To fulfill all of the Army’s global responsibilities, soldiers typically spend as much time deployed as they do at home between missions, inspiring service leaders to see which missions might be scrapped to give troops more down time and ultimately beef up readiness for when they do ship out.
“We are deploying at a higher rate now than we were, maybe, four or five years ago, at least at the peak of Afghanistan and Iraq in some ways,” Army Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Feb. 15 at the Pentagon. “We have a much higher op tempo than most people realize, driven by the fact that we are obviously still engaged in Afghanistan in the Middle East. We are now rotating ABCTs (Armored Brigade Combat Teams) to Korea and Europe.”
Staffing the Army’s global responsibilities has resulted in a deploy-to-dwell ratio of one to one, where the Defense Department standard is that troops should spend twice as much time at home as they do on deployments. Esper has launched an audit of the service’s global engagements, to include forward-stationed units, training exercises and other missions, to see which ones are necessary and which ones can be either scaled back or canceled to fill other readiness requirements.
“What we’re looking and what I’ve discussed with OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense) is, are there some of these missions … are they as critical to the deployment … that really demand our troops,” he said.
Esper gave the example of the infantry brigade combat team (IBCT) currently stationed in Kuwait. Esper is examining whether the Army can withdraw that unit back to the United States to relieve more critical readiness shortfalls.
“Can we get relief from that mission, bring that unit back home so we can get its readiness up to a higher level, put it in the queue for more deployments out there and maybe increase that deploy-to-dwell time to something higher than one-to-one,” he said.
“We’re looking across the board at everything,” he added. “It’s not just those types of deployments, but it’s training, as well. I’ve talked with some of the combatant commanders to say ‘this training is great that we’re doing with partners, but it has to have a real return on investment.’ We can’t just be sending soldiers out to train and exchanging T-shirts and sipping tea. It has to have real value, otherwise I’m hurting my readiness.”
The Army does not have enough soldiers to man its units at 100 percent, so deploying units soak up troops from others to fill gaps before embarking on a mission. That leaves fewer soldiers – and larger holes in stateside units – to train for upcoming contingencies, Esper said.
“I’m confident we can push soldiers out the door in large numbers, in sufficient numbers, for a fight or for a mission. The challenge is in the readiness piece in terms of preparing for those operations,” Esper said. “My biggest experience is the challenge we have with peacetime training as that feeds into readiness.”
He mentioned units at the National Training Center with authorization for 100-percent strength that only could muster 80 percent for exercises.
The Army is also looking at other initiatives to reduce medical non-deployables that includes a new fitness test for recruits and a new fitness regimen for combat units. Each brigade combat team is now staffed with a fitness trainer, a physical therapist and a nutritionist to “treat our soldiers like professional athletes,” Esper said.
“If they are injured on the field, we take them back and take care of them and get them back on the field as quickly as possible,” he said.