Last week, Gen. Charles Flynn, commander of the U.S. Army Pacific, said he wants to “signal” strength to China by putting “boots on the ground” in Asia, “the most consequential region, at the most consequential time against the most consequential adversary.”
But rather than adopting an antagonistic stance, the purpose of the U.S. Army is first to deter any would-be adversary from attacking the United States, and failing that, to defeat them. Seeking confrontation with a competitor does not contribute to our security.
Now that the war in Afghanistan is over and the once-massive Iraq deployments are down to less than 3,000, it is time to reassess with fresh eyes what role the U.S. Army should play in our national defense. Current global security trends, key geography and the global proliferation of advanced military technology makes clear the U.S. Army’s role must evolve.
With most of the counterinsurgency fights now behind us, the Department of Defense must answer this key question: Is the U.S. Army too big, too small or about the right size?
The answer depends on what one believes the service should do. According to the Army’s current strategy document, the great power competitors of “China and Russia have implemented modernization programs to offset our conventional superiority, and the challenges they present are increasingly trans-regional, multi-domain, and multi-functional.”
To meet these specific challenges, the Army says its mission is to “be ready to deploy, fight and win decisively against any adversary, anytime and anywhere, in a joint, combined, multi-domain, high-intensity conflict, while simultaneously deterring others.” That focus and mission make a lot of sense in the current environment. What doesn’t make sense, regrettably, is what the Army is actually doing in support of that mission.
The purpose of any nation’s army is to secure its borders, protect its citizens and defend its vital national interests. In an era of great power competition, the primary purpose of the U.S. Army is to ensure the country is secure from direct threats posed by Russia, China, or any future adversary that may arise. What its purpose should not be is in going abroad in search of missions that give it the appearance of relevancy while doing nothing to make our country safer.
Free from the burden of fighting a perpetual war in Afghanistan, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said earlier this month the U.S. now needs “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.”
Wormuth claims relationship-building is key for the U.S. Army to deter China in the Indo-Pacific region. She believes mentoring and training friendly militaries is the best way to build such relationships, and notes the U.S. is currently engaged in 10 such operations in the region.
Gen. Charles Flynn said these training teams are, “doing everything from [teaching] warfighting skills to command-and-control … to advise, assist and to enable our allies and partners in the region.” The purpose of these missions, he said, is to “give us some persistent presence in these countries that previously, we were not able to do.” Yet that’s part of the problem — the U.S. doesn’t need an Army presence in multiple Asian countries.
Maintaining such a presence does not improve the security of the United States, it doesn’t deter would-be adversaries and, in the vast majority of cases, it produces virtually no improvement in the armed forces of the recipient countries. What such missions can do is increase the chance the U.S. gets dragged into someone else’s war. We should not continue to apply strategies and tactics that have failed America going all the way back to the Vietnam War.
The U.S. Army does not need to go abroad in search of missions to make itself appear relevant. What it very much needs to do is focus on its core warfighting skills and hone its ability to fight and win battles that might crop up involving major opponents — in the defense of our country, rather than risk our soldiers getting dragged into fighting wars for other countries.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.”