Army chief struggles to transform service during war

By James Kitfield

October 29, 2004

The phone call reached him while he was driving his pickup truck on state Route 6 near Waco, Texas, and at first, retired Gen. Peter Schoomaker thought it was a joke. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's office was calling. By the time Schoomaker realized it was no joke, he was already embarked on one of the stranger journeys a four-star service chief had ever taken. Pulled out of a comfortable retirement, Schoomaker, who had grown up as an officer in the Army's relatively small Special Forces community, was asked to become the Army chief of staff and to take the helm of a service that had become subject to new and severe demands.

Schoomaker's predecessor, Gen. Eric Shinseki, had been at loggerheads with Rumsfeld and senior Pentagon civilians. Indeed, Rumsfeld bypassed all active-duty Army generals in choosing Schoomaker. The service was under intense pressure from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to transform itself into a more expeditionary force. The Army was also straining under the unexpected burden of counterinsurgency warfare and security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Given the circumstances, many experts wondered why anyone would want to take the Army's top job, and it was reportedly offered to several generals who turned it down. National Journal Staff Correspondent James Kitfield discussed all of those issues in a recent interview with Schoomaker in his Pentagon office. The following are edited excerpts.

NJ: When your appointment as chief of staff of the Army was announced, a lot of people thought you were taking on a pretty thankless task. Why did you take this job?

Schoomaker: The simple answer is, because the nation is at war. Did I want to take this job? No, I did not want it. But I had committed my life to the Army. My father served in the Army for over three decades. My brother is in the Army. My daughter is going into the Army. In my family, when your nation asks you to do something, that's what we do. I'll be honest with you, though: I took this job with reluctance.

NJ: Were you onboard with all the major changes under way in the U.S. military that fit under the rubric of "transformation" -- making the services lighter, faster, and more expeditionary?

Schoomaker: I thought those changes were absolutely essential. That's why I brought many of these ideas back here with me and gave them to my transition team, and a lot of [the ideas] have stuck. I have thought for years that the Army needed to be more expeditionary. I've thought for years the Army needed to transform its personnel system, and change the way that we develop leaders. I've thought for years we had to transform Army aviation.

NJ: As part of that transformation, you announced the cancellation of the next-generation Comanche helicopter, a decision that must have been difficult, given the many years of development and billions of dollars devoted to that program.

Schoomaker: I left my mind open on the issue of the Comanche helicopter, but once I saw the balance of the deal, that decision was a no-brainer. It was a huge drag on our other programs. We're keeping the money from that program and using it to fix the rest of Army aviation.

But I will tell you that we made some other huge decisions this past year -- the kind of decisions that, in more normal times, you might make once in a decade. We've started reorganizing into a more modular Army. We're growing the Army by 30,000 troops. We canceled the Comanche. We accelerated the Future Combat System program. We're regenerating the ammunition base in this country. We got a decision out of OSD to give us an extra $4 billion to get us through 2004. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force all ponied up those funds to help the Army fight this war. Each one of those was a big decision, and they each involved dozens of related decisions that were pretty huge in their own right. So we're doing awesome things that, in the long term, are going to be good for the Army and good for the nation.

NJ: Clearly, Iraq accounts for the greatest stress on the Army right now. In watching that campaign unfold, what about it struck you as transformative or surprising?

Schoomaker: I was not surprised by the success of our Army on the march to Baghdad, which is the kind of fighting we've always trained to do. Nobody should have been surprised by that performance. I think we're the finest Army that's ever been fielded, and the overmatch we have with anyone who tries to fight a symmetrical war with us is incredible. But in Iraq, we've also had to transition to more-unconventional warfare in some highly complex terrain that includes not only cities and towns but also rivers, valleys, wetlands, and desert. There are also smaller wars going on among an Iraqi populace that has been suppressed for so long, as well as a war of ideas.

So I've been most impressed with the adaptability of our leaders and soldiers, especially the ability of relatively junior leaders to take on roles that were far beyond the traditional scope of a company or battalion commander. Those officers are running towns in Iraq, helping organize and working with civic leaders, making tough decisions day and night, even while conducting combat operations around the clock. Much of that goes beyond the normal portfolio of these officers. I think that kind of adaptability and sophistication is something we need to fold back into the batter here as we think about shaping the future Army.

My larger point is that transformation is not about equipment. It's about intellect; it's about judgment; it's about the development of leaders and soldiers. You've got to make that intellectual transformation before you can make the visible transformation.

NJ: Weren't you one of the original members of Delta Force who took part in the failed mission to rescue the U.S. hostages in Iran?

Schoomaker: I was on the mission into Iran that failed, so I saw this at its low point. What I find interesting is that, had we succeeded in Iran, I'm not so sure we would have the Special Operations forces capability that we've got today. The Iran mission was a watershed event in pointing us to where we are today. And while I've never seen SOF integration as good as it is today, I think we have the potential to do this even better. People have figured out that it's ridiculous on the battlefield to shun anything or anyone that can help the team. Shunning Special Forces would be like a football team shunning a guy because he kicks soccer-style, even though he can kick 60-yard field goals. Who cares? What you want is the results.

NJ: What do you say to critics who say that the Army of today was built culturally and doctrinally to be a high-tech sprinter, and it has become bogged down in a counterinsurgency marathon in Iraq for which it has no good doctrine?

Schoomaker: Well, you use a track-and-field analogy, so I would tell you we need to move away from single-event athletes and single-event formations to more of a pentathlete or decathlete model for formations and individuals. One way we can encourage that evolution is by taking advantage of the tremendous lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. We're bringing that combat experience back into the training base. We're bringing it into initial entry training. We're bringing it into our staff and war colleges, and our combat training centers.

Because of what we've learned in combat, we're now putting people through training scenarios where there's no solution. In the past, you were measured on how you complied with doctrine and used it to organize and accomplish your objective. Today, we're designing training scenarios that put people in a continual zone of discomfort. If they start getting comfortable, perhaps because they're very good at certain tasks, then we ratchet up the pressure so that they're back in the zone of discomfort. That's where we want them. That's how you stretch yourself. And that's the kind of organization we want the Army to be. We want an adaptive organization full of problem solvers. We want them to know how to think, not just what to think.

NJ: When outsiders talk about Army transformation, they often point to the new Stryker brigade, equipped with its light armored vehicle, as its most tangible product. What have you learned from the deployment of the first Stryker brigade to Iraq?

Schoomaker: First I would stress that the M-1 tank and the Bradley fighting vehicle will be with us until around 2030. So we will continue to have heavy formations, as well as light formations. In terms of the Stryker brigade, it has almost twice as much infantry as a mechanized brigade built around the M-1 and Bradley.

The Stryker brigade in Iraq recently disengaged from combat up in the Mosul area, moved 420 miles, fought a battle in Bacava along the way, and then entered battle in Najaf. They did all that in a 48-hour period. That performance showed tremendous operational agility and a brigade that is mobile, survivable, and very state-of-the-art in terms of communications and command-and-control. I would emphasize once again, however, that the whole Army's not going to be Stryker-based.

In general, I think Iraq has shown us that we need to quit defining infantry by the way it arrives on the battlefield. The parachute, the helicopter, the truck, the Bradley, the Stryker -- they are all just means of movement and transportation. The centerpiece is the infantryman. Every soldier in the Army needs to have fundamental warrior skills. Soldiers need to be able to survive and patrol and to plan and do all the things you have to do at that basic level. That's our emphasis.

NJ: Iraq has driven that point home?

Schoomaker: Yes, but I would also tell you that the Army is not totally being molded based on Iraq and Afghanistan. The nation depends upon us to be able to fight across the whole spectrum of conflict, from long campaigns that have us going toe-to-toe with symmetrical foes, all the way across to stability and support operations. That's why you're seeing us increase the number of military police, civil affairs, and medical and transportation units. It's why we're increasing Special Operations forces. That's all part of the rebalancing the Army is undergoing.

NJ: I would like to ask you about the obvious strains the Army is feeling. Can you really sustain your present level of effort, as you have said, by wringing inefficiencies out of the system, transferring soldiers from base to base less often, and growing the Army temporarily by 30,000 troops?

Schoomaker: Those reforms are part of the answer. The increase of 30,000 troops may very well be permanent. The future may inform us that the Army needs to grow by 50,000 people. The main point is that it's a lot easier to take an Army down like we did in the 1990s than to build it back up again.

In terms of growing the Army, I'm pedaling about as fast as I can right now. If you told me today I could grow the Army by 200,000 troops, I couldn't do that in a year or two. It would take me decades to get those 200,000 people. So this has never been about growing the Army. It's been about determining whether this period we're in is a plateau or a spike, and how to pay for the growth in the Army that is necessary.

NJ: Even with the 30,000 troops and the 10 extra Brigade Combat Teams you plan to have by 2006 as part of Army transformation, will you be able to sustain the present level of activity around the world?

Schoomaker: If we have to sustain the 17 brigades we now have deployed, I would tell you that we still won't be where I'd like to be, which is to have those forward-deployed forces on six-month rotations. That's the goal. Ideally, you'd like to have three brigades in your force structure for every one brigade that you've got to deploy. That allows you to have twice as much [downtime] between deployments as the length of the actual deployment.

Long before we arrive in 2006, however, I'll be looking at whether we need to grow the Army bigger than the 30,000 now planned. There are just so many variables involved. Even while we are growing by a planned 15,000 soldiers next year and rebalancing the active and reserve mix, we are creating Iraqi and Afghani security forces, and as they come on line, we should be able to pull some forces out of those countries. But if events are such that, next year, we're where we are today, and we can't pull out forces, then it may be absolutely necessary to go forward to the leadership and say, "Hey, we've got to grow again."

NJ: In the meantime, your basic argument is that you are growing the Army about as fast as you prudently can?

Schoomaker: In my opinion, we're growing as fast as we can grow, in terms of equipping and training that force properly. We're not stamping out chocolate-chip cookies here. War is a pretty complex business. You've got to grow your leaders and your soldiers. You've got to train them. You've got to put the right equipment in their hands, form them into the right kinds of formations. I just don't know how we would do it much faster than we're doing it today.

NJ: Do you share the concerns of the Defense Science Board, whose recent report was skeptical of the Army's ability to sustain its present operations?

Schoomaker: Well, this is a difficult challenge, so I do have concerns. I believe we're doing the right things, and we've got a pretty reasonable chance of succeeding. But you have to understand that a big part of this equation -- the demand side -- is something I have no control over. Is it possible that we will end up overreaching? That is certainly a possibility.

You ask me if I'm worried. Listen, this job comes with lots of worries. I promise you, however, that if I thought the Army was in extremis such that we ought to be lighting our hair on fire, I'd be down the hall telling my boss so. But at this point, we're working very hard on a course of action that, I think, has a reasonable chance of success.

NJ: As you look forward, how long do you foresee the global war on terrorism lasting?

Schoomaker: In my view, the conflict we're now engaged in is not a short-term endeavor. I think we're into something that will entail some level of conflict for a great deal of time to come. Some people see war and peace as a light switch. When the lights are off, it's peacetime. When the lights go on, it's wartime. I see more of a dimmer switch. We'll see the intensity wax and wane, but there will always be some level of conflict going on.

By James Kitfield

October 29, 2004