The Future Of The Total Army Requires More Than A Report

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Paratroopers from the Texas National Guard's 1st Battalion (Airborne) 143rd Infantry Regiment successfully complete airfield seizure training in North Texas.
Army National Guard photo

The much-anticipated report from the National Commission on the Future of the Army was released on Jan. 28. In 208 pages of findings, the commission proposed 63 recommendations on force structure, organizational alignment, and balancing of the Total Force. It also took on relationships between the Regular Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve, offering roadmaps to a more integrated Army. Below are some of the key highlights of the report.


End strength: more, not less.

The commission found that a total end strength of 980,000 Army personnel — 450,000 in the Regular Army, 335,000 in the National Guard and 195,000 in the Army Reserve — would be “the absolute minimums to meet America’s national security objectives”. This is a departure from the reduced end strengths that the Army was previously planning for, with a potential cut of the Regular Army down to 420,000. Such numbers may prompt a budget battle on Capitol Hill, but will likely find support with many lawmakers who have seen the potential end strengths cuts as a “hollowing” of the Army.

Permanent brigades for Europe and Korea.

Recognizing emerging threats and areas of concern in both Europe and Asia, the commission recommended an armored brigade combat team be permanently stationed in Europe. This would bolster U.S. Army forces in Europe, which in 2012 had two heavy brigades removed from their force structure. The commission also called for the permanent stationing of a combat aviation brigade in South Korea, and recommended the Army maintain  no less than 11 combat aviation brigades.

Keep Apaches in the Guard

Many in Congress and Defense Department saw the commission’s unofficial charter as healing the rift between the Regular Army and National Guard — a long-simmering spat that culminated with an Army proposal to remove all combat aviation from the National Guard. Of note, the commission recommends reversing the Army’s Aviation Restructuring Initiative, which removes all AH-64 Apache attack helicopters from the National Guard. This contentious policy move struck a nerve with National Guardsmen, who perceived the divestiture of Apaches as a step toward relegating the Guard to a strategic reserve that would be placed on the shelf for major contingencies as opposed to predictable and routine use in the Army’s current overseas commitments.

The commission’s recommendation provides a compromise that all parties should find amenable. Under the proposed plan, the National Guard will keep four of the six Apache battalions, while the Regular Army will retain its 20 battalions. (The original restructuring initiative divested Guard Apaches to fill out the Regular Army’s attack aviation and attack reconnaissance battalions, the latter being comprised of the now-retired Kiowa Warrior). In exchange for the two “lost” Guard Apache battalions, the commission recommends adding two Black Hawk battalions to the Guard. This will require additional purchases of Apache helicopters, but it is likely Congress will provide the funding.

Enhanced cross-component integration.

The commission encourages the Army to make further effective use of its Guard and Reserve units, especially in predictable and sustained deployments such as in Kosovo and the Sinai. It also calls for increasing the number of annual rotations for Army National Guard brigade combat teams at combat training centers starting in fiscal year 2017. Such a proposal would increase readiness of National Guard brigade combat teams, thereby allowing the Total Army to draw from an additional pool of units for both predictable and unanticipated deployments.

The commission further made several proposals to create personnel management policy that would better serve a Total Force. Recommendation 27 suggests the secretary of the Army should review and assess officer and noncommissioned officer positions that could be potentially designated as integrated across all components. This review would codify opportunities for Army leaders to be assigned across a “continuum of service.” The review is recommended to be completed within nine months of the commission’s report, and new designations within 18 months.

Additionally, Recommendation 28 requests the secretary of the Army develop selection and promotion policies that would incentivize assignments across all three components. In practice, this would open up additional opportunities for noncommissioned officers and officers in the Regular Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve while establishing a Total Army culture that rewards rather than penalizes transfer from one component to another. The commission did not provide specific guidance for how this system would be implemented, but recommended the policies be adopted within one year of the report being published.

A foundation, but not a solution.

In many respects, the National Commission on the Future of the Army report remains an unfinished work. Many of its recommendations will require further studies be conducted by the Department of the Army before they are implemented. And the commission’s report is not without its critics. Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno stated the commission “largely missed its primary if unstated task: healing the deep rift between the active Army and the National Guard.”

Barno further went on to say that although addressing the Apache transfer issue, the report offered “few other substantive suggestions on how to truly integrate active, Guard and reserve capabilities into a unified force.”

Strategically, the commission has missed the mark. In what one expert describes as “strategic amnesia,” little attention is paid to stability operations and counterinsurgency in the report, lessons that were hard learned from 14 years of persistent conflict. Recommendations on a Total Force structured to address conventional, asymmetric, and hybrid threats remain wanting.

Despite these misgivings, it is likely that attempts to heal the rifts between the three components will be embraced by Army leadership. Senior Army leaders, including the Army chief of staff, have already publicly called for increased use of the National Guard and Reserve, a revisit of multicomponent “round-out” units, and a reevaluation of the current National Guard and Reserve training calendars. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, has already indicated his hopes of having better integration of National Guard and Reserve units into European missions.

The commission, after all, was chartered to give recommendations, not mandate policy. But it serves as a useful blueprint in building an effective Total Force capable of meeting threats across a wide spectrum. It is arguable that relations between the Regular Army and its reserve components had reached a nadir in 2014. The report, though hardly a silver bullet, took significant strides in addressing the cross-component relationships and establishing a foundation for more seamless integration. But real reform will require attentive congressional oversight, and willing partners in the Regular Army, Army National Guard and Army Reserve leadership.

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. Not surprising then that Pentagon bureaucrats and Washington political operators are regarded with skepticism 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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The Defense Department just took a major step towards making the dream of a flying drone carrier a reality.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's air-launched and recoverable X-61A Gremlins Air Vehicle finally conducted a maiden flight in November 2019, Gremlin contractor Dynetics announced on Friday.

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