Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lies, damn lies, etc.: "The Army is Tapped Out"

An interesting post ran this afternoon on Time's "Battleland" blog, entitled "The Army is Tapped Out." I've noticed it's getting a lot of attention on Facebook and Twitter, so I wanted to clarify some stuff about the "two really interesting things" that its author, Ron Capps, claims to have learned from a recent RAND report (pdf)  on Army deployment data for OIF and OEF.

Here are the two "interesting" revelations:

1. Despite making up only 50% of the Armed Forces' active-duty end-strength, the Army is responsible for 75% of the individual deployments to the Box. This apparently surprises some folks, in spite of the fact that those deployments are in support of two manpower-intensive land wars. You know, the sort the Army is designed to fight.

2. "Second, and more importantly," according to Capps, "the Army is operating at full capacity... So the Army can't do more unless it deploys the Corps of Cadets." This is a serious misreading of the data. Let me explain.

First of all, this report was published last year at the request of the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. One problem: the VCSA requested it in 2008. The data used in the study is only accurate up to December of that year, so keep that in mind.

Second: the report is about individual soldier deployments. It's not about unit deployments, and it's not about rotational readiness. It's about how many of the actual individual soldiers in the Army have deployed to a combat zone, how many times they've done so, how many folks haven't gone, and so on. It's not about readiness.

So where did this "full capacity" conclusion come from? Here's how the RAND report finishes up:
Since the beginning of OIF, the active-duty soldiers who have deployed have operated at a BOG:Dwell ratio of approximately 1:1. Almost 67 percent of the soldiers in the Army in December 2008 had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of these soldiers were working on their second or third year of cumulative deployed duty. 
Most of the remaining soldiers (about 20 percent) were new to the Army and still engaged in individual, collective, or unit training. Of the remainder, 7 percent are in key specialties supporting current operations or are deployed to Korea or Europe. Therefore, the active-duty Army is almost completely (about 94 percent) utilized and therefore retains very little unutilized capacity to deploy additional active-duty soldiers.
As you can see from the text, we're dealing with a semantic issue here. I'm not sure if "unutilized capacity" means something specific in some particular academic context, but here it's wildly misleading, and it's easy to understand how Capps made this mistake... if he hadn't just read an entire report dealing with individual deployments.

What the 94% figure represents is the portion of the force that either has deployed, has not deployed as a result of a specific set of operational or professional circumstances, or hasn't been in the Army long enough to deploy with a unit. When the report's authors write that "the Army is almost completely utilized and therefore retains very little capacity to deploy additional active-duty soldiers," they mean that there's no massive uniformed pool of active duty, never-deployed fresh meat available for the Army's needs. Which, frankly, is not a terribly useful statistic, and doesn't tell us much of anything meaningful at all. The only thing "the Army can't do more" of is go through the rolls, find more than about 31,000 "unutilized" soldiers -- those who have never deployed and don't have a particularly good reason -- and stick them on the next plane to the Box.

As I noted on Twitter when I first read the post (but before having taken a look at the cited paper), the Army can, in fact, do a whole lot more from a readiness perspective... even without deploying the Corps of Cadets. It would require taking on additional risk, bypassing standard operating procedures, and shortening the train-up time that units receive prior to deployment, but it could be done. Here's how.

Army brigades train, deploy, and reset on a rotational cycle called Army Force Generation. (Check out the reg (pdf) if, uh, that's your thing.) In optimal conditions, that's a 36-month cycle with what's called a 1:3 BOG to Dwell ratio: nine months available for deployment; at least six months resetting equipment, turning over personnel, and reacquainting with family; and then 18-21 months in the Train/Ready phase getting set to be deploy (or at least be available for deployment) again. At present, the Army's just working on getting to 1:2 (12 months deployed, 24 months dwell time), which represents the service's capacity to surge forces to meet the needs of higher operational tempo.
What this means is that only one-third of the Army's pool of modular brigades is in the "available" phase at any one time, while the other two-thirds is resetting equipment or going through the training cycle. In the steady state -- normal, non-surge circumstances -- the Army can make available one corps headquarters, four division headquarters, 15 Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs), and about 75K enablers. In a surge scenario, that goes to 1/5/20/90 -- a yield of an extra five BCTs, or about 17,500 extra combat troops.

Ok, who cares, right? Well, nobody had a rotational cycle in World War II. We pretty much fielded everything we had, with units rotating out of the line for a few weeks at a time to rest and reset. The ARFORGEN cycle spits out a third of the total Active Component brigades as "available," which means they've had the requisite amount of training to deploy at full capability. But if the balloon went up and all of a sudden we were in The Big One, there are 30 more combat brigades -- more than 100K combat troops -- at some stage of readiness. (Remember during the Iraq surge, when deployments were extended to 15 months instead of 12? That was to keep units in the "available" phase of ARFORGEN for longer so as to be able to field more brigades at a time. If the Sovs come through the Fulda Gap, the Army would solve the problem of force availability with 48-month "deployments.") And we haven't even talked about the Reserve Component, which brings another 28 Army National Guard BCTs to the table.

All of which is a long way of saying: I know the whole thing about West Point was a joke, but let's not start talking about the Battle of New Market, ok?


  1. Not just 'yes' but 'hell yes'. Thanks for taking the time to dispel the latest iteration of this relentlessly recycled story.

  2. "Deploying the Corps of Cadets"? I'm amazed at how many people, journo's, politico's and laymen alike....feel the need to engage in easily disproven hyperbole.

    If your position has merit, it will stand on it's own. Thanks for debunking.

  3. Great analysis. Very useful to see the numbers stacked up in one place and the tooth to tail ratios laid out easily.