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Army of the future in transition; focus may be Mexico

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 8 2011 12:15 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Insurgents the Army battles in the future may be in Mexico, not the Middle East, Army Undersecretary Joseph W. Westphal said during a Monday lecture at the University of Utah.

"This isn't just about drugs and illegal immigrants. This is about the potential takeover of a government that's right on our border," Westphal said of the effects corruption could have in Mexico, which is already a focal point of cultural and political controversy.

He said the United States would do well to pay close attention to the scarcity of civilian government involvement in military forces throughout Latin America, where he said the balance between the two "is very fragile."

The State Department has had a travel warning in place for Mexico since September, citing ongoing violence that erupts as organized crime battles the Mexican government's effort to combat drug trafficking, and as drug traffickers have turf battles with each other.

News reports on the proliferation of violence and instability in Mexico are characterized by the Feb. 3 headline in the Miami Herald, that asks "Is Mexico at war?"

"As gangsters demonstrate an ample repertoire of fighting skills, it is little wonder that four years into President Felipe Calderon's battle against organized crime, many Mexicans aren't sure what to call the turmoil in their country," the Herald summarized.

Westphal said he does not want to see "armed soldiers fighting an insurgency right on our border or just across our borders."

Westphal's alert came in a speech to faculty and students at the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics about the vision for the Army beyond current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whether the Army of the future will be as dependent on "boots on the ground" as it is now is an issue neither the Army nor the think-tanks can agree on, Westphal said.

A high priority, he said, is achieving a more sustainable mix of deployment versus at-home time, where soldiers are with their families as they train and fill education requirements the Army has let slip during the deployment surge.

"The combatant commander has an appetite for troops — an insatiable appetite," he said. But current conflicts have drawn support troops into combat situations, and involved troops generally in deployments that take as long as the time they are at home.

"We're doing OK" with recruitment and retention levels, Westphal said, but he'd like to see the at-home time double the time spent on deployment.

That deployment-to-home ratio is a significant issue in Utah, where current conflicts have meant frequent duty for Army personnel in both the Guard and Reserve.

Maj. Gen. Brian Tarbet, adjutant general of the Utah National Guard, said the ideal for reserve-component troops, who juggle military obligations with civilian jobs, would be one year of deployment in every five years of service. Currently, Utahns in the National Guard who work in aviation, intelligence or special forces are seeing deployments well beyond ideal levels. "That's where there are shortages Army-wide," he said.

e-mail: sfidel@desnews.com

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