The U.S. Army seems to be experiencing an identity crisis. After 10 years of fighting two major wars and suffering the brunt of America’s military casualties, the most experienced and powerful ground force in the world now has to justify its value and relevance in the coming defense drawdown, in contrast with the U.S. Air Force and Navy, which seem to benefit from shifts in defense planning priorities.
There seem to be four core reasons provoking this uncertainty.
Political Will: There is a widespread belief that after 10 years of war, the political will to use ground forces has diminished. This worry is well-founded; many leaders have questioned whether large-scale ground forces should ever again be committed in future wars. When politicians believe they can increasingly turn to UAVs and special forces to prosecute conflicts with less risk, where does that leave the Army?
Related to this is the belief, rising from the experiences of the past decade, that irregular land wars are hard to fight because the human landscape is so complex and because many of the political and economic instruments necessary to win such wars are outside of the Army’s control.
Left at the Pier: Many analysts argue that technological fixes are sufficient to defeat key threats. “Air-Sea Battle,” designed to deal with growing global anti-access threats in a largely maritime environment, has emerged as a central operational concept in support of the Obama administration’s strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific. Air-Sea Battle assigns a dominant role to the Air Force and the Navy, based on the view that advanced weaponry, especially those delivered from long range by air or sea, can compensate for decreased numbers of ground troops. The concept has seemingly left the Army at the pier.
Expensive People: The fastest-growing part of the defense budget is people. Personnel-related costs expend 45 percent of the base defense budget. Since the Army has the largest number of active-duty personnel, it is clearly in the crosshairs of those looking to find savings through uniformed service cutbacks.
Institutional Disunity: The Army continues to have a tough time affirming the importance of a robust ground force, in part because it is divided internally. For years, there have been strains and disconnects between the so-called generating force and the operating force.
Moreover, there are tensions among those who believe that counterinsurgency is over and those who argue that the Army will need to restore political order during and following future combat operations. Such debates have made it harder to present a unified front to civilian leaders about the size and type of Army forces we need.
How might the Army move beyond this uncertainty and present a forceful argument? Simplify the vision. The Army’s job is to win wars and to set conditions for a return to political order. People live on land, thus the U.S. will need ground forces to fight and impose order in places where our adversaries live. The Army needs to unite around the central idea that land forces will be needed to prevail in protracted campaigns.
It must also be prepared to partner in advance with allies and potential allies to shape the security environment. It will need to assist friends, reassure and protect populations, and identify, isolate, and defeat enemies.
The Army will need to win across four major types of conflict: conventional; irregular; special forces raiding or counterterrorism type missions; and homeland and relief contingencies. Each type of conflict poses different but recurring tactical and operational challenges.
Asymmetrical means will be employed, heavy and light weapons will be used, combined arms skills will be paramount, cyber attacks will unfold, order will need to be restored, information campaigns will fly and robots will roam. And building relationships in advance will be critical to achieving U.S. goals after conflicts break out.
The term hybrid is often used to refer to these kinds of varied threats and the capabilities the Army will need to prevail. While these phrases will likely change, the essential point remains: The Army will need to fight in a complex environment, on the ground, with and against people, and under conditions of uncertainty.
The Army needs to better explain why certain reorganizations, e.g. its restructured Brigade Combat Teams or units, are necessary. The service needs to identify problems and explain how proposed changes respond to those problems.
Over the past 10 years, the Army has adapted under extraordinary circumstances. It should get credit for these changes. For instance, as the Army aligns more units with combatant commands, they will be more responsive and expert in an area, which in turn can improve our ability to exert influence and advance U.S. interests in a region.
The stand-off precision warfare envisioned by AirSea battle is just one mission that focuses on one set of contingencies The president’s most recent strategic guidance identified 10 missions for America’s armed forces, and the Army will play the central role in at least seven.
As defense analyst Mac Owens has pointed out, the goal for the United States is to avoid strategic inflexibility.
The Army has always been and will remain, critical to America’s security and strength. It has always been central to shaping the security environment and when called upon, winning America’s wars. It needs to make the case for its continued relevance with confidence, consistency and clarity, both to itself and to the American people.
Nadia Schadlow is senior program officer with the Smith Richardson Foundation, Westport, Conn.