Division Commander-Based Design: Why the Army Should Return to the Division as the Focal Point for Future Force Design Efforts

From roughly the 1900’s through the turn of this century, the US Army used the Army Division as the basis for force design, experimentation, organization and training. In the early 2000’s two things happened that caused the focus of those efforts to shift to “brigade based design.”[1] First, the RMA infatuation with flattening organizational hierarchies allegedly enabled by information empowered brigades, and second, the changing of US strategy in Iraq that dictated a steady generation of Army brigade combat teams to meet operational requirements.[2] Today the Army is still focused on the brigade in general, and specifically the maneuver brigade combat team as the center of both Army force generation and force design. Even now, the Army is reorganizing its brigades and other brigade and below functional units to correct weaknesses revealed by the war. Risks and trades are often being shifted to higher echelons without full appreciation of the consequences to those echelons, or understanding of the associated opportunity costs. The last ten years of warfighting refute the information age promise of flatter organizations and near autonomous brigades,[3] and highlight the changing role of echelons above brigade headquarters in achieving strategic and campaign outcomes. It is time to rebalance Army future force design by returning to the Division as the focal echelon for force design and experimentation.

Should we focus predominantly on solving the brigade commander’s problem?

Spc. Derrick Penninger (center, foreground), infantryman, Troop C, 3rd Sqdn., 4th Cav. Regt., 3rd BCT, 25th ID,, fires a burst from his M240B machine gun as his squad engages an enemy bunker during Operation Raider Pillage, April 24 | Photo by 1st Lt. Garrett Nash, 3rd Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs, 25th Infantry Division.

“Brigade-based design” was and is really “brigade commander-based design”. A design that focuses on the Brigade commander‘s task and purpose.[4] Should we focus predominantly on solving the brigade commander’s problem? The Strategic Landpower White Paper[5] and the Army Operating Concept[6] suggest we need to design our formations from the perspective of higher echelon commanders’ task and purpose. This paper is therefore a call to make the division commander’s problem the focal point of Army future force design efforts, and the baseline from which risks, trades and opportunity costs are measured. It may well be that such an approach will validate the current lethality heavy design of the maneuver BCT, for example. On the other hand, it is equally possible that approach will reveal that we have placed too much responsibility for sustainment and maneuver support on the Division Commander and limited that echelon’s tactical agility in doing so. Like a weight lifter that focuses too much on one part of the body, the current BCT will do very well in one exercise and not well in others, especially when viewed through the prism of the Division Commander’s mission. This is especially important as it appears that killing our way out of a problem is less and less satisfactory as a matter of policy and comprises fewer and fewer of our missions as a matter of practice.[7]

This is a recommendation to return to the Division Commander as the focal point for analysis and experimentation and not a call to necessarily return to the Division base, the halcyon days of DISCOM and DIVARTY. This paper is agnostic as to the results that refocusing on the Division will produce. Rather it is intended to regenerate the pre-war division versus brigade based design debate so that it can be informed by the lessons of the last 13 years. Those lessons suggest that focusing on the Division Commander’s range of problems will result in a force in 2025 better able to win in a complex world in missions sets across a broader variety than does the current brigade commander based design.

Army Design Efforts 1905 to 1999. For 95 years, from 1905 to 1999 the US Army primarily used the division as the basis for future force design and force structure. In 1905, as part of modernization efforts driven by the lessons of the Spanish American war, and led by Elihu Root, the US Army established the division as the basic formation of combined arms, charting a different path than other western Armies, which used the corps.[8] The Army division became the lowest level in which the full panoply of Army functional activities occurs.

The Army had used Divisions in combat since it’s founding in varying forms, but did not make them permanent structures until after the Spanish American War, when the 1912 Stimson Plan called for “A regular army organized in division and cavalry brigades for immediate use as an expeditionary force or for other purposes.”]9\

It is little noticed that today’s Army is very much the Force XXI Army envisioned by General Sullivan.

As World War II loomed, the Chief of Staff directed the Louisiana Maneuvers in 1940 to evaluate a new armored Division concept. From that use of the Division as the basis for analysis and experimentation all later experimental designs can be traced. The Pentomic Division, the ROAD division, The 11th Air Assault (later 1st Cav, later the 101st), the Light Infantry Division, Division 86, the Army of Excellence, the 9th Infantry Division, and lastly the 4th ID (Digitized). It is little noticed that today’s Army is very much the Force XXI Army envisioned by General Sullivan.

1997 to 2001, the move to brigade based design. The Army began its shift away from the division focus with the Interim Brigade Combat Team effort in 1999. Ironically one reason the Stryker Brigade was developed so rapidly is that its operational and organizational concept was lifted in large quantities from the Mobile Strike Force concept — a concept for an expeditionary Division. The choice of an interim Brigade rather than a Mobile Strike Force Division was made for budgetary, force structure, and cultural reasons, not intellectual ones.

The Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon, a part of the FCS family, was fully automated and could fire at a sustained rate of six rounds per minute | Photo courtesy of BAE Systems.

The Objective Force was a holistic look at the Army across all echelons using a units of purpose framework specifically developed to enable concept developers to get outside the box of then current echelonment. However, the holistic Objective Force concept, while completed, was never published. Instead, the CG TRADOC at the time directed publication of objective force battalion concept which morphed in to the Future Combat System Brigade O&O plan. The Army never had an opportunity to progress beyond that echelonment decision as the Global War on Terror served to freeze developmental focus on the FCS, ending the vital higher echelon studies of the Objective Force.


“I have two division headquarters in Afghanistan. I have a division headquarters in Korea, [and] I’m going to send another division headquarters to Iraq,” Odierno ticked off this morning at a Defense Writers Group breakfast. “I’m going to send a division headquarters to Africa to work the response to the Ebola virus. I might end up sending a division headquarters to Europe.”[10] — GEN Ray Odierno, Chief of Staff Army as reported in Defense News.

Why should we shift our primary focus to solving a Division Commander’s problems?

  • Although the information age has not compressed the physics of battle, it has compressed the informational aspects of the politics of war. Even as mission command rises in importance tactically, so too does the presence of senior headquarters in any operation. War is too important to be left to the Colonels. Thus, 7 of the Army’s 10 Active Component Division headquarters are deployed in crisis response around the world. In the JIIM environment, rank matters.
  • The nature of war and the basic tenets of combined arms in the US Army are the same today as they were 90 years ago. The only exceptional addition is aviation, and although mounted vertical envelopment has been around as a concept for over 80 years, the Army is not yet resourced to make aviation organic to the Brigade combat team, or to move through low altitude as it does through land. The Division is still the fundamental employer of tactical Army airpower.
  • The Army Division is still the lowest level in which all warfighting functions are fully developed on the battlefield. In fact, in the recent redesign the maneuver BCT was made less capable across several enabling functions in order to make it more capable at its maneuver function. This increased the importance of the Division in mid to high intensity fights.
  • The central idea of the AOC is joint combined arms operations, and the Division is doctrinally the lowest level of headquarters than can serve as a JFLCC or in small contingencies as a JTF. Moreover, in comparison to its USMC counterpart, the Army Division is the only 2 star headquarters capable of the integration of full cross-domain capabilities onto land.
  • The Army operating concept is founded on four “multiples” as the core of the solution; multiple dilemmas, options, domains and partners. No Brigade can accomplish all four against a determined enemy in a complex multinational environment. Brigades are less flexible than they are powerful. Divisions are powerful and flexible. One could argue it is the division commanders role to create those four dilemmas at the grand tactical level.
  • The AOC adds “set the theater” and “shape security environment” as Army core competencies. These are operational level of war activities that require an echelon above Brigade.
  • Again from the AOC, “This concept, for the first time, focuses on all three levels of war; tactical, operational, and strategic.” For all the popular talk of the “strategic corporal”, the Brigade is a tactical echelon. The Division is the lowest echelon that could feasibly operate at any of those three levels, as is seen in operations today.
  • There will seldom be enough assets to fully enable mission command of a brigade. In the end, limited capacity will impede initiative as much as any other battlefield factor. Divisions allocate precious high demand low supply enablers to reinforce success. Moreover, mission command in COIN in a fully developed and mature theater, is something entirely different than mission command in MCO against a symmetrical foe in an austere theater.
  • The Army has pushed risk higher without a full understanding of the changing roles of the corps and division in today’s fight.
  • Division has vision beyond the current fight. Today’s battlefield is extended not just geographical but also temporally and psychologically. Deliberate temporal and psychological advantage is the realm of higher echelons.
  • The Army is rightly studying the military implications of the growing trend of urbanization and megacities. Large cities will consume brigades like a GAU 12 Equalizer chews through ammunition. That problem clearly demands a higher view than that of a Brigade.
  • Brigade based design led to a major gap in ISR capability for the Division, leading to the development of the Battlefield Surveillance Brigade, a suboptimal solution that has been eliminated from the force structure. What gaps are we creating today?

The BCT made sense for the last 12 years. It may not any more.

HOW NOW — The above list should at least create reflection about the value of brigade based design. Should the Army decide to indeed change the developmental focus, there are relatively quick and inexpensive ways to make that shift. We could return to series of 4-Star led, tabletop wargames in which the functional formations are fought by General Officers. This will ensure the right level of both expertise, and functional equity interest. We can focus near term conceptual work on developing a holistic force level view of every echelon in the Army and what it contributes to achieving the Army Operating Concept vision. In the mid term, we can look organizationally: should we continue to focus on a Brigade Modernization Command or return to a Division as the EXFOR? What is important is to decide to change the future force design “sweet spot”. The BCT made sense for the last 12 years. It may not any more.

SUMMARY — On 11 September 2001, what had been academic debates became all too real. The Army took what it learned from those debates, adapted its concept development and combat developments work, and moved to a Brigade based design that served us well enough to rotate forces in and out of two wars for over 10 years. Now, the Army is winding down from fighting its first major wars of the digital age. To some, “The Narrative” has replaced “COFM” as the principal dynamic that determines victory. The nexus of policy objectives and military action is more transparent and more complex than ever in history. Now is the time once more to open the debates that began at the dawn of the digital age and adjust our theories to our lessons and our new conditions. What have we learned? Where should we focus that learning? A good place to start is at the Division.

Bob Simpson is a retired Army officer and the former lead at the Army Capabilities Integration Center for many initiatives, including Army 2020, Strategic Landpower, and Force 2025 and Beyond. The views expressed belong to the author alone and do not represent ARCIC, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S> Government.

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Header Image: A World War II era Jeep drives past the back of the 1st Infantry Division’s 93rd Birthday celebration formation on the division headquaters parade field June 15, 2010 | Photo by Jordan Chapman, 1st Infantry Division Public Affairs.


[1] For one example see the exchange between John Brinkerhoff and David Fastabend in Parameters in 1997.



[2] For an example of this belief in full flower see “Breaking the Phalanx” http://www.amazon.com/Breaking-Phalanx-Landpower-Bibliographies-American/dp/0275957942

[3] In fact the opposite was true — more GO headquarters were required to manage the strategic and operational requirements of war in the modern age.

[4] The design of the current three maneuver battalion BCT was driven in large measure by an operational assessment of serving Active and Reserve Brigade commanders, who not surprisingly chose to sacrifice organic enablers to achieve more lethality.

[5] Strategic Landpower: winning the Clash of Wills — May 2012 http://www.tradoc.army.mil/FrontPageContent/Docs/Strategic%20Landpower%20White%20Paper.pdf

[6] Army Operating Concept, pg iii. “This concept, for the first time, focuses on all three levels of war; tactical, operational, and strategic. “ http://www.tradoc.army.mil/tpubs/pams/TP525-3-1.pdf

[7] Strategic Landpower; page 1. “The attached White Paper, Strategic Landpower; Winning the Clash of Wills, identifies a growing problem in linking military action to achieving national objectives and describes the requirement for rigorous analysis to determine solutions that will ensure we provide the right capabilities for the nation in an era of fiscal austerity.”

[8] Army lineage series, Maneuver and Firepower, Chapter 1; http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/060/60-14-1/index.html

[9] Ibid, pg 31.

[10] http://breakingdefense.com/2014/09/army-scrambles-on-4-continents-odierno-previews-new-doctrine/