The Real Problem with America's Military

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Over the last several years, there has been a noticeable uptick in terribly confused thinking about military matters that extends to understanding the nature of conflict, the role of military forces, and general thinking about military affairs.

Sometimes the confusion emerges in the form of an identity crisis. The U.S. Army seems to have experienced this (and here and here) as it unhitched from protracted operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the Navy and Air Force embarked on Air-Sea Battle (later modified) and the Marines doubled-down on their role as the nation’s “crisis-response force,” the U.S. Army has struggled to explain its continued value.

More regularly, this confusion permeates policy discussions and military employment concepts among leaders pondering how to transform distant peoples and their ancient cultures into something approximating delegations to EU regulatory meetings. Adding to the fun is the military community’s decidedly unhelpful fascination with each new fad that promises to reveal some hidden truth about the use of force in the modern age or desire to incorporate a tech-sector savant’s insight into a “leading change.”

It is all very odd, not least because the military services have been in the business of undertaking military operations for centuries. Practitioners of war have presumably been students of war, or at least the use of force, and the history of such fields of study stretches back some five thousand years.

The history of conflict is about people trying to impose their will on each other or intimidating competitors into adopting a desired behavior or course of action by the threat (explicit or implicit) of force. Has the invention of the iPhone so fundamentally changed the nature of Man that millennia of human history have been relegated to its ash-heap?

Many “defense experts”—including those with operational experience, academic pedigree or both—seem to think so. And that fanciful thinking permeates much of the current debate over the use of the military as well as thinking about the role of each service and what they contribute to national security.

It is true that conditions change from one era of warfare to the next. As new technologies are introduced, the utility of one service may rise relative to another, just as offense and defense have traded advantages over time. But when one element rises to prominence, it does not mean that the others are permanently eclipsed or no longer of any value. Military organizations, just like people, tend to adapt to changed circumstances, albeit oftentimes in the wake of a dramatic failure. They should never willingly accept that some arrangement of factors is final. Consequently, each service finds ways to adjust to changes in its primary domain of operations, countering new weapons or tactics that rise to frustrate a current way of operating. Why then does doubt creep into a service’s confidence about its purpose or value?

Consider the Army.

It seems confused about its role, value, and purpose. Its messaging to Congress is downright incomprehensible, which is troubling because it should be able to explain the complex realities of war in simple terms to an audience that has very little understanding of the subject. It should have no difficulty explaining why land power is vitally important and will remain so as long as people walk the earth. Consider:

·      Air power is unconstrained by terrain. It is able to deliver anything deliverable by air—be it ordnance, people, equipment, or supplies—without much concern for the ground it flies over. It is able to cross distances at high speed. It is able to deny an enemy use of the air. It can attrit enemy capabilities and frustrate enemy movements on the ground. But air power has no permanence and cannot control terrain or people.


·      Sea power does much the same thing via water. While it moves slower than air, it can deliver massive loads, shift large forces from one place to another, deny the enemy use of the ocean, strike targets ashore from the maritime domain, and, most importantly, choke the lifeblood of a nation by interdicting the movement of goods and resources to include energy and information. But sea power can do little to fundamentally affect the outcome of land operations (especially in the short term), nor can it control terrain or people.


·      Land power, though slow and ponderous by comparison, is the only force that can control terrain and people and deny the same to the enemy. It is the only force that can achieve decisive outcomes, short of nuclear weapons delivered by air-power or sea-power.  It is the only force that can directly engage with people and establish enduring relationships. It has permanence.