4 Recommendations For The Future Of The Total Army

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New Hampshire Army Guard artillerymen deployed with the 3rd Battalion, 197th Field Artillery Regiment, conduct a slingload operation during a two-day training exercise with their active duty counterparts at Udairi Range, Camp Buehring, Kuwait.
National Guard photo by 1st Lt. Benjamin Moreau

After nearly two years of bitter skirmishes between the three components of the U.S. Army — Active, National Guard, and Reserve — a congressionally mandated commission of retired Army leaders and Department of Defense officials will study the current force structure of America’s land force and make recommendations on its future composition. Though the National Commission on the Future of the Army was formed as a result of sparring between the three Army components and their interest groups, it presents an opportunity to create an Army capable of meeting the complex security threats our nation faces today and into the 21st century. With the Islamic State still controlling large swaths of Iraq and Syria, renewed uncertainty in Afghanistan and Russia’s perpetuation of “frozen conflicts” along its western border, the need for a decisive land force capable of meeting conventional, asymmetric and hybrid threats is as critical as ever.  So how can the Regular Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve work better to achieving that end? Here are four recommendations for the National Commission on the Future of the Army to consider.


1. Give the Total Force “teeth.”

The Total Force traces its origins to the final years of the Vietnam War when political pressure to end the draft laid the foundation for the creation of an “all-volunteer force.” Despite the Total Force concept being more than 40 years old, it often receives more lip service and passing reference than doctrinal recommendations on how best to put it into practice. The Army Operating Concept provides few mentions of the reserve components, which mostly consist of vague descriptions for leveraging partner capacity programs such as the State Partnership Program or National Guard and Reserve functions in homeland defense and disaster response missions. If a Regular Army commander wants to know how to utilize a National Guard agri-business development team or a Reserve information operations unit for a deployment, he or she has no guidelines. Delineating the availability, readiness, and unique skill sets of each component in Army policy will reduce confusion surrounding the Total Force concept and ultimately allow the Army to provide the proper units for any mission.

2. Keep Apache helicopters in the National Guard and Reserve.

In 2014, the Army unveiled the Aviation Restructuring Initiative in order to cut costs and fill the capability gap left by retiring the Kiowa Warrior helicopter. The proposal would remove Apache attack helicopters from the National Guard and Reserve in order to backfill Regular Army units’ Kiowa losses. Despite providing cost savings up front, the initiative is a shortsighted program that removes strategic depth for attack aviation. By taking the Apaches from the National Guard and Reserve, the Regular Army will no longer have a pool of combat-ready attack aviation units to draw from. During operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, National Guard and Reserve attack reconnaissance battalions were deployed frequently, and in some cases, provided the only attack aviation assets in theater.

Even more troubling is that Aviation Restructuring Initiative would fundamentally disrupt the repository of combat experience that Guard and Reserve Apache units bring to the table. One of the advantages of mirroring Regular Army capabilities in the National Guard and Reserve is that a “soft landing” is provided to Regular Army soldiers who are looking to get out of the service. By maintaining Apache units in the National Guard and Reserve, the Regular Army is better suited to retaining combat experienced aviators who grow tired of permanent change of station, but want to continue their service in a reduced capacity. Keeping attack aviation in the National Guard and Reserve provides a return on investment for the tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars invested in the training of these pilots.

3. Provide a continuum of service across the components.

Generally, the Army tends to view career progression across components as mostly linear. A soldier or officer in the Regular Army is expected to stay on active duty, then either separate from the service entirely or join a National Guard or Reserve unit. Similarly on the National Guard and Reserve side, most service members tend to stay in a reserve status for the majority of their careers, with the possibility of federal activation or full-time service — usually still within the reserve components.

One of the best ways to increase cooperation and understanding between the three components is to make transitioning from one component to another seamless and beneficial to one’s career. Allowing a Regular Army captain to take company command of a National Guard or Reserve unit would greatly alter the preconceived notions that each component has for the others. Additionally, it allows for a greater exchange of experiences; Regular Army providing a more full-time perspective, while Guard and Reserve counterparts bring civilian experiences into the Regular Army environment. Further, allowing career flexibility at the company level ensures that the future leaders and noncommissioned officers have greater working knowledge of all the Army’s components.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty in implementing a continuum of service will be to create a personnel system that can handle the shift from one component to another, as well as reconciling issues with full and part-time pay and benefits. Despite the challenges, allowing Army soldiers and officers the ability to transition from one component to another and back again throughout their careers, without such action appearing as a “black mark,” would make the total Army a far more cohesive and effective force.

4. Revisit multi-component unit structure.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Army had mixed formations of active and reserve units. These “round-out” units consisted of a Regular Army division filling personnel gaps with a National Guard brigade. Unfortunately, these units fell victim to misunderstandings due to inadequate training during mobilization for the Persian Gulf War, and their use decreased significantly in the years leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.  

The Army should look at examples from its sister branches and allies in how to effectively revisit round-out and multi-component units. The Marine Corps often rounds out Marine Reserve units with active-duty Marines and vice versa. In its “Army 2020” initiative, the United Kingdom has incorporated its army reserve into its overseas reaction force, and intends to have reservists fill out 10% of the force structure of overseas deployments. Multi-component units would not only allow for better equipment parity between active and reserve units, they also foster better working relationships between the three components. Active, Guard, and Reserve would be able to train together more frequently and identify key strengths and weaknesses of each component before being thrown into a deployed environment.

Round-out units do not have to be established at a division level either. For example, the Army could look to pair units based on geographical alignment and overseas deployments. If the 3rd Infantry Division sends a brigade to Estonia as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, why not augment a company or battalion from the Maryland National Guard, which has conducted bilateral military training and exchanges since 1993?

As the National Commission on the Future of the Army continues its hearings and prepares its recommendations for the February deadline, it should take into account the gravity its findings will have on the 21st century Army. The commission has an opportunity to help shape a force agile and capable to responding to threats abroad, enhancing partnerships with our allies and support to civilian authorities at home. Despite calls in some circles for a “pivot” to the Pacific and a greater emphasis on air and naval capabilities — at times even downplaying the need for ground forces — the security threats of today and emerging conflicts of tomorrow demonstrate the need for the U.S. to maintain landpower dominance, as argued by David Barno and Nora Bensahel in a recent War on the Rocks article. A Total Force policy that capitalizes on the inherent strengths of each of the Army’s components — “first to fight” readiness and response from the Regular Army, combat depth and global partnerships from the National Guard, and combat support and enabler expertise from the Army Reserve — will create an Army that can meet current and future national security needs, all while maintaining a cost-effective force in today’s fiscally austere environment.

The commission will also present its findings to a new Army secretary, undersecretary and chief of staff, some of whom have already expressed interest in increasing collaboration between the three components. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has indicated his interest in changes to enhance the Total Force, proposing a return to round-out units, doubling the National Guard’s annual rotations to the Combat Training Center and potentially reforming the century-old 39-day training calendar used by the bulk of National Guard and Reserve soldiers.

Reforming the Army is a national security imperative, and a divided and fractured land force will not be able to meet America’s security needs. After all, as Milley stated, “There is only one Army.”

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.

However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

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Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects.

The skepticism of Pentagon bureaucracy and Washington political operators is on full display throughout the movie. When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of military dramas, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good film.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

Protesters and militia fighters gather to condemn air strikes on bases belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)

With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

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U.S. Army Soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), 101st Airborne Division, board a C-130J Super Hercules, assigned to the 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, on January 5, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez)

The Defense Department has remained relatively tight-lipped regarding the brazen Jan. 5 raid on a military base at Manda Bay, Kenya, but a new report from the New York Times provides a riveting account filled with new details about how the hours-long gunfight played out.

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Roughly a dozen U.S. troops showing concussion-related symptoms are being medically evacuated from Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, a defense official told Task & Purpose on Tuesday.

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