The US Army's Strategic Studies Group was created last year to work through problems the service may face as it prepares for conflicts post-Afghanistan. (US Army)
WASHINGTON — Within US Army leadership, there are more questions than answers.
The service seeks to project an image of itself as having learned the right lessons from the past decade, while remaining agile enough to meet whatever threats lurk in the future.
It’s a tough sell, particularly at a time when the thought of American boots on the ground anywhere — aside from marching out of Afghanistan — is a political non-starter. Case in point: The debate over potential US military involvement in Syria.
To help work through the tough business of identifying a path forward, Gen. Raymond Odierno, Army chief of staff, in 2012 quietly established a Strategic Studies Group staffed by a few dozen hand-picked officers and civilians from all four service branches who serve the chief on yearlong fellowships to work through “problems” he tasks them with.
Working out of one of the cookie-cutter office buildings near the Pentagon in Crystal City, Va., the group is led by David Johnson, a retired Army colonel who spent 14 years as a researcher with RAND Corp. before being asked by Odierno to run the shop.
During a recent interview in his office, Johnson declined to offer any details of the classified 500-page report he and his researchers submitted to the chief this past summer.
But he did say the group’s function is to “give the boss an unvarnished perspective” that can only be provided by people who have the time to study issues without other priorities getting in the way.
“We’re independent from anything in the Army,” he said.
The first group of fellows has moved on to other assignments after serving for a year beginning in July 2012, and a new crop has settled into their cubicles, awaiting the chief’s next guidance to kick off a new research project.
They’re thinking big, Johnson said, and looking beyond the traditional issues that have consumed the ground combat community.
“Is the character of what’s happening changing?” Johnson said. “Ten years ago, no one could have imagined a Snowden — no one person could actually have pulled that much information. Is he an anomaly, or are Snowden and [Bradley] Manning precursors of things to come?”
New questions, but Johnson sees a similarity to debates that national security intellectuals have wrestled with in the past.
“We’re having discussion about cyber like we had about airpower in the 1920s or nuclear weapons in the 1950s,” he said. “ ‘It’s going to change everything.’ Well, maybe. But what do you do about it?”
Splitting the Difference
Cyber isn’t an issue that only the Army is dealing with. But when it comes to the fights that the Army is in the business of winning, the service is staring down hard facts.
“The problem they’ve got is the kinds of wars they have the strongest answer to are probably the kinds of wars the public is the least willing to wage,” said Stephen Biddle, Council on Foreign Relations.
Still, those fights are not far from the minds of the service’s leadership and intellectual core.
In June, while accepting an award in London from theRoyal United Services Institute, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus insisted that “contrary to pundit opinion, the counterinsurgency era is not over. That is, quite simply, because the insurgency era is not over.”
The general is almost certainly right. But a skeptic might reply that while there are insurgents waging wars of ideology or religion to ethnicities in multiple hot spots across the globe, that doesn’t mean that American soldiers must be the counterinsurgents.
That puts the US Army in a bit of a bind. But one in which its leaders are working to break free from by splitting the difference.
This is the idea behind the Regionally Aligned Forces concept, which aligns brigade combat teams with a global combatant command for a year to act as a thickening agent that the commander can use for training, advising or added security if needed. It’s an outgrowth of both the population-centric focus of the past decade, as well as a way to keep units stationed in the United States active and engaged globally now that deployments have slackened.
Some are skeptical that the Army will actually absorb the lessons it has learned in its two recent wars.
“It wants to institutionalize them, but I don’t think that it is. I think the pressing business of recovering from a war while fighting a war will take precedence, and it should,” said retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and former commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq.
When it comes to regionally aligning brigades, “one of the things that I worry about is that we will define the problem in a way that makes us comfortable,” he said. “We’re comfortable with going into a place and offering tactical training to that nation, and sometimes that’s completely appropriate.
“Our comfort zone does not include the hard tasks like Yemen or Mali. There’s a heck of a lot more that’s necessary to build partner capacity in those two countries, but we only want to do the tactical stuff,” Dubik said. “And if you only do that, you’re not going to build the kind of security institution that is reflective of the kind of environment that we want.”
Biddle has similar concerns.
“The issue with small-scale train and advise is that you’re dealing with a political environment where what we want and what the host nation wants aren’t always the same thing,” he said. “In many cases, defeating terrorists and protecting the borders are not what the host government is interested in,” even if that is how American policymakers define the mission.
The Army also is working on proving its relevance to Congress and the other services when it comes to the Air-Sea Battle push by the Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Air-Sea Battle has been described as a way to assure access to the global commons and to cyberspace if an enemy attempts to deny either.
Whatever missions the Army performs in the future will take place with a smaller force than it fields today, and with less money than it has enjoyed over the past decade. But Johnson said the service can still accomplish its mission. The key is to plan.
War “is never going to be what you expect,” he said. “But it shouldn’t be what you completely discounted or didn’t think about, and that’s what we’re trying to help the boss with.”