Tuesday my team and I had the privilege to share lunch with Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth O. Preston, the highest ranking enlisted soldier for the Army. It was a unique opportunity to share a meal with a man who has many insights to where the Army has been, where it is now, and perhaps where it might be in the future.
SMA Preston started his lunch conversation stating that currently the Army is at a combined strength of about 1.1 millions soldiers; which includes over 500 thousand Active Duty, more than 350 thousand for the National Guard, and over 200 thousand for the Army Reserve. At this time there are more US Army personnel deployed throughout the world (approx 263 thousand), than at the height of the 2007 Iraq surge (250 thousand). This included troops at two major theatres of operation for Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as numerous small spot throughout the world including Africa and South America.
The Army leadership has been working hard to increase the dwell (home) for soldiers between deployments throughout the Army. There was a time during the height of the Iraq war in which some Active Duty units had less than a year home before heading back overseas. Currently the goal is to have Active ratio of 2 years home per year deployed, and a 4:1 ratio for Guard and Reserve units. He stated that they hope to reach this goal by the end of of 2011, however he admitted that might be tough to reach for some high demand Reserve units which have a majority of the Army's medical assets. To help reach these goals they have increased the size of the Active, Guard, and Reserve over the past four years by 80,000 people which was two years earlier than what congress had originally authorized the Army. Over the next three years the Army would temporarily add an additional 22,000 soldiers. SMA Preston also assured those assembled that the Army would not go back to 15 month deployments, and is working to end the stop-loss policy which would deploy soldiers who are near the end of their enlistment.
SMA Preston then spent a few moments talking about the Iraq war. Currently in Iraq there are 100 thousand troops or so, however by the end of September of this year in accordance with the agreement with the Iraq government there will only 50,000 US Troops in Iraq. By the end of the 2011 all US forces will be out of Iraq. It was asked of the SMA if that meant that we (the US) would give up a major logistical base such as Joint Base Balad, which was a home to several thousand US troops including Army and Air Force Aviation assets as wells as a major supply hub. For as much time and money was invested in that base as well the logistical value of the base it would seem a waste to just give it back to the Iraqi's. He assured that by the end of 2011 we would hand the keys over to that base and all the major bases in Iraq and we (the US) would be out of Iraq.
Currently in Iraq there are several convoys a day, with 100s of trucks pulling material out of Iraq. Everything from tanks and trucks to flat screen TVs, and containerized housing units. Much of the major combat items, such as M1 tanks or M2 Bradley fighting vehicles have already been pulled out of Iraq. Smart logisticians are now in Kuwait working to figure out where to send all of the items that are being pulled out of Iraq. Some things, such as MRAP vehicles will be sent directly to Kuwait for use with surge occurring there. While many items are being sent back to the states, and will be distributed throughout the Army to different units. Finally some items such as old Humvees will be sold directly to the Iraq government.
A question was asked about uniforms, which is something that Sergeant Majors love to talk about. In Afghanistan the Army is about to start fielding the new "Multicam" uniform, which looks like a cross between the old style Battle Dress Uniform and the new Army Combat Uniform (which we wear now). SMA Preston admitted that the ACU was about an 85% solution when it was brought into service a few years ago. The main war fight was occurring in Iraq, and the higher need was a camouflage pattern that would work in Iraq, which is why the ACU was adopted. In Afghanistan, many people feel that the current ACU pattern for lack of a better word sticks out like a sore thumb. In an effort to correct that issue the Army, this summer will start fielding the Multicam pattern to units in or going to Afghanistan. The intention is to use the same uniform design, they will just have the uniform manufacturer use the Multicam color pattern. Unfortunately for those of us who will be in Afghanistan and most likely wearing the Multicam we will not be allowed to wear it when we return home to the United States after our deployment.
In a node to the Army of the Future the SMA admitted that Army Scientist are working to make our body armor lighter and more user friendly. In a perfect world body armor would weigh little more than our current fabric uniform and cover the entire body. Until science can come up with a better solution we will use the product that we have, and pound for pound there isn't a much better solution to stop a 7.62mm bullet on the market. Over the last few years there have been complaints or frustrations about the current M4 rifle, which I also now carry. There are some rifles on the market are slightly better, but not significantly better to make the Army want to purchase the new rifles. Ideally the Army is waiting for what he calls a "leap ahead" technology breakthrough. Scientists are working on technologies in which the weapon might only weigh but a couple pounds while carrying 300 rounds. The bullets might have plastic shell casings, or no shell casing at all. In conjunction with the other services the Army is also working to develop a replacement for the HMMWV (hummer). Because of the nature of the fight that the Iraq war turned into the Hummer was a less than ideal vehicle. The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle that the services are working to develop will develop some of the soldier comfort issues sorely lacking in the current up-armored HMMWV, as it becomes extremely tight for a normal sized man (such as myself) to fit comfortably in the Hummer wearing body armor and helmet as well as carrying a weapon.