As the Army begins to shift its attention away from Iraq and Afghanistan and bring most of its soldiers home, senior service leaders are developing a new model for keeping troops tuned in to the world’s troubled areas – it’s called “regionally aligned forces.”
The idea is to train soldiers specifically for operations in each of the six regional combatant commands. They would learn regional languages, cultures, geographic and political peculiarities of countries in a particular region.
Details are still being worked out, but it appears likely that brigade combat teams would assigned to specific commands, such as Africa Command or the Pacific Command, and then spend a year training for operations in that command, then spend a year deploying or remaining ready to deploy to the region. The plan was described by a panel of general officers who spoke Tuesday, Oct., 23 at the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition.
At present, the Army is optimized for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Lt. Gen. John Campbell, Army deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and policy. But with the war in Iraq over and Afghanistan winding down, the Army is beginning to turn its attention to other trouble spots.
Africa, for example, is rife with problems – from pirates off Somalia to al Qaeda in Mali, terrorists in Libya, insurgency in the Congo, narco-trafficking in a number of countries, human rights abuses and struggling democracies.
U.S. soldiers would not necessarily intervene in those conflicts, but they could be available to help train local troops and work with friendly governments to provide equipment and security assistance, said Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahue, commanding general of the U.S. Army in Africa.
Much of the work of regionally aligned forces is likely to be aimed at preventing wars rather than fighting them, said retired Lt. Gen David Barno, a senior advisor to the Center or a New American Security.
And although the Army often refers to regionally aligned forces as brigade combat teams, soldiers would often not operate as a full brigade, but as smaller units that are “scalable and tailorable” for particular missions, Campbell said.
“It could be an MP [military police] platoon and some engineers” deployed to train local troops, Donahue said.
The National Guard is also likely to be tapped to take advantage of its 20-year-old state partnership program. The Guard in certain states has formed partnerships with the militaries of certain countries. The Illinois Guard, for example, has a long-standing relationship with the Polish military, West Virginia is linked with Peru, Minnesota with Croatia. The newest partnership is between Oregon with Vietnam, said Maj. Gen. Timothy Kadavy, deputy director of the Army National Guard. There are 65 such partnerships in all.
In a break-out session for the Army National Guard, Lt. Gen. William Ingram, director of the Army National Guard, said overseas training opportunities would be valuable assets in keeping the component operationally ready and help with recruiting and retention.
As the regionally aligned initiative develops, the Army may have to adjust its practice of frequently rotating soldiers to new assignments. It might be better to keep soldiers trained in languages cultures and geopolitics for one region in units assigned to that region so their training rendered irrelevant by a transfer to a BCT assigned to a different region, Barno said. The Army might also consider making regional specialization a career path, he said.
“We’re an Army in transition,” Campbell said, so details like that still have to be worked out.
While aligning forces with particular regions offers a new approach for preparing the Army to confront world problems, it is also “making a virtue out of necessity,” Barno said.
The Army is shrinking in size and coping with a declining budget. By 2015, for the first time since World War II, 90 percent of U.S. soldiers will be based in the United States. Just two brigade combat teams would be left in Europe and one in South Korea, Barno said.
Regionally aligned forces offer a way to keep the Army relevant overseas even as nearly all of its troops are based in the United States, he said. But it means soldiers will have to “commute to the fight and commute to be engaged.”