Land Power Is Still Necessary

A pivot to watery Asia doesn't mean the United States Army can wither away.

In early February, General Ray Odierno offered his view of the future of conflict—and the U.S. Army needed to meet and turn back challenges associated with that vision. His articulate Foreign Policy article was an important contribution to the debate over the future role of land power and the Army. Much of Odierno’s vision reflected the Army’s efforts to refine and promote its plans since early 2012, when a challenge was issued in the form of the Defense Strategic Guidance. Released by the Defense Department, yet signed by the president, the new strategic document prompted some to question the relevance and mission of the Army.

Many in the Army also seemed to buy into a debate over whether a land force of 500,000 or even 200,000 was necessary in an era defined by a pivot to the Pacific, a theater that some argue naturally favors the mobility-platform-intensive Navy and Air Force. For example, immediately after the publication of the Defense Strategic Guidance, senior Army leadership began to place greater emphasis, both rhetorically and in practice, on U.S. Army support to the U.S. Pacific Command, to show that the Army had a critical role to play there. “Seven out of the ten largest land forces in the world are in the Pacific theater” and “twenty-two out of twenty-seven of the Chiefs of Defense there are Army” became common refrains. Reports surfaced that the Army, the Marine Corps and the U.S. Special Operations Command were establishing an Office of Strategic Landpower—intended to emphasize the enduring importance of the “human domain” of operations in a post-Afghanistan world, but critiqued by some as the Army’s effort to fend off budget cuts and compete with the Navy and Air Force’s Air-Sea Battle concept.

But much of this search for a reaffirmation of the Army’s continuing relevance to U.S. security was and is unnecessary. To those who understand the enduring value of land power, the last decade or more of war has made the case clearer than ever. Yet some are still promoting a new “Vietnam syndrome,” arguing the United States should never again go down the same path it did over the last decade. To others—call them the advocates of the “Best Case Scenario”—it seems unlikely that major state-on-state conflict involving the United States will occur any time soon. Therefore, goes the reasoning in both camps, we can afford to trim the Army down to 290,000 soldiers or less.

But what if the Best Case Scenario crowd or those peddling the new Vietnam syndrome are wrong? And the majority of credible, publicly available threat assessments also are wrong? And that state-on-state conflict involving the United States occurs in the next five or ten years? Former House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton was fond of highlighting the American success rate over the last forty years in predicting where the next armed conflict would occur. By his measure it was near zero percent. The only certainty, noted Skelton, was that there would undoubtedly be another conflict that would demand the application of skilled military force.

Unfortunately, despite America’s collective exhaustion following wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this remains no less true today. An Army of 290,000 active-duty soldiers would find it difficult to quickly and effectively contain or seize control of a major conflict with a near-peer. While reserves and the Army force-generation process geared up, initiative, ground and lives would be lost needlessly. All presidents want options, not a fait accompli or policy dead ends. In response to a future security crisis, simply telling the commander-in-chief “we don’t do windows” will not suffice, and it never has. Eliminating the Army’s ability to provide a credible array of options does not reflect a prudent prioritization of threats and a reasoned reallocation of resources—it instead reflects a degree of naiveté, bordering on recklessness.

But what if the Best Case Scenario camp and those pushing the new Vietnam syndrome are right? What if the United States has no military conflict with a near-peer, or Washington successfully sidesteps the messier conflicts? In theory, shrinking the Army under this future scenario would be a prudent policy choice, but there are at least two major problems with the assumptions that underpin this logic. First, this assumes that the United States will be able to pick and choose its fights and/or the nature of those fights with a precision that has heretofore escaped American policy-makers. Despite Washington’s best efforts, the world remains an inherently chaotic place, and America has a poor track record of successfully fending off national-security challenges to U.S. vital or even just important interests through wishful thinking or reliance upon others; see Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya.

Second, this scenario assumes the Army’s only purpose is as a campaign-fighting force, that the Army doesn’t perform any of a host of missions and functions that are individually something less than a major conventional war—that somehow the Army can’t chew gum and walk at the same time. What the new Vietnam syndrome and the Best Case Scenario promoters don’t sufficiently acknowledge is that there are numerous other national-security objectives for which the Army is and has been the ideal policy implement.

It’s on this point that General Odierno’s arguments earlier this year were notable in terms of pushing back against any reckless drive to shrink the Army into a static, garrison-based force, called upon only in the event of a Cuban invasion of Florida. About halfway through, General Odierno wrote:

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