Vladimir Putin has done more than make headlines with his aggressive military moves from Ukraine to Syria, along with displays of force on the high seas and in the air. The Russian leader has also escalated an intense debate inside the Pentagon over the appropriate response to the Kremlin’s new, not-so-friendly global profile — and over the future of the U.S. Army. And now the debate has spread to Capitol Hill: later this week the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing addressing the same issue.
Ironically, this Washington war of ideas has pitted against each other two brainy career Army officers who fought together in one of the most famous battles of modern times.
On one side is Macgregor, an outspoken and controversial advocate for reform of the Army — whose weapons he describes as “obsolescent,” its senior leaders as “self-interested,” and its spending as “wasteful.” Viewed by many of his colleagues as one of the most innovative Army officers of his generation, Macgregor, a West Point graduate with a Ph.D. in international relations (“he can be pretty gruff,” a fellow West Point graduate says, “but he’s brilliant”), led the 2nd Cav’s “Cougar Squadron” in the best-known battle of Operation Desert Storm in February 1991. In 23 minutes, Macgregor’s force destroyed an entire Iraqi Armored Brigade (including nearly 70 Iraqi armored vehicles), while suffering a single American casualty. Speaking at a military “lessons learned” conference one year later, Air Force General Jack Welsh described the Battle of 73 Easting (named for a map coordinate) as “a stunning, overwhelming victory.”
The Russians don’t do many things well, but they have been subverting, destabilizing, invading and conquering their neighbors since Peter the Great — Douglas MacgregorIn the wake of the battle, however, Macgregor calculated that if his unit had fought a highly trained and better armed enemy, like the Russians, the outcome would have been different. So, four years later, he published a book called Breaking The Phalanx, recommending that his service “restructure itself into modularly organized, highly mobile, self-contained combined arms teams.” The advice received the endorsement of then-Army Chief of Staff Dennis Reimer, who ordered that copies of Macgregor’s book be provided to every Army general.
But Macgregor is still fighting that battle. In early September he circulated a PowerPoint presentation showing that in a head-to-head confrontation pitting the equivalent of a U.S. armored division against a likely Russian adversary, the U.S. division would be defeated. “Defeated isn’t the right word,” Macgregor told me last week. “The right word is annihilated.” The 21-slide presentation features four battle scenarios, all of them against a Russian adversary in the Baltics — what one currently serving war planner on the Joint Chiefs staff calls “the most likely warfighting scenario we will face outside of the Middle East.”
In two of the scenarios, where the U.S. deploys its current basic formation, called brigade combat teams (BCTs), the U.S. is defeated. In two other scenarios, where Macgregor deploys what he calls Reconnaissance Strike Groups, the U.S. wins. And that’s the crux of Macgregor’s argument: Today the U.S. Army is comprised of BCTs rather than Reconnaissance Strike Groups, or RSGs, which is Macgregor’s innovation. Macgregor’s RSG shears away what he describes as “the top-heavy Army command structure” that would come with any deployment in favor of units that generate more combat power. “Every time we deploy a division we deploy a division headquarters of 1,000 soldiers and officers,” Macgregor explains. “What a waste; those guys will be dead within 72 hours.” Macgregor’s RSG, what he calls “an alternative force design,” does away with this Army command echelon, reporting to a joint force commander — who might or might not be an Army officer. An RSG, Macgregor says, does not need the long supply tail that is required of Brigade Combat Teams — it can be sustained with what it carries from ten days to two weeks without having to be resupplied.
Macgregor’s views line him up against Lt. General H.R. McMaster, an officer widely thought of as one of the Army’s best thinkers. McMaster fought under Macgregor at “73 Easting,” where he commanded Eagle Troop in Macgregor’s Cougar Squadron. McMaster, however, had more success in the Army than Macgregor, is a celebrated author (ofDereliction of Duty, a classic in military history), and is credited with seeding the Anbar Awakening during the Iraq War. Even so, McMaster was twice passed over for higher command until David Petraeus, who headed his promotion board, insisted his success be recognized. McMaster is now a lieutenant general and commands the high-profile Army Capabilities Integration Center (called “ARCINC”), whose mandate is to “design the Army of the future.” David Barno, a retired Lt. General who headed up the US command in Afghanistan, describes McMaster as an officer “who has repeatedly bucked the system and survived to join its senior ranks.”
For many, McMaster is as controversial as Macgregor, with comments about him spanning the spectrum from condemnation to praise. “H.R. is an excellent officer and a good friend,” a senior JCS officer says, “but you don’t get to three stars by being an outsider, and you don’t get to head ARCINC by bucking the system.” Retired Brigadier General Kimmitt waves away claims that McMaster has traded his ideals for promotion (“clichéd nonsense,” he says) and describes McMaster as “a giant in a land of midgets. He’s the one true intellectual in the Army’s corporate culture. He’s smarter than almost any of them.”
In effect, the debate between Macgregor and McMaster is a battle over whether the Army’s BCT structure is capable of matching up against what Army thinkers call a “near peer” competitor, like Russia. Though it may sound to outsiders like a disagreement over crossed t’s and dotted i’s, the dispute is fundamental–focusing on whether, in a future conflict, the U.S. military can actually win. Even inside the Pentagon, that is very much in doubt. A recent article by defense writer Julia Ioffe reported the “dispiriting” results of a Pentagon “thought exercise” between a red team (Russia) and a blue team, NATO. The “table top” exercise stipulated a Russian invasion of the Baltics, the same scenario proposed by Macgregor. “After eight hours of gaming out various scenarios,” Ioffe wrote, a blue team member concluded that NATO “would lose.”
* * *The military is taking Macgregor’s challenge seriously, in part because the retired colonel has spurred interest in his reform ideas from one of the most important players in the defense community, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain. McCain was said to be impressed after Macgregor and Admiral Mark Fitzgerald briefed him on the new force design last January 17, telling his staff to set up briefings for Macgregor with other senators. Then, in September, after Macgregor’s simulations were completed, he briefed senior Senate Armed Services staffers, arguing that replacing BCTs with RSGs would make Army formations more lethal and eliminate the budget redundancies in the current system, with potential savings of tens of billions of dollars.
“Macgregor scares the hell out of the Army,” says a senior Joint Chiefs war planner. “What he has proposed is nothing less than the dismantling of the Big Green Machine, getting the Army to embrace a future of lighter, more agile forces than the big lumbering behemoth which takes forever to spool up and deploy. I’ll bet the armor and airborne guys are furious. Reform my ass: Macgregor has walked into the zoo and slapped the gorilla.”
Indeed, one of the pitfalls of Macgregor’s Army career was that he slapped a few too many gorillas along the way. He has long been known for his ability to alienate senior officers, not least because he suggested they spent their time sucking up to their superiors, instead of figuring out how to wage war.
In January of 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted that U.S. Central Command General Tommy Franks and his Iraq war planning staff meet with Macgregor, who argued that the U.S. should scale back its Iraq fighting force, racing to Baghdad with a mobile blitz using just 50,000 troops. Franks, and senior Army leaders, rejected Macgregor’s advice, resented his intervention (one commander walked out of the room in disgust, while Macgregor was talking) and after the end of the war, sidelined him in a series of meaningless staff jobs. After being passed over for promotion, Macgregor retired in 2004. Despite this, he retains his outsized influence in Army circles, where his ideas are circulated–and quietly supported. “Doug Macgregor is a pain in the ass,” retired Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt notes, “but that doesn’t make him wrong. Serious people take him seriously.”
In his campaign for reform, Macgregor has recruited a number of high-profile retired military officers to what is known in the military as “the Macgregor Transformation Model.” Macgregor and his supporters presented his model to a packed house on Capitol Hill in November of 2013 and the next year, in these pages, he compared the Army to a nine passenger rowboat–where “four would steer, three would call cadence and two would man the oars.”
Who is right in the great debate? Macgregor was reluctant to provide detailed, proprietary information on how his warfighting scenarios were actually designed, but he agreed to allow me to talk to one of his key simulators, who confirmed that Macgregor’s team comprised officers from every service, who spent months designing the simulation and reviewing the data. “The design of the RSG took eight years,” this former senior military commander told me, “but the actual simulation, based on highly complex mathematical models that are used by the military, started in June and ran for seven weeks. Getting the data right was hell on earth. What we did had to be empirical, provable, convincing.”
Some skeptics suggest that the Macgregor-McMaster debate is less about the Army’s structure than its budget, which has been pared down by sequestration and is therefore being more fiercely fought over. “The Russians have made improvements in their military, but in my opinion the Army exaggerates their capabilities. Hell, they can’t even get their draftees to show up,” says David Majumdar, a defense analyst and Russian military expert at the Center for the National Interest. “The bottom line here is that increasing the Russian threat is a good strategy to increase the Army budget. This isn’t about fighting the Russians, this is about fighting the Congress. This is about getting past sequestration.”
Retired Army Colonel David Johnson, a regular adviser to the military at the Rand Corp., disputes this and says the debate on Army capabilities is as much about weapons as anything else. “We might or might not be fighting the Russians,” he says, “but we’re almost certainly going to be fighting Russian weapons.” On the day that I spoke with him about the Macgregor-McMaster debate, in mid-September, Johnson had just returned from briefing McMaster and his team about the issue, concluding that the U.S. has “important capability gaps” that “put our ground forces and future strategies at high risk.” For Johnson, “fighting their weapons” means countering not just military formations, but sophisticated air defenses, ballistic missiles, and special operations forces” — things the Russians are good at. “It’s a new battlefield,” he concludes, “in which nothing survives that flies under 25,000 feet.”
McMaster also says the debate “has nothing to do with trying to break sequestration,” Instead, he told me during a wide ranging telephone interview, “it has to do with carrying out the mission that we have. … The real question here is not about the budget, it’s about the strength and capabilities of our forces. We have to be prepared for every contingency.” And that includes fighting on for far longer than Macgregor thinks might be necessary, as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. For McMaster, the current Army structure is the best way to do that. “We’re not going to abandon the Brigade Combat Team,” he says. “It’s a building block and it’s a good one. It works.”
Even so, McMaster dismisses suggestions that he is embroiled in a face-off with his former commander. “I think Doug and I are in much closer agreement than you think,” he argues. “He says that the Army needs a greater concentration of lethality and mobility. I agree. He says our formations need greater access to joint capabilities. I agree. He says ‘cut the overhead,’ and I agree with that too. What I want and what Doug wants is a greater integration of lethality at lower levels, at the battalion level for instance, and much better and more robust ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities. That said, I think there is probably one place where we diverge. Doug underestimates our sustainability requirements — and that’s key.”
For McMaster, the question isn’t simply whether the U.S. (and the Army) can fight and win (he believes it can); it’s whether having won it’s possible to manage the victory; in Colin Powell’s phrase, to “own the china” once it’s been broken. Macgregor says his RSGs are self- contained and can fight and win without resupply for seven days to two weeks. McMaster scoffs at this, saying it might take a lot longer and the Army is not simply asked to deploy, fight and win, but to then manage the post-conflict environment and “prepare for every contingency.” And that, in turn, takes a lot more troops. Macgregor’s response? If you focus on fighting and winning instead of nation building you won’t need 630,000 troops.
This is precisely the problem that has dogged the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, where insufficient forces were required to endure multiple deployments. More simply, the U.S. military proved it could defeat Saddam’s vastly superior numbers with just 148,000 U.S. troops — but running the country after Saddam’s defeat strained American resources, led to multiple unit deployments and resulted in the adoption of a last-gasp surge.
An Army that cannot be sustained dampens recruiting, erodes readiness, undermines officer retention and increases desertions. Put another way, McMaster implies, an Army of 420,000 (a number that slashing the Army budget will yield), can fight and win a war — but, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s not enough to maintain the peace.
“People think of the Army as simply a combat force, but if Afghanistan and Iraq have shown anything it’s that after you have conquered the space you still have to manage it,” McMaster argues. “I want to make it clear here: we will operate within the budget. The Army has always made do with what the Congress believes is appropriate–and we’ll do that now. But the American people must understand that we are being asked to shape political outcomes, and that requires resources. It’s not just a matter of building combat capable units, you have to supplement those units and train those units to provide governance. Korea is a good example of this. I know it’s sixty years ago, but it’s still a good model. We protected South Korea, but then we had to stay there and provide stability so that the Koreans could build that society. And it worked, we were successful — they’re now one of the great economic success stories in the world. And it wasn’t just staving off the North Koreans that did that.”
Macgregor responds by pointing out that ultimate victory is not a matter of size. “The problem with the U.S. Army is much bigger than numbers,” he says. “It’s not organized, equipped, or trained for a high end, conventional, integrated joint battle with a numerically and at least in some ways qualitatively superior enemy on the enemy’s chosen turf. In the simulation, it’s Russia. But it could just as easily be China. Even if you increased the Army to 600,000 in its current form … it would still fail. That’s the problem and, by the way, the Army knows it.”
McMaster disagrees. “We’ve built an Army that knows how to fight and win,” he says, “and it’s proven that. Can we get better? Sure, we can get better. And we’re working to get better every day. But our military has been successful in protecting this country, in deterring aggression. But for deterrence to be effective you need a brute force option. That’s what the Army is — our brute force option. It’s a pretty good one.”
R. Jordan Prescott, a defense analyst who has followed the debate over the Army for the last decade, admits that the change that Macgregor and his supporters propose will be hard to enact. But he points out two factors may change that equation. “The defense establishment is facing serious budget constraints, and that’s not going to change,” he says. “Which means the Army will have to make do with a lot less. But why wouldn’t you do both? Why not spend less and get stronger. But more crucially, all of Washington is now getting caught up in this debate. There are at least a dozen commissions and study groups focusing on this.”
Which is to say that the simmering debate over the future of the Army will not be left to the generals to decide. One hopes, too, that it will not be left to Vladimir Putin to decide either.