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Future of Ground Forces

Planners Must Evolve Beyond Past Wars

Jul. 21, 2013 - 03:52PM   |  
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Soon, someone will tell the president, “Country X has fallen.” Up to that point, we will have wished away the consequences of its disintegration.

Before fully recognizing the hazard, “Country X’s” military will crumble into warring factions.

Sophisticated weapons, perhaps even weapons of mass destruction, will fall into irresponsible hands and a lethal civil conflict, enabled by runaway communications and weapon proliferation, will destabilize an entire region.

Faced with regional contagion, the president will want options and they should include the ability to directly influence outcomes on the ground.

Whether reasonable ground force options exist hinges on the forthcoming Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR).

With mounting pressure for wholesale ground force reductions, a majority of forces based stateside, and emerging gaps in lift and responsiveness, the prospects don’t look good.

To date, the US Defense Department has proved far more adept at creating risk than understanding it.

What we would swear off because of Iraq and Afghanistan was always the greatest risk embedded in our most recent wars.

The character of that risk is clear today: ground intervention against violent instability.

Frankly, after years of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly all future ground actions are unpalatable, making capabilities required to conduct them ripe for dramatic cuts. However, current conditions imply an emerging gap between the military options policymakers prefer and those they might need. Risk multiplies.

In light of DoD’s new fiscal challenges and mounting personnel costs, postwar ground force cuts were inevitable. However, preserving the right mix of ground force capabilities in the midst of “cost-first” defense planning may prove impossible. Therein lies the rub.

In the current environment, no argument is likely to boost Army and Marine Corps resources. But the right arguments should preserve the most appropriate forces for a turbulent future.

Although the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance endeavored to answer the “what next” question, it took primary cues only from potential state competitors that might employ novel technical capabilities irresponsibly. China and Iran conveniently rose to the fore to help define threats in ways that conform well to US hardware solutions. Foreign disorder was — in spite of current events — notably absent from the conversation.

We’ve been here before. As in 2001 (before 9/11), off-shore deterrence and punitive strike have resurfaced as antidotes for 21st century challenges.

Even anxiety about China’s military buildup and the Asia-Pacific rebalance are reheated leftovers from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s first QDR.

These judgments are making ground forces backwaters in defense planning.

Recall that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered ground forces to stop obsessing about the future and win their current wars.

Now, there’s a new message from the top: While you were away at war, we re-imagined the future on your behalf and didn’t see much in it for you.

The internal logic is flawless but artificial.

As manpower is progressively more costly and future land conflict more unthinkable, ground forces are viewed as more expendable.

Unfortunately, reality is not that simple; myriad “Country Xs” are on the horizon.

Our recent work at the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that US policymakers will value future ground force options.

Toward that end, ground forces should structure and prepare for five basic missions: humanitarian response, distributed security, enable and support actions, peace operations, and limited conventional campaigns.

While warfighting remains the Army and Marine Corps’ raison d’etre, combat responses to disordered threats are far likelier than conventional conflict or classical counterinsurgency.

Of the two primary warfighting missions in our study — “distributed security” and “limited conventional campaign” — the former is the better focus for ground force optimization.

Stripped down to the very basics, ground forces should provide US policymakers with the scalable ability to seize and defend core US interests in the face of less-structured armed opposition worldwide.

This view is impolitic in the current environment. Policymakers are hesitant to consider commitments to moderate the kind of chaos occurring in Syria, emerging in Egypt and threatened elsewhere.

As a consequence, distributed security has the potential to be quite disruptive institutionally. Strategic warning of the need to act might be severely limited, and contingency response would see US forces performing many of the missions policymakers are most keen to avoid.

In advance of the QDR, and well before further cuts to ground force capabilities, policymakers should consider future contingencies that will look more like intervention in “Country X” than conventional war with states. To have a rational dialogue, however, we need to get beyond the scars of the last war.

Is this possible in the current fiscal environment?

The clock is ticking. Entertaining a wider suite of future challenges is a responsible hedge against miscalculation.

Not doing so is a tragic and costly mistake.

Nathan Freier is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Securities’ International Security Program. Jacquelyn Guy is a project coordinator and research assistant in CSIS’ International Security Program.

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