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Milstuff for Dummies: U.S. Force Structure

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There's an amazing amount of military detail available on the net, from wikipedia entries to the services' sites to the invaluable StrategyPage. There's also an increasing amount of timely interpretation of events from the milbloggers, and chewy analysis from the likes of Wretchard. What I've missed (and that might be my fault) are backgrounders that pull together the details, events, and forecasts into patterns that are recognizable by the novice.


So, with hat tip and apologies to the titles of the book series, this is my first attempt at "Milstuff for Dummies", a crowd in which I include myself. My goal is to pull together a set of basic consensus facts into an understandable and short - narrative, as a common base for further discussion. I desire and encourage admonishment on any factual errors by those in the know, while suggesting that debate on consequences might be better on another thread.

This first attempt explores the topic of the size of the military, and how it's put together. This week's force increase in Iraq makes it a timely issue, and if I survive this experience more or less intact, other subjects may follow sporadically. Without further ado:


Like many of the civilian persuasion, my contact with the military has been limited and fragmentary. In my case, a career in high tech and lately venture capital led to keeping a watch on DARPA and other .mil research operations, but my interest in dual-use (already paid for) innovations didn't lead me to dig far into the missions motivating them.

9/11 and subsequent events changed that motivation, and sent me on a multi-year journey through books, blogs, and f2f and virtual conversations, attempting to understand where the armed forces have come from, where they were going, and the implications for the war and our future.

Clarity: The Way We Were

Back in the 1980s, the primary mission of the US armed forces was challenging, but straightforward: prepare to repel a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The force structure of the time reflected it:

The active force was built of divisions composed of infantry and more or less armor and tube artillery, depending on designation and mission. Divisions were to be the unit of command when and if the Soviets came across the border, and it was at this level that attachment and coordination of other assets would occur.

One likely scenario for the Big One, if it had occurred, was a surprise attack from the East, with little warning to call up troops and arrange logistics. The response was to forward position a lot of war fighting supplies close to the battlefield in Europe. In the event of such an attack, one would also want as many as possible of the fighting troops ('tooth') forward to take the shock.

Add to this the costs of maintaining an effective standing army, and a two-tiered force evolved. The active deployed troops were composed of a lot of 'tooth' and only as much 'tail' logistics and supports units as were necessary for peacetime operations.

In the event of invasion, the active force would fight with the pre-positioned equipment and supplies. Meanwhile (or on early warning) a massive trans-Atlantic reinforcement and resupply effort called REFORGER would kick off, bringing the remainder of the active force and large chunks of the reserves, along with their equipment and replenishment for the active force. Much of America's fleet and air force was designed to fight these air- and sea-lifts through against Soviet submarine and aerial opposition.

The plans for REFORGER must have been as detailed and written in stone as those for the German mobilization for WWI, given its size and complexity. It was impossible to rehearse in full, since activating it would paralyze the civilian transportation infrastructure in North America, commandeering many of its assets such as passenger aircraft. Instead, each active and reserve unit had its place in the plan, and was structured accordingly. Small REFORGER exercises were held periodically, using purely military resources, as practice and some assurance the whole thing would work if the 'go' was ever given.

As a consequence of all these factors, the reserve forces were loaded with support troops. Not only had they to handle the logistics for REFORGER, but many would then attach to the active divisions in the field to support them at wartime operational tempos. Of the support service functions in the army's 'tail' e.g., quartermasters, engineers, military police 75% were in the Army Reserve or National Guard. Those that were in roles involving civilian contact e.g., civil affairs and psychological operations over 90% were in the Reserve or Guard. In retrospect, it seems likely there was little belief these last would actually make it to Europe before the armies had exhausted themselves, or the battleground had become smoking, radioactive rubble. The Guard units always had the short end of things when it came to equipment and maintenance and training, being mostly used for public safety functions at home.

Drift, Dividends, & Doctrine Development

The Big One never came, but the old force structure had its last hurrah on the sands of Kuwait, taking apart an Iraqi army modeled on a Soviet pattern but lacking air cover -or even tree cover. Our force performed magnificently, and we immediately started dismantling it to cash in on the 'peace dividend' at the end of the Cold War. From an active Army force of nearly 800,000 at the time of Gulf War 1 in 1991, we were below 500,000 by the time of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns.

Meanwhile, the mission statement drifted through the '90s. From a single Big One, we went to preparation for two, or maybe one and a half, Medium Ones. Or maybe we should be preparing now for an eventual conventional battle with China, a Big One in 2020 or so. Both missions were cited as reasons to keep as many as possible of the heavy divisions intact. Between that, and legislators' efforts to keep bases on their home turf open, there was once again precious little left for upgrading and maintaining the reserve force.

The missions that did occur were increasingly 'peacekeeping' and stabilization known as 'operations other than war' (OOTW). Given the nature of the missions, they needed some of those supporting services and civil affairs troops, largely in the Guard and Reserve. The utilization of the reserve force began to creep upwards, but the distribution of functions between it and the active force was not changing. In fact, a longer and longer list of support functions were pushed entirely out of the uniformed services and onto civilian contractors, who began to show up closer and closer to the point of action.

In parallel, the military launched a series of development and doctrine projects meant to exploit the technology lead, particularly in communications, which it and its vendors enjoyed. Modestly termed the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), it sought a shift from traditional mass and shock tactics toward maneuver warfare, characterized by agility, coordination, and precision. The success in Gulf War I of early projects fitting this model, such as J-STARS and early 'smart bombs', gave this collection of programs further weight and credibility. However, some of its conclusions, such as the shifting of focus towards lighter and more mobile formations including vehicles such as the Stryker LAV were not received with joy by the advocates of the heavy divisions.

The experiences of GW 1 also gave further impetus to 'jointness' efforts.

Jointness is simply increased coordination between the services, which sounds simple but is difficult in practice. During the invasion of Grenada in 1983, for instance, one desperate but ingenious soldier ordered up a navy airstrike - by pulling out a credit card and calling the Pentagon on his cell phone! Most of our European allies are still at this stage, a fact which has caused problems when they try to cooperate with America's more modern 'networked force'.

The effects of 'jointness' were seen as profound. An army where all its soldiers can communicate, and ask for help from any other specialty immediately, becomes a much more lethal force. It's similar to the business idea of an organization where all departments communicate and share both a common picture of the customer and common objectives. This is an ideal, of course, but steps toward that goal have made companies richer. Could a similar process make the U.S. military much more effective despite its smaller size?

Early efforts in this direction largely centered in the Pentagon, particularly in weapons design and procurement, striving for more commonality. Thus, the "J" in J-STARS or JDAM or JSF simply means Joint. As a military equivalent of the functional rationalization that happened in much of American business in the '80s, jointness produced some bruising fights over service missions and resources and performance tradeoffs, all in the context of an increasingly blurry mission statement.

Jointness also means coordination in active operations. At the time of GW 1, this was happening above the divisional level. Some activities, such as preparation and execution on air targeting and tasking orders, took too long and targets were missed. As more weight was now given the faster responses made possible by new assets such as UAVs and JDAMs, this and other decision loops obviously needed shortening, by being pushed further down the organization. This dovetailed with networked force efforts like "Blue Force Tracker," spurred by watching 'wired organizations' in the civilian sector. It also matched with the beginning of a program to change the fundamental building block of the Army from divisions to the smaller brigade unit, reflecting the reduced need for large units that could slug it out with Soviet tank armies. A few were also pointing out this organization would be more viable in asymmetric warfare situations.

Jointness, light armor, unmanned vehicles, networked fires, brigade level organization all over time coalesced into one amorphous term: Transformation. Robin Burke, an instructor at West Point, explained some of what that meant in an July 2003 Winds article, and a veteran Special Forces helicopter pilot added some thoughts of his own from the front lines.

There was much to love about Transformation, but also much to hate for those whose ox was being gored along the way - many of those being gored could reasonably point to past successes. As spending priorities were debated, brushfire battles spread through the Pentagon and into the armed services committees of Congress. The arrival of an ardent transformation advocate - Donald Rumsfeld - as Secretary of Defense in the year 2000 was greeted with as many groans as cheers.

That state of affairs had been reached as much by technology push as by mission pull. Unfortunately, the mission was about to arrive, on a day that will live in infamy: Sept. 11, 2001.

War - The Ultimate Reality Check

Military preparation, programs, and spending are always a series of informed guesses. People don't like to hear that, but it's true. Only the clash of battle can truly separate the good guesses from the poor ones. The verdicts aren't always the ones people expected, and little boring details may turn out to be more crucial than the headline programs.

The regime change phases of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns have been covered in detail in many places, so I will largely jump to the occupation and other consequences of those actions. But I will note that even an afternoon spent with military history will show the unprecedented nature of those two victories, feats of combined arms, flexibility, and speed just as revolutionary as the original blitzkrieg had been in mechanized warfare.

America's ability to project power and take down governments half a world away is likely more appreciated in capitals beyond the borders than in the academic halls within them. Within the new American military, there was something in these victories for almost everyone:

  • Special Forces advocates had the Afghan Northern Alliance and the still-shadowy strikes at the beginning of GWII.
  • Air power achieved dominance and turned precision weapons into airborne artillery in both theatres.
  • Speed and maneuver reached Baghdad in record time for an opposed march.
  • The heavy armor advocates could point to its value in toppling Saddam without house-to-house fighting in Baghdad. (The only unmitigated downside seemed to be the shocking vulnerability of attack helicopters on even a moderate intensity battlefield.)

But deviations of reality from doctrine and force structure began to appear in the streets of An Nasiriyah, and became even more evident as the campaign moved into occupation and counterinsurgency. Beyond the Pentagon's Top 10 priorities for the war, there were also large shifts going on beneath the surface:

  • The 'tail' of support units found itself exposed to combat as much as sometimes more than the 'tooth' of assault forces. Many were units drawn from the reserve force, short on appropriate training and equipment, more vulnerable to casualties from IEDs and guerilla fighters. (Update: See Jason van Steenwyk's post, for example.)
  • As the campaign turned to occupation, civil affairs, military policy, PSYOP, and other civilian facing functions became vital, and here their concentration in the reserve force became a real problem. Many of the individuals affected had already been activated for duty in Bosnia and other peacekeeping missions, and now were being asked to do one, two, or eventually more rotations to Iraq. Many had signed up with the assumption that their exposure was monthly drills and a call to active duty only in extremis. Those affected did their duty ably, but an ultimate impact on reserve force retention seems inevitable.
  • The nature of combat and the mix of skills also shifted. On the northern German plains, the focus was on operations. A Soviet tank army on the move is hard to hide. Counterinsurgency in Iraq and elsewhere is about intelligence; finding and fixing the enemy is harder than destroying him. The concentration of intelligence functions in the reserve force again proved a problem, as did the general lack of experience with the Arabic language and culture.

Now that guesses about the future were being replaced by operational reality, both the successes to build on and some of the areas to address were becoming clear.

Evolution: The War Forces Change

Wars force change, but some things move faster than others.

The Army moved quickly to make its support tail more toothy - ordering so much range time that there was a temporary shortage of ammo. The training regimen for all Army enlisted positions has since been altered, approaching the "Every Marine a Rifleman" standard. Not every soldier will close with and destroy the enemy, but they should all be able to defend themselves effectively.

Changing the distribution of specialties among active duty, Reserve and Guard is going to take substantially longer. You can't just place a ad for experienced intelligence operatives for active duty, or armor officers for the reserve force. They must be found and trained by the military at considerable time and expense, one of the reasons the enlistment terms don't resemble the civilian sector's 'employment at will' precedent.

To figure out what rate of change is within the realm of possibility we have to do some numbers.

Let's start with "the rule of thirds". It's generally accepted that for every soldier deployed in an active theatre, you need one in a unit that's refitting and training, and one in a unit that is ready to go, both as a reserve and to cover deployment times to and from the active theatre. Reserves are there for two purposes: to deal with hostile eventualities in other theatres (think North Korea) and to replace any units made ineffective by enemy action. The latter has thankfully not happened in this war, but the potential of WMD means we can't count on that forever. (Note that 'reserve' in this context is about the use of a unit, not where it is in the organization. An active Army unit can be 'held in reserve', but not be part of the Army Reserve. Got it?)

Run your force establishment at more than the one-third deployed rate, and you will suffer in the long run, in the form of higher casualties in inadequately trained units, or risks of finding the barrel empty when a real emergency comes along.

Just to make things a little more interesting, recall that 'transformation' notion from above. We're still in the middle of it. Specifically, some units coming back from Iraq are reequipping and retraining with the Stryker, and most of them are reorganizing from division units into BCTs (brigade combat teams), which is turning out to be a more relevant and flexible size in asymmetric situations. Remember all that 'jointness' stuff, too - we're also rejigging some of the interservice connections as we go. Try to deploy a unit in the middle of such a teardown and rebuild, and you are looking at a real mess.

But the enemy doesn't care. Somehow, America has to fight the war and reorganize its military at the same time.


Now the numbers:

Going into November we had a total of just under 180,000 troops deployed in operational theatres, with 138,000 of those in Iraq. (I am not counting forces in Germany, or in Korea. While the latter could be exposed to NKor action, we are moving them back from the border and are effectively treating them as part of the total force pool: One 2ID brigade is now in Iraq.) This is being done on a base of just under 500,000 active duty troops. Do the math, and we are somewhat, but not heavily overdrawn on the 1/3 rule with our current posture.

(If you want the details, look here. At this writing, we are doing a bit of a surge to 150,000 in Iraq through their elections, by holding some units in country and deploying others early. Right now this doesn't look like a long term increase, but time will tell.)

The differences are being made up from the Reserve and Guard units, some of which we'd have needed to activate anyway due to the number of support and other necessary skills in those units. Using those people in heavy rotation has a chance of losing them at their next re-up, and anyway we need to get those skills into the active force, as we will have an ongoing need.

It also looks like we can afford to move some of the heavy armor, and more of the conventional artillery, into the reserve. We may need them in some contingencies, but not on zero notice.

Anyone who's written a line of code knows that if you want to swap the contents of two locations, you need a temporary third location in order to put them somewhere. Even more so in this case: There's recruiting and training time involved, and you need the force to be viable during the transition. So we are talking probably 3-5 years (a bit of a guess) in which we need some duplicated functions between the active military and its reserve units.

That seems to be the way the Army would initially use the 30,000 additional soldiers being authorized by Congress and the Bush administration. Rather than being used to stand up whole new brigades or divisions, the force authorization is likely to be allocated to getting the needed skills into the active force, attaching them to existing units, and then transitioning other functions over to Reserve and Guard. (Anything after that period is guesswork, anyway.)


While it's not the main purpose of this essay to argue for or against what we are doing with the forces at our command now and in the future, a few conclusions can be drawn:

  • We are operating near, but within, the sustainable limits for the current force. This implies the DOD (Department of Defense) and executive view this as a long term effort, in Iraq and elsewhere. (Sure enough, that's what Gen. Abizaid says too.)
  • We are in the early stages of addressing the problem of distribution of functions between active and Reserve/Guard forces.
  • We have plenty of reserve in hand to smash any opportunistic attack (e.g., North Korea), or to surge and mount our own attack on another foe (e.g., Iran).
  • What we do not have are enough forces - nor are we now planning them - to occupy and subdue a generally hostile population of any size on an ongoing basis, without having substantial local cooperation or a willingness to change our rules of engagement. When and if our commitment of forces to stabilizing Iraq decreases, the ability to do another occupation will slowly reappear (something the mullahs appear to have figured out as well).

We knew that the next 3-5 years would be tumultuous times for the American military, and the war is likely to deliver future surprises. Wars always do. Hopefully, this article has helped to bring some common base of understanding of the key military questions and trade-offs driving the policy "debates within the debates".

If there are any other military questions you'd like to see addressed in future, email "mil4dummies" over here

9 TrackBacks

Tracked: December 6, 2004 11:36 PM
Everything you wanted to know... from The Glittering Eye
Excerpt: ...about U. S. force structure—where it's been and where it's going—but were afraid to ask is laid out for you in Milstuff for Dummies: Force Structure. Brought to you by Tim Oren on Winds of Change....
Tracked: December 7, 2004 1:31 PM
MilBlogs: from Mudville Gazette
Excerpt: THE POST EXCHANGE: I've asked my fellow MilBloggers to submit "notable posts" they've written in the recent past for inclusion here, with a quick summary in their own words. I've taken the liberty of linking to some of their...
Tracked: December 7, 2004 1:37 PM
Milstuff for Dummies from Mudville Gazette
Excerpt: Joe Katzman directs our attention to a an excellent article at Winds of Change titled Milstuff for Dummies: Force Structure. The piece explores the transformation of the U.S. military from cold war era to current formulation, coincidentally the period ...
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MILSCI Project from Grim's Hall
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Excerpt: Winds of Change has a new chapter for their MilStuff for Dummies series.
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Must Read-On Military Thoughts from
Excerpt: Via Grim’s Hall. A Very interesting essay, especially for someone like me, who has never been that much of a war student. I tend towards reading on what has taken a people to war, not so much the wars themselves.
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Excerpt: THE POST EXCHANGE: I've asked my fellow MilBloggers to submit "notable posts" they've written in the recent past for inclusion here, with a quick summary in their own words. I've taken the liberty of linking to some of their...
Tracked: January 17, 2005 6:35 AM
assigned reading from
Excerpt: On Monday I will be working on a followup post to last week’s critique of Richard Lewontin. In the meantime, here are a few links that will keep you oh so very occupied. Last September Norman Podhoretz wrote what is...


Covered it nicely, thanks
My question is how often are you going to update this particular article.

I'm not so sure I concur with conclusion #1. As you correctly note, the extended reserve and National Guard deployments are likely to have an effect on reserve recruiting and retention. If we start to have difficulty keeping our reserve units filled to the necessary numbers, we've got a problem.

Add to that the fact we're running into a wall: under a Presidential Selected Reserve Call-up, reserve units can be kept on Active Duty for two years. Lots of units are now running up against that two year limit, and the need for them isn't going away. I wouldn't bet on our being able to maintain this pace indefinitely.

Point #4 is also somewhat misleading: yes, we could probably defeat Iran or North Korea's combat elements if we had to, but the follow-up occupation duties would be far beyond our capabilities.

Nonetheless, a good summation of a great deal of data.

"Anyone who's written a line of code knows that if you want to swap the contents of two locations, you need a temporary third location in order to put them somewhere."

Appologies in advance for being such a IT pedant BUT you can swap without a temporary third location.

a = b xor a
b = a xor b
a = b xor a

swaps without an intermediary.


Andrew - my conclusion #1 is only viable if we transition a substantial portion of those functions that are being repeatedly called from the Reserve into the active force. Seems to me we are getting set to do just that, and it will be followed by the movement of some amount of armor and artillery into the reserve. The timing of training, transition, the two year limit, and the ongoing need in Iraq is definitely a near run thing. But I don't find evidence that the sky is falling re force utilization, as some make it sound. The linked article, for instance, counts forces in Germany as actively deployed, which is bogus.

Re Iran, I used the words 'attack' and 'occupy' quite carefully and deliberately to draw a distinction. They aren't the same, and one doesn't necessarily follow the other. The term 'raid' comes to mind. After all, what would our objectives there be. Likely some combination of:

  • Destroy the fissile material program and any associated WMD program
  • Capture or drive out Al Qaeda organizers
  • Topple the Guardian Council, partially decapitating the government
  • Destroy the Pasadan as an effective force, and neutralize any part of the regular forces and basij that get in the way

None of those necessarily require occupation, and it might be better - were we to do this - to just get out of the way as soon as possible.

I am not necessarily advocating this, but it is an option that is within reach, while an occupation is not.

Rob - I can't wait to see what happens if you XOR a logistics guy with an Abrams driver. Probably an illegal instruction fault: Attempting geek and military humor in the same sentence.

Back in GWI there were around 750K personnel in the Army inventory. In the years since, both the executive and legislative branch have cut it down below 500K. Which is a consideration not addressed. Congress establishes both the overall authorization levels of manning and ceilings on rank structures. Further, the Constitution limits the number of years of funding that the Army can have [a little backblast from Oliver Cromwell's behavior]. It is within those limits that the services have to operate and organize.

Good summary.
For Force Structure History, you might want to go back to Viet Nam. When Gen. Abrams was COS, he intentionally put most of the support troops in the NG and reserve, so that America could never again fight a major war without calling up reserves.

One overlooked subject:
Congress' failed scheme of a minimal volunteer active duty force supplimented by a reserve backup.

With the draft dissolved in the 1970's, some members of Congress decided to thwart any future President's ability to repeat the President Johnson's "Tonkin Gulf" travasty. They structured the military to depend on reserves for serious war making. Congress theorized that a President would be less likely to dabble into major conflicts if it required reinstituting the draft and reserve call-ups.

(President Kennedy had serious political problems with Cold War call-ups in the early 1960's. The Viet Nam draft undid Johnson in the late 60's. And Nixon's draft resisters shut down Washington DC several times in the early 1970's.)

But those best laid plans came to naught when the Bush military-industrial complex used 9/11 to adroitly maneuver two invasions into a 2% reelection mandate. The real test will come with the second and third recapture of Bagdad.

The Abrams inititive mentioned immediately above is the same as the post-draft restructuring. I personally don't believe this would have stayed in place all this time if it didn't also fit the real needs of the Cold War northern Europe faceoff. The idea that it also restrained military action slowly became invalid as conflicts became less about mass armies and more about technology driven lethality.

The problem you are going to have with the 'military-industrial complex' canard is you've got it on its head. The military and administration can do what they are doing because it enjoys the support of the majority of Americans, myself included. How about moving on and doing something productive, like supporting the Iraqi elections, if you can't stomach Bush? That might actually help prevent the eventuality you're prophecying.

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