Afghan war will be winding down, Gates said last week.
Expanding from the narrow mission of counterinsurgency to quick-reaction missions -- which might demand a full spectrum of skills, from providing disaster relief to fighting the opening battles of World War III -- marks an abrupt change for the 82nd Airborne Division. For a decade it has fought in small units, squads of nine to 12 soldiers and platoons of 30 or 40, working with local soldiers and villagers in a kind of armed nation-building. These operations required little or no coordination with neighboring units.
But now, with its ready brigade unhooked from this counterinsurgency mission, it can refocus on the skills required for larger company- and battalion-size maneuvers involving hundreds of soldiers in tight coordination with artillery, mortars, helicopter gunships and Air Force strike fighters. And the paratroopers, relieved of counterinsurgency duty, can catch up on the jumping skills they hadn't been able to practice in Iraq or Afghanistan. Before 2001, it was common to see a staff sergeant here with 60 or 70 jumps to his credit; today, a senior enlisted paratrooper may have fewer than 20, said 1st Sgt. Christian Requejo of the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
They are getting the practice. In one exercise last month, the division and the Air Force coordinated an airdrop of 1,600 paratroopers, together with eight armored Humvee gun trucks, two howitzers, a dump truck and a grader (for building airfield defensive fortifications) from an air armada of 27 C-17 and C-130 airlifters.
Doing all that quickly and safely requires an immense amount of preparation. "We were not used to maneuvering as a company or a battalion," said one company commander, Capt. Mike Thompson. "It takes meticulous planning -- or it can be a goat-screw."
Early on a recent, chilly morning, a clutch of captains and lieutenants of the division's ready brigade gathered to rehearse a complex mission: coordinating air strikes from F-16s and attack helicopters with artillery and mortar fire as paratroopers maneuvered through bands of enemy to seize a small village.
A scale model of the terrain was laid out on the grass behind their barracks, with tape marking out routes and plastic blocks representing houses. In what is called an ROC (rehearsal of concept) drill, the lieutenants who lead platoons walked through their actions as they engaged the enemy and made quick decisions on whether calling in artillery strikes would endanger nearby troops or conflict with the Apache helicopter gunships and UAVs orbiting over the battlefield.
Their battalion commander, Lt. Col. Marcus Evans, is a demanding teacher and coach. "If you haven't run through this four or five times with a chalk board before you come out here, you're missing something," he told his young officers. "Drill it, drill it, drill it!" And plan for the unexpected, he added. "We can't war-game all the contingencies -- but we can do the top 10 and rehearse them!"
Brigades training in these skills will get severely tested at the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., which has built extensive facilities for counterinsurgency training, including mock Afghan villages and Pashtun-speaking role players. But starting this August, the NTC will switch from training only for counterinsurgency, and instead will hold six month-long war games over the course of a year, pitting visiting brigades against the battle-hardened 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in simulated, but grueling, full-spectrum combat.
None of the skills and capabilities the Army is regaining may be applicable as upheaval sweeps across the Middle East and North Africa. As Gates and others have noticed, the Pentagon has a perfect record in predicting where and when future conflict will erupt: It has gotten it wrong every time. But that is one reason for the "full-spectrum" preparation of the 82nd Airborne Division's ready brigade.
"We've been deficient as a great power in being overly committed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without having any additional capacity to do anything else that could come along," said John Nagl, a former West Point armor officer and Rhodes scholar who is president of the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan research institution in Washington, D.C. "The Army was really tapped out."
"Particularly with what's going on in the world, it's not hard to imagine the president needing a brigade of the 82nd at short notice," Nagl said. "But having that capability doesn't mean we're going to use it."