Today's Army could deploy to the Persian Gulf or similar distant trouble spot faster than any other in U.S. peacetime history, but would run out of supplies after only a few months of intense fighting because there is no national production base to support it, the nation's top soldier says.
Gen. John A. Wickham Jr., retiring as Army chief of staff at the end of the month after 37 years of commissioned service, stressed in a farewell interview with The Washington Post that he is not recommending sending troops to the Persian Gulf, or calling for mobilization of the defense industry.
Instead, he said, he was portraying the reality of a high quality, small Army that could fly to a trouble zone in a hurry in hopes of deterring war and, failing that, fight intensively for up to three months. Such a mobile force is "more relevant to the times," he said, because the likeliest hot spots are in the developing world rather than Central Europe.
However, Wickham warned, there is a "mismatch" between the fighting forces and the industries that support them. He said that while the Army initially could fight up to three months without running out of supplies, it then would have to wait nine months before American industry could start delivering replacements for destroyed tanks and guns.
"We have taken taken risks in the free world" by favoring fast reaction over "sustainment capability," Wickham said.
In four years as Army chief, Wickham built four light infantry divisions while holding the Army at its current strength of 781,000. Each division numbers 10,000 men, compared with 18,000 for a standard division, and features high-speed vehicles and heavy firepower.
Critics contend Wickham's emphasis on light divisions has given the nation forces which cannot slug it out with heavier Soviet units and also cut into the support structure, such as ammunition handlers, needed to keep an outfit in battle. Wickham rejected the criticism, saying that not only could an outfit like the 25th Light Infantry Division in Hawaii be deployed anywhere in six days compared with three weeks for the heavier 82nd Airborne, but it could start fighting as soon as it hit the ground. The 7th Light Infantry Division at Fort Ord, Calif., could be deployed in the following six days, he said.
Former President Jimmy Carter impelled Wickham and other military leaders to build more-deployable forces when he vowed in his 1980 State of the Union address to protect Persian Gulf oilfields by "any means necessary." The Army has always been short of the air and sealift needed to reach a distant trouble spot in less than a month. The Persian Gulf, 12,000 miles away, intensified the problem because of its distance, and the lack of bases in the region to serve as launching pads for U.S. troops and weaponry.
Lack of bases and stockpiled war goods has prompted the Reagan administration to deploy floating warehouses to support operations in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. "You don't just drop them there and say, 'Bye, boys,' " Wickham said. The British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean has several supply ships on call to the Persian Gulf or other trouble zone.
Despite such stopgap measures, Air Force and Navy leaders would like access to bases in Saudi Arabia for Air Force F15 fighter planes before the proposed U.S. escorting of Kuwaiti tankers begins. Planes can be flown from aircraft carriers steaming outside the gulf, they acknowledged, but this is an exhausting operation requiring continuous midair refueling.
On other topics, Wickham, 58, a U.S. Military Academy graduate and much-decorated Vietnam war officer, who plans to remain in the Washington area, said all the armed forces have put so much of their support structure in the reserve forces that, unlike Vietnam, they would have to be activated for any sizable future conflict.
He also said he opposes returning to the draft to fill the ranks of today's Army, contending that recent reenactment of the GI Bill and other incentives should be enough to maintain the Army with high-quality soldiers. However, doctors and nurses are in such short supply, he said, that a future president may have to draft them into reserve units.
Reflecting on the Army, past and present, Wickham termed today's "the best I've ever seen. I think Vietnam has been put behind us. The Army feels good about itself."