Despite streamlining of command structure in the late 1940s, low budgets contributed to a dramatic decline in army combat effectiveness. By 1950, few of the army's ten divisions were fully capable of deployment outside the continental United States. Four understrength, poorly trained, and inadequately equipped divisions were in occupation in Japan, while 80,000 men were in Germany.
The Korean War began in June 1950. American advisors and troops rushed from Japan helped purchase just enough time to prevent Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) forces from completely overrunning the Republic of Korea (ROK, South Korea) before substantial forces could be sent from the United States. This also presented serious difficulties, as the army was stretched thin trying to keep up its guard in Europe with the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949.
The war revealed the appalling state of the U.S. military, especially the army, which had undergone major cutbacks under Defense Secretary Louis Johnson, who favored the air force over both the army and navy. Troops were often sent into combat without proper training, and equipment was both obsolete and inadequate. The buildup in Korea was made possible only by calling up reserve and National Guard units, which also had the effect of securing experienced combat veterans. Most of the weaponry employed by the army in Korea was of World War II vintage.
Massive U.S. artillery fire and airpower helped to offset Chinese numbers. The war also saw the army carry out extensive experimentation with the helicopter for medical evacuation but also for resupply and the movement of troops. In addition, the war speeded up desegregation of the army. During the conflict, the defense budget quadrupled, and the army grew dramatically in size. By 1953, army strength stood at twenty divisions and eighteen regiments with a total of 1.5 million personnel. The Korean War also acted as a stimulus to research and development programs, which brought new weapons into the field in the latter 1950s and early 1960s, and ensured that the United States maintained a significant military establishment. After every previous conflict, the United States had largely disarmed.
With an armistice in Korea in July 1953, the new administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower sought to shift emphasis to nuclear deterrence in the so-called New Look policy (popularly known as "more bang for the buck"). By 1958, army strength had again decreased, this time to fifteen divisions. Under the New Look, the army prepared to use flexible but short-range nuclear munitions to offset the greater manpower of potential enemies in Europe and Asia. In the mid-1950s, the army developed the Jupiter and Nike missiles as well as artillery systems capable of firing nuclear munitions. In order to increase survivability and mobility on nuclear battlefields, the army introduced the M41, M47, and M48 tanks, reestablishing four armored divisions by 1956.
Structurally, because nuclear weapons could easily destroy concentrated groups of soldiers, the army reorganized its units into decentralized and autonomous pentomic divisions, consisting of five battle groups, that could operate independently or join together to provide mass and firepower. By 1958, the army had divided all of its infantry and airborne divisions into pentomic structures.
In the early 1960s, political events in Latin America as well as the Berlin Crises and the Cuban Missile Crisis intensified the Cold War. President John F. Kennedy's administration became concerned with combating the domino effect of encroaching communism while providing a more balanced approach to military threats. This strategy, known as flexible response, called for an increase in the army's conventional force structure to provide a nonnuclear response to future threats. It also emphasized counterinsurgency warfare.
In the 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara spearheaded a wholesale reorganization of the army that consolidated redundant structures and decreased inefficiencies. Largely due to previous programs coming to fruition, the army received the M60 machine gun and the M60 tank and replaced its outdated M-1 Garand rifle with the M-14 and a few years later the M-16. The army also abandoned the pentomic division structure and established traditional three-brigade Reorganization Objective Army Divisions (ROADs), including mechanized divisions equipped with the M113 armored personnel carrier. While the army's doctrine for its ROADs centered on fighting in nonnuclear battlefields, its primary focus remained linear battles in the European theater.
As the Soviet Union and the United States approached nuclear parity, however, the army also began to prepare to counter a newly emerging threat of guerrilla-style communist insurgencies. In 1961, Kennedy significantly increased the size and scope of Special Forces units for counterinsurgency operations. Special Forces soldiers became expert in the tactics, techniques, and procedures of both defeating guerrilla movements and training indigenous soldiers, particularly as special advisors in Vietnam.
America's involvement in Vietnam, which had begun with support for the French in the Indochina War (1946–1954), rapidly escalated with the renewal of the insurgency in the late 1950s. President Kennedy sent only advisors and helicopters, but in mid-1965 his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, introduced U.S. ground troops. The war gradually escalated, and at peak strength in early 1969 the United States had 543,400 men in Vietnam.
For the U.S. Army, the Vietnam War meant adapting to an assortment of new challenges. Enemy force capabilities ranged from squad-sized local Viet Cong units employing guerrilla tactics to well-trained North Vietnamese Army regiments and divisions supported by conventional artillery assets. The enemy could slip into local population centers and the jungle underbrush, which made locating him difficult. Additionally, enemy forces often compensated for their comparative lack of firepower by fighting at night and establishing well-placed ambushes, booby traps, and mines.
The army adapted to these challenges by employing a mixture of new tactics and new weapon systems to fight in this nonlinear battlefield. The Vietnam War also saw the United States make extensive use of the helicopter, and in August 1965 it introduced in Vietnam the 1st Air Cavalry Division, which was entirely air mobile. Helicopter operations significantly improved the ability to mass, reinforce, and withdraw forces if necessary in remote areas not easily accessible to ground transportation.
Despite the army's overwhelming success in pitched battles with North Vietnamese regulars, the United States failed to secure victory in Vietnam. It had concentrated on big-unit actions and body counts rather than on pacification programs as measurements of success.
The army emerged from Vietnam in terrible condition. The war exacted a shocking toll on both discipline and morale. Racial problems abounded as did insubordination, and a general permissiveness led to careerism or "ticket-punching" among the officer corps and an abrogation of authority by noncommissioned officers. During the mid-1970s, all branches of the armed services, but particularly the army, suffered from underfunding and congressional and executive neglect.
The army sought an all-volunteer force. Its Volunteer Army Project (VOLAR), begun in 1970, received President Richard Nixon's warm support. He embraced the plan as a means of ending middle-class opposition to his Vietnam War policies, and he abolished the draft in 1973. The U.S. armed forces, including the army, became all-volunteer.
Recruiting standards were upgraded, and discharge programs helped to rid the army of drug users and those unsuited for military life. In 1975 the army insisted on a high school diploma for its recruits. It also began a massive educational program to eradicate perceived and actual racial discrimination. The number of African American officers increased, and promotion boards ensured that minorities were promoted equally based on percentages of numbers of those serving. Other initiatives such as barracks renovation and involving enlisted men by seeking their ideas on how to improve quality of life ended many irritants of the draft era. Another major change was allowing women increased opportunities in occupational specialties, although supposedly not in combat units. Army chief of staff General Creighton Abrams (1972–1974) and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird (1969–1974) also did much to create a total force policy that restructured the entire army to make it impossible for political leaders to commit the army to war without mobilizing its reserve components. This was successively the case in the Persian Gulf War, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
As the Vietnam War faded, the army refocused its attention on what had always been considered the most significant threat: a potential Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. The 1973 Arab-Israeli War convinced U.S. Army leaders that new advances in the lethality of tank munitions, artillery, and wire-guided antitank weapons created dramatic advantages for defenders in a conventional mechanized war. Technologically, these new advances required the army to modernize its antiquated equipment and develop a new tank, infantry fighting vehicle, and helicopter. Doctrinally, in 1976 the army emphasized establishing an active defense policy, an elastic strategy comprised of battle positions organized in depth that focused on firepower and attrition.
It was not until the advent in 1981 of President Ronald Reagan's administration, which focused on directly confronting Soviet capabilities in Europe, that the army received full modernization funding. The M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank, supported by the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, became the basis of maneuver warfare. In 1982, under the direction of General Donn Starry, the army adopted the AirLand Battle doctrine. Designed to deter the Soviet Union, AirLand Battle revolutionized army doctrine by shifting emphasis from defensive to offense operations and employing maneuver warfare that involved coordination of joint forces, especially close air support. Units would train to strike hard and fast to disrupt and attack the enemy's critical second-echelon forces. The U.S. Army proved the effectiveness of its training, doctrine, and equipment-modernization efforts shortly after the Cold War ended during the one hundred–hour ground offensive against Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
At the end of the Cold War in 1991, U.S. Army strength stood at 739,594 active duty and close to 1.085 million Army Reserve and National Guard personnel.
Kelly A. Fork and Spencer C. Tucker
Connor, Arthur W., Jr. The Army and Transformation, 1945–1991: Implications for Today. Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2002.; Romjue, John L. From Active Defense to AirLand Battle: The Development of Army Doctrine, 1973–1982. Fort Monroe, VA: Historical Office, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 1984.; Romjue, John L. The Army of Excellence: The Development of the 1980s Army. Fort Monroe, VA: Office of the Command Historian, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 1993.; Rose, John P. The Evolution of U.S. Army Nuclear Doctrine, 1945–1980. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1980.; Weigley, Russell F. History of the United States Army. Enlarged ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.