Proclaiming the need for a "comprehensive transformation" of the Army to carry out a growing variety of missions, the Army's top commander yesterday pinned his hopes on futuristic technologies that might not exist for another decade.
In a "vision statement" meant to resolve a long-standing debate over what land forces should look like in the post-Cold War era, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, depicted a force driving a new generation of light but lethal wheeled vehicles and soldiers carrying highly computerized communications and surveillance gear.
While the new equipment is being developed, Shinseki said the Army will design brigade-sized forces--about 5,000 soldiers--to handle peacekeeping missions and other operations that fall short of all-out war. Troops will be shifted from administrative and support duties to make up for shortfalls in combat units, and the Army's unwieldy logistics system will be streamlined, he said.
On becoming the top uniformed officer last June, Shinseki promised to resolve a debate over the shape of the Army that dates back more than 20 years but has gained urgency with the end of the Cold War and the prevalence of missions such as those underway in Bosnia and Kosovo. Those operations involve peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance in a potentially hostile environment, and Shinseki acknowledged that the Army's heavy armored divisions are too cumbersome to be deployed quickly and that its light divisions, such as the airborne, lack the punch to sustain a significant fight.
Several previous service chiefs have grappled with the same dilemma and produced proposals that never were fully implemented.
Shinseki's speech yesterday to the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army, a booster group of current and retired Army personnel and representatives of defense industries, was portrayed by Army officials as the unveiling of the latest long-term plan for the redesign of U.S. land forces.
He promised to erase the distinction between heavy and light forces and instead produce units that can conduct the "full spectrum" of operations from set-piece battles to refugee assistance. "With the right technological solutions, we intend to transform the Army--all components--into a standard design," Shinseki said.
Shinseki did not provide any cost estimates or time lines for the achievement of his aims. When asked for specifics at a news conference that followed the speech, Shinseki repeatedly responded that the plans had not been fully developed and that "everything is on the table."
Defense industry and Army scientists have predicted that the technology to equip this fast-moving, highly versatile force might not be available until the year 2010, Shinseki said, adding that he has asked whether development can be accelerated. Key factors include new metals and plastics to construct smaller, lighter vehicles that will run on wheels to replace tanks and other tracked vehicles.
"Can we in time, go to an all-wheel vehicle fleet where even the follow-on to today's armored vehicles can come in at 50 to 70 percent less tonnage?" Shinseki asked. "I think the answer is yes, and we're going to ask the questions and then go where the answers are."
While waiting for new vehicles to replace the Army's current war horse, the 70-ton M-1 Abrams tank, most Army units will remain unchanged. Two brigades, one heavy and one light, at Fort Lewis, Wash., will be the guinea pigs for the new concept. They will get equipment now in production but not necessarily in the Army inventory, such as small armored patrol vehicles now common in European armies, and will begin developing the tactics and organizational design that can be applied to larger units, Army officials said.
CAPTION: Army Chief Eric Shinseki, right, tours Tuzla air base in Bosnia last winter with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Henry H. Shelton.