How do we meet regional security requirements, maintain the flexibility to respond to crises, and operate within very real constraints? That’s the question planners need to answer with respect to US armored brigade combat teams (ABCTs), and the debate now revolves around the relative merits of two models: rotational versus permanently stationed armored brigade combat teams in Korea and Europe.
John R. Deni, a U.S. Army War College professor, argues in a forthcoming report for the Atlantic Council that forward-stationing an armored brigade combat team in Europe and another in Korea would cost less and provide more capability than the current rotational unit construct in use by the Army. Gen. Ted Martin, the outgoing 2nd Infantry Division commander, begged to differ in a recent interview, saying the new model is much preferred. Bottom line, proponents of the rotational model argue, a return to forward-stationing sacrifices strategic flexibility for marginal cost savings and questionable increases in readiness. Exploring this problem and examining the current posture of the ABCT force shows why these proponents are right: only a rotational model—augmented by important policy and planning shifts—can yield a force of ABCTs that meets US security requirements and preserves the level of flexibility necessitated by a dynamic global security environment.
The ABCT debate reveals tension between two competing philosophies for the Army’s overall posture. The forward-stationing model reflects a Cold War mentality of placing Army forces close to known hotspots (e.g., the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Korea) with a single-minded focus on the regional threat. The rotational model reflects a complex strategic environment where certain contingencies remain likely, but the need for rapid deployment to another theater altogether remains highly possible. Which philosophy is more applicable? College football’s “blue-chip ratio” provides a useful analogy: during the last twenty years the only teams to win a national championship maintained rosters of at least 50 percent blue-chip (4- and 5-star) athletes. Strip away coaching, individual stars, fans, conference; it all comes down to having a deep and robust bench of the most talented players. Such a deep and robust bench is precisely what the Army needs in order to win in a complex world—the deep and most talented bench of brigade combat teams possible. Forward-stationing moves the Army backwards while threatening to drop the Army’s “blue-chip” ratio of a robust ABCT force capable of global response.
The rotational model maximizes the degree of readiness of ABCTs in key regions. The active duty Army currently maintains nine (soon to be ten) ABCTs fully tasked against three regional contingencies. At any given time, one rotational ABCT is located in Europe, one in Kuwait, and one in Korea. These brigades match a validated request for forces in each combatant command for an ABCT. Though they rotate to these regions, each ABCT is stationed in the United States, and must complete a full train-up to include a deployment to the National Training Center (NTC) in California. This capstone exercise fully qualifies the brigade for deployment and allows the unit to obtain a level of training—at the battalion and brigade level—higher than that of a forward-stationed brigade. Forward-stationed brigades do not have access to such a capstone exercise and must send one to two battalions at a time to smaller training sites such as the Joint Multinational Training Center in Germany or Rodriguez Live Fire Complex in Korea. Both rotational and forward-stationed brigades face the challenge of the Sustainable Readiness Model (SRM) in which brigade manning in total hovers around 95 percent of authorized strength and anywhere between 5 and 10 percent personnel turnover every month. This personnel turnover prevents forward-stationed units from ever achieving true readiness at the battalion and brigade level. Assuming a low-end turnover of 5 percent per month, companies in forward-stationed brigades would change over 60 percent of their personnel per year. Rotational units typically deploy at approximately 80 percent of end strength, but fully trained and with an ever-increasing percentage of forward personnel as the rotation progresses. The combination of NTC validation and lower personnel turnover once in theater mitigates this. Again, SRM challenges forward-stationed and rotational brigades, but less so for rotational formations when considering the battalion and brigade maneuver required of an ABCT in combined arms maneuver warfare.
With the impacts of SRM alone, the readiness of forward-stationed brigades is already in question. Mr. Deni points out that the cost of leaving a brigade and its equipment forward is less than the cost of constantly training and rotating brigades. And in the narrow sense this is true: $1.05 billion for a forward brigade versus $1.19 billion for a rotational one annually. This, however, misses a larger point. The Army Operating Concept lays out assumptions and an approach to war fully in line with the rotational model: engage regionally, respond globally, and dominate the battlespace once deployed. With the demands of global contingency operations and increased emphasis on new domains of warfare such as cyber, ABCTs must always optimize their contribution to the total force. Tying their existence to regional contingencies keeps ABCT forces both relevant within budget discussions and, critically, able to muster a larger force for global response. Were the Army to maintain two ABCTs forward, how would it justify the existence of eight stateside brigades with a limited mission profile and a large defense budget of competing priorities? One could envision a future—if forward-stationing is fully adopted—where the Army maintains ABCTs stationed in Korea and Europe, and only three ABCTs based in the United States rotating into the CENTCOM area of responsibility. Most Army leaders would agree that only five active ABCTs would be too little, reducing our flexibility, but how to justify the ABCTs without a specific mission set? ABCTs have a high deterrent value given their tactical lethality, but they remain expensive, logistically intensive formations requiring a large budget. Given the persistent threat of conflict in the regions to which they’re deployed, the rotational model ensures a robust bench of ABCTs for future conflict.
Furthermore, the forward-stationing model assumes operational stability in those regions that no longer exists. A European reaction force prepares to respond to Russian hybrid warfare action across a swath of territory stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. In Korea, US forces support a robust South Korean army across a number of contingencies. No longer does the United States train for a Fulda Gap or race to the DMZ scenario as it did in the period when forward presence was central to US strategy. Not to mention, and curiously absent from the discussion about forward-stationing, the brigade in Kuwait provides a variety of options to the CENTCOM commander to include field artillery support during the recent Iraqi recapture of Mosul. A return to forward-stationing would train those brigades on a very narrow mission set and risks engendering operational complacency. Again the Army Operating Concept directs regional engagement, but not narrow focus on one problem set. All three ABCT deployment regions benefit from the fresh eyes of leaders in rotational brigades every nine months. The rotational model maintains a deeper bench of ready-to-use forces and thus increases the deterrent value of the single brigades present in each region. It ties the entire ABCT force to regional contingencies and thus justifies the entire force’s continual training, manning, and equipping. It keeps our bench deep and well stocked for contingencies.
At the total force level, the rotational brigade model makes sense, but it causes tremendous strain on the ABCT force at the brigade level. Mr. Deni correctly points out lower retention rates, something I witnessed as a company commander and can attest to personally. Furthermore, SRM causes a constant churn of personnel only partially overcome by combatant commander rules keeping personnel in theater as long as possible. A report on 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division demonstrates these manning shortfalls dramatically and in detail. However, this doesn’t mean the rotational model should be dropped, but rather that it should be fixed. The following recommendations could redress these shortfalls and ease the friction currently experienced under SRM in the rotational model.
First, the ABCT force should return to Army Force Generation ARFORGEN practices. Army leaders criticized the ARFORGEN model because it peaked unit readiness only at the time of deployment, and then dropped the unit’s readiness immediately upon redeployment, a boom and bust cycle. With modification, this could be overcome. Furthermore, the basing of all ABCTs in the United States allows these manning practices in a way that a forward-stationed ABCT could never adopt due to its operational posture in theater. Consider a scenario in which a hypothetical ABCT completes a nine-month rotation to its region. Upon return, the unit immediately divests itself of the maximum possible movers: leaders to broadening assignments or schooling and incoming of lieutenants, captains, and majors from the generating force to replace them; soldiers and NCOs would replace those who moved in a similar manner with pinpoint HRC assignments not filtered through divisions. Within six months of return, the brigade would lock in at least 80 percent of its personnel for the next rotation. Another freeze in movement ninety days prior to the NTC deployment. Some additional churn of arrivals and departures would occur in the final ten months leading up to a rotation, but the preponderance of the team will have moved or arrived while the unit completed red cycle taskings. With a force of nine to ten ABCTs, this would leave three brigades forward fully manned and trained, three to four brigades partially trained and 80-90 percent manned in the United States, and three brigades untrained—a robust force capable of scaling to a contingency rapidly if necessary. This is the antithesis of all current Army manning guidance, but it reflects the reality of ABCTs with an OPTEMPO no different than that seen during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (though less casualty- or stress-producing).
Second, the Army must provide a mix of retention incentives and assignment preference to balance out the effects of this OPTEMPO, particularly for occupations that reside operationally only in the ABCT (e.g., tankers, tank mechanics, and Bradley mechanics). These soldiers have no other tactical positions in which to serve, and bonuses for these occupations should reflect that. Furthermore, the Army could offer bonuses to any soldier or NCO who re-enlists at his current brigade through the next rotation, thus alleviating some of the personnel turnover. The Army could also give preferential assignment to leaders who serve multiple rotations in the ABCT, in recognition of the disruption to their broadening or developmental timelines. Here again, ARFORGEN provides a level of predictability to personnel managers and the soldier, making this more possible.
The rotational brigade model does have flaws, and its benefits to the total force are hard to see at the brigade level and below. But due to its threat to the total force and reduced strategic flexibility to the wider Army, forward-stationing of ABCT is, simply put, an even worse option. For the foreseeable future, the Army will face the need to maintain a persistent presence of one ABCT in each of three theaters. At the same time, as our most lethal ground combat formation, the ABCTs must posture for global response where a surge of several US-based into one theater may be required at any moment. The rotational brigade model maintains a “blue-chip” bench of brigades capable of fulfilling these requirements. Modification of the manning and training of ABCTs would offset the costs to the force at the soldier level. We must remember it’s not just the starters (forward brigades), but the “two deep” brigades constantly training stateside that give us flexibility. The Army deploys ABCTs where it expects to encounter the most lethal tactical environments and must have a big bench behind its forward units to fill the gap. The rotational model provides just that.