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Army retools to lean force

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LEWIS, Wash. - "Outlaw! Outlaw!"

Four soldiers from Bravo Company shout their platoon code name as they storm into a building in this makeshift village at the edge of a pine forest. They scatter among two floors of rooms in a cacophony of shouts, cracking bullets and thumping boots, trying to root out an entrenched urban enemy.

It was less than 10 years ago that the Army squared off against the forces of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in a desert duel of tanks and artillery. Today, that is ancient history. U.S. soldiers are training for their likely 21st-century foe: small bands of terrorists or guerrillas, sheltered amid civilians in teeming cities.

Tomorrow's soldiers will operate in smaller, more lethal groups, using stealthy tactics and an array of sophisticated surveillance gadgets, computers and precision weaponry. They will trade their 70-ton battle tanks, designed to fight the Soviet Union, for smaller armored vehicles that can traverse narrow city streets and small, Third World bridges. They will train not only to kill but to separate hostile factions in a skillful blend of warrior and diplomat.

"We've really shifted," says Capt. Joe Paull, a burly 26-year-old platoon leader from Janesville, Wis., as he watches his soldiers dash through this urban training course. "Come in. Hit hard. Move out. You're not going to see the big armored columns anymore."

The 2nd Infantry Division soldiers at Fort Lewis are the vanguard of a $70 billion, decadelong effort by the Army to remake itself, which is taking place against the backdrop of a presidential campaign debate about the future of the military and its role in overseas missions.

As the Army shakes off its heavyweight Cold War look, it is trying to evolve into a more maneuverable force that can quickly hop aboard cargo planes. Under the plan, brigades of about 4,000 soldiers could be deployed within four days - rather than a week or more now - to tackle everything from humanitarian relief and peacekeeping missions to small-scale wars.

By the end of next year, the first brigades will be able to take their skills from the playing fields of eastern Washington to real-world missions. "This is a pretty monumental shift for the Army," says Maj. Gen. James M. Dubik, an infantry officer who studied philosophy at the Johns Hopkins University and oversees the training at Fort Lewis. "Almost everything that worked in the Cold War is now called into question."

Effort meets with skepticism

But the Army's transformation has drawn a number of skeptics, including some within its ranks.

Some defense analysts say the new units lack sufficient firepower to deal with potential threats. Lawmakers complain that the Army is moving too fast, committing itself to expensive new weapons before technology is developed. The Marine Corps and Navy worry that the effort will take money from their programs, and the Air Force does not have enough planes to move the units swiftly enough.

Privately, some Army officers question the need for radical change. Quick-responding airborne troops can deal with threats, they say. And those who've devoted careers to tanks doubt that a proposed 20-ton "Future Combat System" can replace the deadly and survivable M-1 Abrams tank, the 70-ton behemoth that helped defeat Iraq.

Army leaders see dire need

Army leaders shrug off the criticism and insist the service must reinvent itself. The Marine Corps will continue to be needed to storm ashore and take an airfield, they say, but only the Army has the strength of numbers and supplies to keep it.

And though Army airborne divisions can deploy quickly, they lack the firepower to hold ground against a well-armed foe. Heavyweight armored divisions are more lethal but take weeks or even months to get to the fight. A "medium-weight" force, such as the one being developed at Fort Lewis, will combine the best of both worlds, they argue.

"We were cautioned that naysayers would essentially try to slow us down," Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army's top officer, told Congress earlier this year. "We are resolute."

Army Secretary Louis Caldera casts the debate in dire terms. "To me, the Army had no choice but to transform," he says in an interview, "or cease to be relevant."

Far from this furious debate, Sgt. Jeremy Vondra, 23, of Dixon, Ill., couldn't be more content with his role in the new brigade at Fort Lewis.

Until recently, he operated a 25 mm cannon aboard a Bradley fighting vehicle, where he would sit in a turret and shoot. Now he's a rifle squad leader, in charge of eight soldiers.

"It's brought forth leadership skills I didn't know I had," he says.

Vondra and his squad will train at this plywood village well past sundown, switching to night-vision goggles and often using real bullets. To add a touch of realism, fellow soldiers often play the role of civilians.

"In the old Bradley unit, everyone out there was an enemy," says Vondra, his face streaked with black and green camouflage paint. "Now it's hard to differentiate."

Putting warfare in context

Col. Anthony M. Coroalles, one of the top officers at Fort Lewis, says the focus is on training leaders. Junior officers not only will spend more time in the field but also will devote more time to reading about past military challenges, from those of the Greek warriors at Thermopylae to Army Rangers in Somalia.

"You've got to educate folks in [solving] problems they've never seen before," he says.

Carrying lighter rifles and being linked by radios and earpieces, the soldiers borrow reconnaissance techniques and surveillance used by Army Rangers and Green Berets. They will operate from a less-cumbersome armored vehicle, which is scheduled to be selected this month. That vehicle will pack a computer whose screen will show a detailed picture of the battlefield, including the placement and firepower of enemy troops and the location of U.S. units.

"We will not be surprised. I'll know where my men are," says Capt. James "Pat" Work. The computer is designed to help prevent the "friendly fire" casualties that marred the U.S. victory in the Gulf War.

The new brigades will use unmanned spy planes that can watch enemy forces. Some smaller, company-sized units will employ greater firepower than today's infantry, including a 105 mm gun, two types of mortars and machine guns.

"We bring more punch to the firefight," said Lt. Mark Ivezaj. "When we hit you, you're down."

Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington research center, is among a growing number of analysts who question the lieutenant's claim. "My concern is the Army may be deciding to move toward the wrong future in a big hurry," he says.

The brigade will not have enough firepower to take out an enemy's short-range missiles, which would pose a serious threat to U.S. forces trying to land at a port or airfield, says Krepinevich. Other defense analysts fault the Army for not including helicopters, which sacrifices maneuverability.

Officials at Fort Lewis say Air Force planes can be used against enemy missile threats. And though helicopters or Army missile batteries could be added to a mission, they would hamper the key goal of rapid response.

"It won't take 96 hours," says Coroalles. "It will take longer if you add more stuff to it."

Some in Congress have criticized the Army for moving ahead with spending more than $7 billion for 2,100 light armored vehicles. They will be used by the brigades that will be created over the next six years. The lawmakers suggest waiting because technology is expected by 2003 that will produce stronger, lighter vehicles with greater firepower.

Fears of momentum loss

But Caldera, the Army secretary, says that if the service fails to buy the vehicles now it will "lose momentum" on its modernization effort. "All of the inertial forces that are opposed to transformation inside the Army and outside the Army will make sure that it grinds to a halt," he says.

Buying the armored vehicles means the first brigades could be deployed by the end of next year, he says. "You just put a new arrow in the quiver for the president that he didn't have before," says Caldera.

One critical stumbling block is a lack of planes to move units overseas in times of crisis, say officials and defense experts. The Army would need 120 C-17 cargo planes to ferry a brigade to a hot spot or humanitarian mission. But the Air Force has only 63 and won't have enough additional planes until 2004.

Army officials, undeterred, say the right mix of military and chartered aircraft can be found. "In a real crisis, [airplanes] will be reallocated to move what has to be moved," says General Dubik.

Perhaps the most pressing problem is finding the money to make the Army's effort a reality. The Pentagon can come up with about half the $70 billion price tag through cuts in other programs, mostly heavy tanks and artillery designed to fight the former Soviet Union.

The rest will have to come from Congress, which has supported the Army effort. This year, Congress provided $1.6 billion, or about $866 million more than the Clinton administration requested. Whether that trend will continue remains uncertain.

The Army complains that it has been shortchanged for years when it comes to funding weapons systems. Since 1989, the Army modernization account has dropped 40 percent, says retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff.

Says Caldera, "Personally, I think the Army's modernization program is in the worst shape of all the services."

Political proposals

As Republican George W. Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney, a former defense secretary, sharpen their criticism of the administration's military policies, President Clinton is expected to request an extra $1 billion next year for each of the services.

That move will "give us a lot of breathing room," says Caldera.

Bush's national security advisers are signaling a bigger push for modernizing the Army, advocating deeper cuts in battle tanks and vowing to set aside more money for research and technology. Last week, the Texas governor said he wanted to "refashion" the military into one that is "much more lethal" and will be "very focused on moving troops in a quick way."

That could almost be a page from the playbook at Fort Lewis. Despite claims of low morale in the military, these soldiers eagerly dash through plywood villages in search of a future foe.

"Our re-enlistment has skyrocketed," says Lieutenant Ivezaj as he prepares his platoon for another live-fire exercise. "That adrenaline goes up, and so does re-enlistment."

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