In the bureaucratic battles being waged over the US defense budget, the Army is in retreat on all fronts. Its primary function — fighting and winning wars on land — is out of step with a national military strategy that prioritizes the Asia-Pacific, where air and maritime power predominate and large-scale, US-led land wars are less likely.
Until the Army has a better explanation of how it contributes to safeguarding the United States, a nation facing no direct land threat and that is deeply skeptical of prolonged foreign interventions after 12 years of war, it will keep shrinking as the Defense Department funds other priorities.
The president’s fiscal 2015 budget request reflects the Army’s declining strategic relevance, announcing plans to trim 40,000 to 50,000 troops, in addition to the 80,000 soldiers the Army planned to shed by 2017. From its wartime high of approximately 570,000 soldiers, the Army is projected to shrink to 440,000 and could drop to 420,000 if Congress returns to automatic sequestration budget cuts in 2016.
It’s not just Army end strength that’s under fire; the budget also proposes halting modernization programs to replace aging armored vehicles and helicopters. Absent a compelling explanation of its strategic relevance, the Army has become a source of funding to plug holes in the defense budget. This trend isn’t likely to stop without change in the fiscal or strategic environments.
Rather than arguing against the current strategy or defending its budget share, the Army should counterattack by rethinking its fundamental purpose, what political scientist Samuel Huntington called a “strategic concept,” or a description of how and when the service expects to protect the nation.
When a service lacks a relevant concept, he said, “it becomes purposeless, it wallows about amid a variety of conflicting and confusing goals, and ultimately it suffers both physical and moral degeneration.”
Huntington wrote these words 50 years ago to portray the US Navy after World War II, but they accurately describe the Army in the aftermath of Afghanistan and Iraq. Like today’s Army, the Navy of the 1950s faced an identity crisis. It had been forged by the theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who advocated controlling the seas by annihilating an enemy’s fleet.
But after 1945, the Navy had nearly uncontested dominion over the sea. Navy leadership had to justify the enormous expense of maintaining a global fleet to control the seas when no adversary plausibly challenged US control.
The Navy’s answer was to change its strategic concept. Rather than seeking to defeat enemy fleets at sea, the Navy chose to exploit its control of the oceans to help win wars on land. This shift provided the strategic framework for building a fleet designed to address the central problem of the Cold War — deterring and defeating Soviet ground forces — through sea-based strikes, amphibious warfare, nuclear ballistic-missile submarines and rapid reinforcement of NATO land forces.
Today, it is the Army leadership that must justify the cost of maintaining a force that is sized and shaped to fight and win two major land campaigns, at a time when even one major land war seems improbable and defense budgets are declining. A new strategic concept could help the Army halt its downward trend while providing critical future capabilities.
The Army should broaden its focus from fighting land wars to include using land forces to help win wars at sea, in the air, in space and cyberspace. The Army must retain some capacity to deter and defeat aggression on land, but as the 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrated, a relatively small Army contingent, supported by the joint force, is capable of defeating a sizable regional adversary. In more demanding scenarios, such as North Korea, the Army could rely on support from allied ground forces.
Using land forces to help the joint force prevail in other domains would make the Army more relevant to future challenges. In Asia, for example, the Army could contribute unique capabilities such as ground-launched anti-ship missiles, logistics support, or air and missile defenses, which will be crucial in an air or maritime competition. By shedding some conventional combat forces, it could better build partner capacity, secure weapons of mass destruction and conduct cyberwarfare.
The Army has pursued some of these critical missions in a piecemeal fashion, but a fundamental reorientation of Army forces will be impossible so long as the Army continues to focus on fighting major ground wars.
A new strategic concept will not miraculously resolve the issues facing the Army or singlehandedly prevent further decreases to the Army’s budget or end strength. It will, however, build a sound strategic argument for an Army that is better sized, shaped and trained to win the wars of the next 20 years. With such an argument in hand, the Army could go on the offensive in the budget battles that are still to come. ■
Christopher Dougherty is a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former US Army Ranger.