WASHINGTON — For two decades, the Army led the U.S. military’s war in Afghanistan and, in the process, operations there and in Iraq transformed the service. It led to the purchase of billions of dollars of new weapons, the development of doctrine and adjustments to training.
But while the Army was focused on counterinsurgency, the Pentagon began to turn it attention to so-called near-peer adversaries. For the past decade, national security experts have warned the U.S. was at risk of losing its advantage, and as a result the Pentagon started new initiatives, from the Third Offset strategy to the Defense Innovation Unit, to help it stay ahead technologically.
Now, with the military out of Afghanistan and operations in the Middle East no longer competing for resources and attention, the Army must chart its path in a great-power conflict and do so after decades of struggling to push modernization programs across the finish line.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan “furthers the opportunity for the Army to shift our mindset more fully to the great power competition, near-peer competitor challenge,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told Defense News in a Sept. 30 interview.
A ‘now problem’
In a November 2011 speech, then-President Barack Obama said he had directed his national security team “to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority.”
“As a result, reductions in U.S. defense spending will not — I repeat, will not — come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific,” he added.
In his remarks, he argued the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were wrapping up, but instead, operations in Afghanistan continued, requiring the service’s attention.
Now, Wormuth said the Army must turn its focus to China.
“We need to be focusing on how does the Army contribute to enhancing our deterrent posture in the Indo-[Pacific Command] theater, because I see the China challenge as a now problem, in addition to a future challenge for us,” she said.
She acknowledged relationship-building in the region, which is key to the Army’s strategy to deter China, is more complicated than in Europe.
“Most of the countries in [the Indo-Pacific] are fairly army-centric, land-force centric, so I think we do play an important role in terms of establishing those relationships, whether it’s with India, whether it’s in the Philippines, whether it’s with Thailand,” she said.
“We need to be looking at how can we continue to do more with those countries? How can we exercise more with them and develop interoperability and show that we’re able to work with our allies and partners on tangible operational things in theater that would be useful to us in a crisis for example, or in a conflict if that was required?”
While the Army already has a “robust set of exercises and exchanges with countries in the region,” Wormuth said, Army leaders want the service to be “more present” in the region.
The Army, she added, is well positioned to build strong relationships with countries through army-to-army partnering and dialogue.
About three-quarters of those in uniform in the world today are in armies, Michael O’Hanlon, the Brookings Institution’s director of research for foreign policy, told Defense News in an Oct. 6 interview.
“Most of these countries ... have some ability to fend off a hypothetical Chinese assault or other regional security issues that they should have good ground forces and want to have a partnership with the world’s best army,” he said.
Using units like Security Force Assistance Brigades in the Pacific is “to some extent under-appreciated,” Wormuth said. “We can really use the SFABs to help us develop and deepen those relationships, create opportunities for greater access, create opportunities for interoperability.”
SFABs were designed initially to advise troops in Afghanistan, but they are now available to go elsewhere, she noted.
The Pacific has one such team, which has deployed to 10 different countries, including Mongolia, South Korea, Japan, Philippines and Indonesia, Gen. Charles Flynn, U.S. Army Pacific Command commander, told Defense News in a Sept. 30 interview.
The SFAB in the Pacific is “doing everything from warfighting skills to command-and-control … to advise, assist and to enable our allies and partners in the region,” Flynn said, and they “give us some persistent presence in these countries that previously, we were not able to do.”
The Army already has a “pretty extensive exercise program,” as well, Flynn said. Some are joint, but many are bilateral army-to-army, he added.
Exercises like Operation Pathways, which has emerged from existing training events Pacific Pathways and Defender Pacific, bolster the readiness of the U.S. Army, but also increase the confidence of allies and partners, Flynn said. The training is now slated to be held annually.
Indonesia, for instance, wants to create its own Combat Training Centers, no easy task considering it’s a country made up of 15,000 islands, Flynn said. The Army is now helping the country develop those training centers.
In addition, the U.S. Army is using Indo-Pacific scenarios for the vast majority of its big exercises and experiments, including U.S.-based Project Convergence at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona. Project Convergence is a chance for the service to try out technology and concepts related to its aggressive force modernization plan.
The service’s No. 1 modernization priority, which is developing Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF) capability, is aimed specifically at overcoming the vast distances a missile must travel in the Pacific fired from a safe stand-off range.
Even so, questions about the service’s role in the Indo-Pacific remain.
The Pentagon, for the first time, included a Pacific Deterrence Initiative in its fiscal 2022 budget request and is seeking $5.1 billion in funding — but none of the money would go to the Army directly.
“The Army is fundamentally a supporting service in the Indo-Pacific,” Brookings’ O’Hanlon said. “From a grand strategy point of view, that’s good, and we should not want to change it.”
Instead, the service should focus on providing air and missile defense, particularly base defense capabilities in the region, O’Hanlon said, and should continue to work on developing its long-range surface-to-surface fires capabilities, though it’s not obvious where those capabilities will be based.
The bases the Navy and Air Force are going to need and already possess in the Indo-Pacific “are absolutely crucial and absolutely vulnerable,” O’Hanlon said, and “I question whether the Army typically takes seriously enough the mission of base defense.”
Critics of the Army’s efforts to develop and field long-range precision fires have argued the mission is better carried out by the other services in that region.
Earlier this year, a U.S. Air Force general overseeing the service’s bomber inventory slammed the Army’s new plan to base long-range missiles in the Pacific, calling the idea expensive, duplicative and “stupid.”
But for Wormuth, “there is more than enough work to be done in the INDOPACOM theater for everyone.”
“Having turf battles about what a particular service should be doing is a bit of distraction to sort of just getting on with strengthening our deterrent posture, and I think the Army can contribute in a number of ways,” she said.
In a potential conflict, the Army has “always been particularly strong at setting the theater and providing that overarching command-and-control at scale and being able to sort of be the backbone that allows the joint force to operate together to sustain itself,” Wormuth said. “That’s a really important role for the Army.”
In 2017, the service deployed its first Multi-Domain Task Force to the Pacific to experiment with multidomain operations as a concept in that theater. Officials focused on adapting the Army’s doctrine and modernization toward what’s needed in the region.
The Pacific will be the only theater to receive two MDTF units. Europe will get one, the Arctic will get another and a fifth MDTF will be set up to flexibly deploy where needed, according to Army strategy.
MDTFs in the Pacific will be able to help prepare the operational environment for the Army to bring in its Long-Range Precision Fires capability as well as capabilities from other services, Wormuth noted.
Flynn said Army leadership is still working on the timing and details of the second team.
“We’re still in sort of preliminary stages of where we land it, how we land it and its configuration, but there’s a need for two in the Pacific,” he said.
At the same time, the Army is trying to balance its focus on the Pacific with its presence in Europe, which is aimed at deterring Russia.
Wormuth pointed to the reestablishment of V Corps with a forward element in Poland, the creation of Enhanced Forward Presence Battalions and the deployment of a rotational Armored Brigade Combat Team, which was first sent to Europe in that capacity in January 2017.
She also noted the elevation of U.S. Army Europe as a four-star headquarters, which was merged with U.S. Army Africa, as another evidence of the Army’s commitment in Europe.
“There’s a wide range of exercises we are participating in all of the time,” Wormuth said. “If there ever were to be a conflict with Russia, the Army is going to be front and center to that.”
Russia reemerged as a top threat in 2014 when it invaded and annexed Crimea. At the time, Army personnel in Europe had declined from roughly 200,000 — with two Army Corps of heavy armored forces — during the Cold War to around 33,0000 in 2015 — with only two permanently stationed brigade combat teams.
The military quickly reversed course. The fiscal year 2017 budget request more than four times the amount of funding for what was called the European Reassurance Initiative, or ERI, as a way to slow Russia’s military aggression in Eastern Europe and bolster allies’ defense capabilities. Roughly $2.8 billion of the $3.4 billion in ERI funding was for the Army.
The Army spent $2 billion putting a “heel-to-toe” ABCT in theater 24/7 on a rotational basis on top of the Stryker brigade and infantry brigade already in Europe and also funded more aviation capability in theater.
The European Deterrence Initiative, formerly known as ERI, peaked at $6.5 billion in FY19. That top line has seen a steady decline from FY20 through FY22, after a large number of infrastructure projects were completed. The Pentagon’s FY22 request for EDI totals $3.7 billion.
The Army also made plans in 2019 to embark on a division-sized exercise called Defender Europe in 2020 to challenge the service’s capability to rapidly deploy from U.S. installations to U.S. ports then to ports in Europe and across the theater.
Former U.S. Army Europe Commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges said that while the Army is focusing on the Pacific region, it’s not “turning away from Europe.”
In fact, Hodges told Defense News, “Army capabilities have continued to grow in Europe.”
The service has added the V Corps in Poland to act “as the controlling headquarters for specific operations, activities and initiatives,” according to a U.S. Army Europe and Africa statement sent to Defense News.
“Overall, the Corps is not considered fully operational capable,” but is expected to achieve this status by November, following a certification exercise which began last month and continues this month.
The Army announced earlier this year that it would stand up a Multi-Domain Task Force in Europe. The MDTF was activated last month and is already actively participating in exercises in the theater. The Army also is standing up a new Theater Fires Command.
“Still, there continues to be a need in Europe for more air and missile defense, engineers and logistical capabilities, especially transport,” Hodges said.
In its budget request for FY22, the Army seeks funding for increased persistent ballistic and cruise missile capabilities for U.S. and NATO facilities and an integrated air-and-missile defense architecture for the European theater.
To combat Russia’s information warfare capabilities, the European Deterrence Initiative would also support the Army’s Operational Influence Platform, which uses social media and “advanced online publicizing techniques” to counter propaganda and misinformation, according to budget documents.
Wormuth said many of the modernization programs that are nearly ready to field were originally focused on the European theater. “I think that just speaks to the fact that it’s a bit of a home base,” she said.
The Army this year, fielded Short-Range Air Defense Strykers in Europe, filling a gap first identified by Hodges when he commanded the Army in Europe in 2016.
But Wormuth said the Army will have to rely more on its allies in Europe to allow it to shift attention to the Pacific region.
If the Army can lean harder on its allies, “they can help us carry more load in that theater and allow us to maybe focus a little more on INDOPACOM,” she said.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.