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W(h)ither Corps?

Authored by Dr. D. Robert Worley. | August 2001

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Army transformation should not be a ?one size fits all? process. Each of the Army?s surviving corps has a unique origin. Relevance to present and future conflict environments requires multiple destinations. Ultimately, separate transformations are required to move from distinct origins to diverse destinations.

Today?s U.S. Army corps have their roots in Napoleon?s corps d?armée and the corps formed during the American Civil War. Corps and divisions vanished after the Civil War. Divisions were resurrected on the eve of U .S. entry to World War I, but corps returned later as large tactical headquarters during the preparation for World War II. The Cold War, with its large standing Army, mature coalitions, extensive network of modern infrastructure in what was expected to be the primary theater of war, and known enemy with known doctrine and known order of battle, made corps the U.S. Army?s principal warfighting command.

Today these conditions no longer hold. Given this, should corps retain their preeminent role? Should corps survive at all? The answer is unequivocally ?yes.? But what role should they play and what relationship should they have with echelons above and below? There is no single answer that applies across the Army. Whither corps?

In the face of small budgets and high operating tempo, resistance to change is self-destructive. The Army must remain relevant, or it will continue to lose in the budget competition. But relevance to what? Some argue for relevance to the many expected small wars at the expense of the ability to fight ?big? wars. Others argue for maintaining a ?big war? capability for unexpected but high stakes conflicts, at the risk of appearing irrelevant to the frequent small wars. Still others argue that relevance is determined by the ability to fight America?s ?big wars? 20 years hence. Regardless of where relevance for ground forces is found, most agree that relevance will be determined in the context of joint forces. In any case, organization will matter. Refining the shape and function of corps will be a vital part of the broader process of Army transformation.


Changing the entire army structure may not be called for, but examination of the entire structure is. Such challenges should be made throughout the force. The structure of all four services should be examined individually and, more importantly, collectively. Force structure should be rationalized and justified in a top down process beginning with the Joint Strategic Planning process. Having the best air, land, and sea forces is not the objective?providing the CINC, and increasingly the JTF commander, with the best combined arms team is.

A great deal of the debate over transformation focuses on equipment, either as an end in itself or as a step prerequisite to transformation. Equipment modernization, a worthy topic, consumes resources including time, and competes with or defers true transformation. Some transformations vary the equipment set while holding the command hierarchy constant, for example, attempts to digitize a heavy corps or to equip divisions with wheeled rather than tracked armored vehicles. Transformation is a much broader issue than modernization. In contrast, Macgregor has challenged the division and brigade echelons?their organization and doctrine?while initially holding the equipment set constant.17 This allows transformation to begin immediately without being held hostage to the lengthy acquisition and fielding process.

The country demands more of its Army than can be accomplished in a single transformation. Nonetheless, our military forces must continually evolve to remain relevant to the present and to the future. But there are many types of relevance and separate transformations must be applied to accomplish each.

  • Relevance to the expected and frequent military operations in support of national interests through light forces designed for small wars.
  • Relevance to the unexpected wars in support of vital national interests through heavy deployable forces.
  • Relevance to the uncertain future through experimentation.

The joint task force is the crux of the matter. By ignoring it?e.g., corps headquarters masquerading as JTF headquarters?the services have preserved their most prestigious three-star commands, the status quo, and service prerogatives. Single-service structures defy joint structures, and weak joint organizations perpetuate separate service warfare. The three-star headquarters of all the services should be challenged and, when appropriate, be dismantled; the freed resources combined to form true JTF headquarters. Standing JTFs and standing JTF headquarters would provide a focal point for acquisition of command and control information systems. Connection to national and other scarce intelligence and communications assets must reside in the JTF, not in service headquarters. Standing JTF headquarters would also enable experimentation with new methods of warfare as portended by advocates of an RMA and by the transition from the industrial to the information age. Expectations are high for increased warfighting effectiveness enabled by information technology and precision weapons. Realistic experimentation with these systems and new methods can both expedite and hone emerging capabilities as well as protect us from an over-reliance on unproven concepts.


17. Macgregor.