Department of the Army Historical Summary: FY 1980



The decade of the seventies was a period of great change for the United States Army. The Army at the end of fiscal year 1970 was engaged in military operations in Southeast Asia and support of those operations necessitated deferring development of the kinds of equipment needed on a European battlefield. Organized into 17 1/3 divisions, 1,322,548 strong, it was an army of draftees, predominately male, and constituted a cross section of America.

In contrast, the Army at the end of fiscal year 1980 was at peace, gradually modernizing, with its attention directed toward the plains of Europe. The active Army contained 776,536 persons, 8.9 percent of them women, organized into sixteen divisions. It was an all-volunteer force with members of minority groups, the less educated, and the poor overrepresented. Institutional change of this magnitude was bound to cause comment both in and out of the service.

Consequently, the capabilities of the Army became an issue which attracted the attention of Congress and the nation’s press in fiscal year 1980. During the summer, two Senators known for their interest in defense matters sponsored legislation to reduce the size of the Army if the service failed to recruit a larger percentage of high school graduates. The salience of the issue was due as much or more to external events than internal conditions. On 4 November 1979 a mob of Iranian “students” seized the American Embassy in Tehran and held sixty-six Americans hostage, an act subsequently extolled by the revolutionary government. A rescue attempt in April 1980 by a joint task force ended tragically in the Iranian desert. On 27 December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The strategic threat to the oil suppliers of the West, the apparent shift toward a more expansionist Soviet foreign policy, and the operational audacity which led the Russians to land their lead airborne division on terrain controlled by an Afghan armored division combined with events in Iran to increase the decibel level of the dialogue in the United States.

To a certain extent the debate turned upon two phrases in the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States. Was the Army’s primary function “to promote the general welfare” or was it simply “to provide for the common defense”? Twenty years earlier many Americans had believed that no dichotomy existed between the two. In 1980—a year of an energy crisis, a deteriorating industrial base,


and heightened awareness of increasing threats—fewer citizens accepted the truth of such an assumption.

During fiscal year 1980, the Army and its future were, of course, a matter of primary importance to the men who led it. The annual Army Commanders’ Conference hosted by the Chief of Staff provides major commanders an opportunity to assess the state of the Army and give direction to its future. At the meeting convened in late October 1979, the Army’s principal leaders focused attention on the decade of the eighties and centered their discussions on organization and structure, manning the force, management of modernization, training the force, and mobilization and deployment. Following the conference, the Chief of Staff, General E. C. Meyer, published a white paper, “A Framework for Molding the Army of the 1980s into a Disciplined, Well-Trained Fighting Force,” giving his perception of the Army of the eighties.

The Army, observed General Meyer, must prepare for “the three days of war,” a metaphor for the Army’s threefold mission: the ability to deter armed conflict on the day before it begins, to successfully wage war on the day of battle, and to guarantee the United States and its allies “an acceptable level of security” on the day after combat ends. One of the major issues confronting the Army as it enters the decade of the eighties is that of an appropriate force structure. A European confrontation will involve masses of armor and artillery in a sophisticated electronic environment, while Third World conflicts will require anything from logistic and training support for friendly governments confronting insurgents to corps-sized or larger expeditionary forces able to fight off armored attacks. These conflicting requirements and the large area of potential conflict require the Army to place great emphasis on strategic mobility, the ability to move the appropriate forces over great distances to the theater of operations. Airlift is expensive, thus limiting the size of the force that can be moved, and has certain load limitations which prevent the movement of heavy divisions—those that contain the masses of tracked armored vehicles needed to confront a major power. Light forces, such as an airborne division, have little organic transport and are thus strategically mobile but lack equal tactical mobility. They are useful in seizing bridgeheads and for defending urban areas and difficult terrain. Medium units, usually infantry, are tactically mobile because of a large number of organic armored personnel carriers and have a significant armored killing capability. The Army must determine the proper mix between heavy, light, and medium elements. General Meyer asserted that the United States must enhance its readiness in three key areas in the near future:

1.       The ability to move the active elements of the rapid


deployment force (RDF) by both sea and air;

2. The capability of active units in the United States with equipment predeployed in Europe to rapidly reinforce the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) battleline;

3. The mobilization potential of reserve units designated to reinforce NATO.

The proper force structure for the eighties is a difficult and recondite problem which has already generated considerable intellectual ferment in professional circles.

Because of budgetary restrictions and the possible restructuring of heavy, medium, and light divisions, the Army may have to integrate more reserve companies, battalions, and even brigades into active divisions not intended for rapid deployment to Europe if the service is to maintain an active force of sixteen divisions. It must upgrade the readiness of the reserve elements in logistic support roles since the Army has stripped its active force support units to enlarge the combat units of the active forces. Sustained warfare in Europe or elsewhere will require a rapid buildup of support units. Finally, to achieve a creditable deterrent the Army must develop coherent doctrine for nuclear and chemical warfare that is integrated with other tactical doctrine.

Finding young men and women willing to volunteer to serve their country and at the same time keeping the experienced noncommissioned officers (NCOs) who make any military organization work was in General Meyer’s opinion “the major challenge facing the Army today.” This must happen at a time when inflation is seriously eroding the economic benefits designed to induce recruiting and retention. These are immediate and pressing concerns. The Army’s long-term personnel objective is to better match the abilities and interests of individuals with career specialties and at the same time to predict more accurately the specialty needs of the service.

Economic pressures and the Soviet buildup, noted General Meyer, require a very thoughtful consideration of the trade-offs involved in choosing one weapons system over another. Given a limited amount of money, would the Army derive more benefit on a future battlefield in developing complex electronic gear designed to disrupt enemy command and control or in producing a new generation of antitank weapons? The Army is seeking to develop the analytic tools needed to assist in making such judgments.

Training in the eighties will be “the priority effort of commanders.” The reduction of the active component in the support role means that U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) can only provide training in forty-nine of the seventy tasks a combat soldier needs to perform to achieve the minimum


acceptable proficiency on the modern battlefield. Much of the Army’s effort to teach individual skills must focus on on-the-job training within the major commands. In such a situation, the competence of NCOs becomes crucial. They are the Army’s corporate memory at the level of the squad, platoon, and company. The Army has given NCO training top priority and is emphasizing unit training that will increase the cohesiveness of those small groups of men that carry an army to victory—or defeat—on the field of battle. To this end, the National Training Center (NTC) under development at Fort Irwin, California, will soon provide realistic training for heavy battalions in a modern battlefield environment. The center will also allow continuous development of air-ground tactics with the U.S. Air Force.

The decreasing amount of time between a warning and an attack makes mobilization even more crucial in the future than it has been in the past. The Army, warned General Meyer, must be organized in peace for full-scale mobilization. But certain deficiencies, some of which are beyond the Army’s ability to control, prevent attainment of this objective. Currently, the Army lacks adequate numbers of pretrained manpower. The automation and communication equipment which link the existing mobilization system needs modernization and expansion. The training base will require immediate enlargement at the beginning of any mobilization. The Army must have the men and facilities available to do the job. Today it lacks them. Finally, a mobilization surge can occur only from a “warm” industrial base. Government plants in the industrial reserve can assist but most of the contribution will have to come from the private sector. American industries crucial to any mobilization, such as the steel and automobile industries, consist of aging and uneconomical plants and face a financial climate not conducive to the scale of capital investment needed for modernization. In the next ten years, these industries may well have to contract to survive. General Meyer’s white paper concludes with this admonishment:

The decade of the eighties, beginning as it does with evident hazard to critical national interests, looks to be a time of challenge, a time of continuing potential crisis. Such situations pose great dangers. For the nation prepared, they also provide great opportunities. The U.S. Army—by its preparations toward a real and visible military capability—seeks to see the nation and its values sustained through the critical decade of the 80s.

The account which follows reports how the Army met the challenges of the first year of this critical decade.



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Last updated 17 September 2004