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Asking for trouble

By Lawrence Henry
web posted September 17, 2001

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Army reported that two of its 10 divisions were unready for combat. The unreadiness is shocking enough. What is more shocking is that the United States has only 10 Army divisions. In the Twentieth Century, when traditional non-aggressor nations have grown complacent and weak, it has meant war.

As veterans advocate and columnist Col. David Hackworth says, the surest provoker of war is for a nation like the U.S. to "show that you don't have the strength or the will to defend yourself."

Military organization, known as "force structure," traces its roots back to the Roman Empire, and perhaps even earlier, to Moses's time. (See Exodus 18: 21-22: "…You must yourself search for capable, God-fearing men among all the people, honest and incorruptible men, and appoint them over the people as officers over units of a thousand, of a hundred, of fifty or of ten.") In the infantry, the basic unit is a Troop, one soldier.

Troops are organized into Fire Teams, usually of four Troops. Two or three Fire Teams make up a Squad. Three Squads compose a Platoon, and Platoons are grouped into Companies (100-120 Troops). Battalions comprise four or more Companies, plus support and headquarters Companies, plus "S-Shops" (supply, medical, intelligence, chaplain).

At the battalion level and above, says my source for this information, a self-described grunt, "everything gets political." Battalions, usually three or four, are combined into brigades, and three brigades combine to form a Division - ideally, about 10,000 Troops. Normally, three divisions make up a
Corps.

At every level, an officer gets a job. And in an Army in the middle of a "build-down," as Prof. Joachim Maitre of the Center for Defense Journalism at Boston University, calls it, that's where the politics come in. An officer wants his command - wants his job. And he'll accept under-strength units in order to get and keep his job.

On paper, America's 10 divisions can look formidable. Underneath, they are half-strength or worse. Prof. Maitre says many divisions are made up of only two brigades. Col. Hackworth says he knows of at least one division that has an entire battalion's strength tied up in pregnant women or women with children. And that, because of the Clinton administration's "gender-norming" recruitment and training policies, division equivalents are either pregnant or in need of baby sitters.

My grunt source says the half-strength problems persist right down to the platoon level. Many companies can count only 40 real members, not the benchmark 120. Motivation and morale are gone. "The guys say it just isn't any fun any more," he tells me.

Why is this so bad? We're at peace, aren't we? We're the world's only real superpower. Why do we need an Army, anyway?

Because counting on perpetual peace is like counting on a perpetually rising stock market or a perpetually falling interest rate. Because having only 10 under-strength divisions is like putting all your money in high-yield bonds or penny growth stocks.

Because today, peace can change to war unbelievably fast - as fast (literally) as an Asian nation's currency can collapse.

Let's put 10 divisions in some kind of perspective. In 1939, when Hitler attacked Czechoslovakia, the Czechs had about 50 divisions - horse-drawn, true, and unable to stand up to Hitler's panzers. (If England had been up to strength - and it wasn't, just like the U.S. today - the British could have helped the Czechs, and Hitler could have been stopped right there.) The Nazis conquered the Low Countries and France with 43 divisions, the most modern armed force in the world at the time. Hitler built up his armies fast; by 1940, he planned to attack the Soviet Union with 120 divisions.

At the peak of the Cold War, the Red Army numbered around 300 divisions. The U.S. sent 12 divisions to Kuwait for Desert Storm, but, says Col. Hackworth, could have won the conflict with four.

Cookie-cutter numbers, it is true, don't mean much. In 1939, Italy piled onto Germany's war, attacking France from the south with 40 divisions. The French stalemated them with four divisions, forcing Italy to signal the Nazis to land a battalion in the French rear, which allowed the Italians to claim a
victory.

So are 10 U.S. Army divisions "enough," in any sense of the word?

"Ten divisions you would consider satisfactory, provided the status of the world doesn't change," says Prof. Maitre. But "We have grave problems with retention and recruiting. The Army last year fell short by 8,000 in recruiting. They have the obligation to recruit 85,000 a year, and fell short by 10 percent. They are threatened by similar shortages this year again."

So those 10 divisions aren't really 10 divisions, plus, they're shrinking.

"We also have the National Guard and the Army Reserves," says Prof. Maitre."But that's a weak answer. We believe that, in case of the balloon going up, we can rebuild." The hope would be to build up to a professional army of 30 divisions.

"But it's only a hope."

Larry Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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