By Miguel Alejandro Laborde

Miguel Alejandro Laborde is a former NCO in the 160th SOAR (A), and a subject matter expert on defense aviation programs, capabilities and platforms, with decades’ worth of experience in the aerospace industry supporting the joint force. 

With the recent withdrawal of all U.S. forces from America’s 20 year war in Afghanistan, occurring on the cusp of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th 2001 attacks, now seems to be an appropriate time for reflection about the state of our military. Considering everything going on in the world currently – from flaring instability in Africa, to renewed concerns across the greater Middle East, to the enduring strategic challenges with China and Russia – we need to get clear-eyed about the future of our nation’s defense. In other words, what we really need is to establish a true sense of our force.

Readiness and Capability

The unfortunate truth is that we have myriad challenges that are going to have to be addressed. And this isn’t just in one or two services – there are readiness and capability concerns across the joint force. 

  • The Navy seems perennially uncertain about the future of its surface fleet and has had some serious operational issues in the recent past. 
  • The Marine Corps has had recent disciplinary issues within the ranks, and is going through some doctrine and structure pains as it moves to eliminate entire categories of combat arms. 
  • And the Air Force continues to struggle with issues ranging from pilot shortages to reconciling between legacy and new aircraft. 

We can no longer shy away from these sticky and inconvenient problems which are affecting everything from spending and budgets, to readiness and capability, to recruiting, retention and morale.

Army & National Guard Force Structure

For the Army and the National Guard, one of the main areas where we need to get serious, and where we need to obtain clear answers, is on the issue of force structure – particularly what the Army has in mind regarding divisional end-strength and how it plans to organize under the Total Force concept. 

The reason for this is simple: the Army is our largest service, with the biggest budget, and the most troops. If America is once again engaged in a major ground war, it’s going to be the Army and the National Guard that shoulder the burden of effort on terra firma. Moreover, a good portion of that commitment will be undertaken by the ARNG.

National Guard

National Guard soldiers on patrol in Minneapolis

But the Army has still not been clear, direct or transparent with policymakers and the public about how it intends to organize that Total Force concept into actual divisions, with real ranks of real troops, with real tables of organization, real capabilities and real equipment. 

And, it has not provided explicit definition on how the National Guard will fit into the complete structure. Recent issues raised in Congress about the future of the Army’s AH-64 Apache fleet – which could affect the role and purpose of several ARNG units – add further concern about what the Army envisions for the future of its Guard and Reserve forces.

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Future Vertical Lift (FVL) Programs

Digging deeper, the AH-64 fleet issue is tied directly to the Army’s acquisition strategy of Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programs: the FARA, and FLRAA aircraft systems. The FARA aircraft is supposed to replace the AH-64 system but is slated for delivery in 2028 while the FLRAA (replacing the UH60) will see fielding in 2030. The challenge now is that most program managers are diverting funds for modernization/stabilization to FARA/FLRAA programs under the FVL office. This shift in funding is leaving a beleaguered and battered fleet of aircraft with no mechanism by which to recover from 20 years of high/hot combat activities and leaving air assets in a crippled state. The reciprocal effect is a limited capability to move troops during complex combat operations, limiting the ability of ground forces to react to changing battlefield conditions and threats.

Future Vertical Lift Army Aircraft Concept

Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, introduces RAIDER X®, its concept for a fast, agile, survivable compound coaxial helicopter that will equip future aviators to address evolving peer and near-peer threats in the most difficult environments. RAIDER X is specifically designed as a prototype for the U.S. Army’s Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) prototype competition, part of the service’s effort to revolutionize its enduring aircraft fleet as part of what is known as Future Vertical Lift.

Part of the need for increased clarity has to do with continuing reassessment about how the services are repositioning to address security challenges in the Asia-Pacific theater after two decades of war in the desert. But, it also has to do with how the Army views the capabilities and contributions of the ARNG as part of the Total Force. And of course, budget pressures are also likely driving some of the hesitancy to declare what the breakdown of the active Army versus ARNG divisions is going to look like in the coming years. At the end of the day, we cannot have a situation where ARNG forces and assets are incapable of being used in combat operations and supporting Total Force requirements.

National Guard

With that in mind, the National Guard should play a key and considerable role in defining the Army’s divisional end-strength, as the ARNG provides significant and responsive warfighting capability – which of course can be leveraged toward other disasters and crises – but at a fraction of the cost of maintaining, feeding, housing and medically caring for an Army on full-time active duty.

National Defense Strategy 2022

As the Secretary of Defense rolls out the new updated National Defense Strategy in 2022, this must be made clear, and the American public – from Congress, to the Governors, to the taxpaying citizenry – need to know how the Army intends to structure and budget for the next threat. 

Just as all the services – from the Marine Corps to the Space Force – understand and work within the operational concept of joint-ness, the Army and National Guard need to get on a footing that prioritizes interoperability, responsiveness, and seamlessness. The battlefield cannot be where the capabilities and coordination of our military are established and tested. Sound, strong leadership demands these be established before our next crises arises so that the force is prepared to respond instead of reacting to respond.

Granted, none of this is going to be easy. Efforts to fix the problems plaguing our military will have to thread the needle between a lot of loops – the services and their chartered responsibilities, parochial politics, defense contractors, and other factors and interests. And in this respect, the Army and ARNG are no different. But we have to stop punting, get serious and start asking the tough questions: 

  • Are we really getting the best military capability for our taxpayer dollars? 
  • Are we really maintaining pace with competitor nations in the areas that matter most? 
  • Are the services really trained, cultured and equipped for maximum interoperability and delivery of combat power? 
  • Do we have the force structure that allows us as a nation to effectively respond to multiple large-scale challenges at the same time? 

Are we prepared for the next conflict, or will we relive the errors that plagued us as a force after Vietnam, and lead to significant casualties at the start of these two wars (fighting the last war and not being prepared for the next war)? 

These vital questions – and more – need to be asked in order to obtain a true sense of our force. It is what our fighting forces deserve, and what our Nation demands.

Miguel Alejandro Laborde is a former NCO in the 160th SOAR (A), and a subject matter expert on defense aviation programs, capabilities and platforms, with decades’ worth of experience in the aerospace industry supporting the joint force.