An Obsolescent Army?

An Obsolescent Army?

The 1991 Persian Gulf War demonstrated that the U.S. Army is in urgent need of reform. So why hasn't it happened?

Read Time:
2m 27sec

"A Different War" by Peter J. Boyer, in The New Yorker (July 1, 2002), 4 Times Sq., New York, N.Y. 10036–6592.

What was the key military lesson of the overwhelming U.S. victory in the 1991 Persian Gulf War? That the U.S. Army is in urgent need of radical reform.

The army was "a magnificent Cold War force, perfectly suited" for set-piece battles in Europe, notes Boyer, a staff writer at The New Yorker. But the desert war showed how needs had changed, and it "revealed two potentially disastrous flaws: the army’s light forces weren’t lethal enough to stop Saddam Hussein by themselves, and the armored units were so heavy that it took them months to reach the battlefield." Immediately after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the lightly armed 82nd Airborne Division was dispatched to Saudi Arabia to establish a defensive line. The Pentagon knew it was no match for Iraqi armor. If the Iraqis had attacked, there would have been "a slaughter," one general told Boyer.

It took five months to move what the army calls "the iron mountain" and assemble the victorious U.S. force. At 70 tons, the prized Abrams tank, for instance, was too heavy to be transported to the battlefield by air. Later missions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo made the army’s flaws even more apparent. On a limited mission in Kosovo in 1999, "armored American units, mired in mud, watched helplessly from the other side of bridges they couldn’t get across," as the Serb army "maneuvered at will."

General Eric K. Shinseki, named army chief of staff in mid-1999, promised drastic change. "He said that he wanted an army that was nimble, light, and lethal," according to Boyer. Heavy tanks and armored vehicles would be replaced with "systems so advanced that they couldn’t be detected by the enemy, using technology not yet invented."

As a first step, Shinseki ordered the creation of a new type of brigade—a medium-weight unit, organized around lightly armored vehicles. "The Stryker Brigades will depend heavily upon information technology, and enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities," Boyer explains, "to compensate for their lack of armored protection."

Predictably, Shinseki’s reforms ran into resistance from the army. The surprise is that the chief of staff has also gotten the cold shoulder from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his circle. They envision even more radical change, says Boyer, with "conflicts in the information age being fought and won mostly from the air and from space, with satellites, sensors, and precision weapons. Implicit in this thinking (though rarely expressed) is a diminished role in future wars for ground forces." Shinseki’s eventual successor has already been named.

Looking beyond a possible war with Iraq, in which ground forces would be critical, wrenching change of some sort seems to be in the army’s future. "If you don’t like change," Shinseki warned his officers, "you’re going to like irrelevance a lot less."

More From This Issue