The U.S. Army Can't Get Ambushed by the Future

M1A2 Abrams tank during training. Flickr/U.S. Army

More money without new leadership won’t fix the Army.

When U.S. forces begin the destruction of the Islamic State, it will defend its territory—its so-called caliphate—and “hold ground.” Without air and missile defenses, or rocket artillery and mobile armored forces with accurate, devastating firepower, “holding ground” is the only option. U.S. air and ground forces with token “allied and partner” participation will methodically grind Islamic State fighters out of existence. “Holding ground” will be a death sentence for ISIS.

However, the destruction of ISIS belongs to the past; battles between the U.S. armed forces and insurgent enemies without armies, air forces or air defenses. Future battle will be different.

Recent events in eastern Ukraine, Mesopotamia and the western Pacific suggest the potential for conflicts in regions where major wars incubated in the past. When and how these wars will break out is difficult to predict, but the trend lines suggesting how they will be fought are visible now.

In a future conflict with nation-state opponents, U.S. command, control and communications, particularly space-based capabilities, will be disrupted. Theater ballistic missiles and self-navigating long-range cruise missiles will strike ports, airfields, refineries, desalination plants and food-storage facilities vital to U.S. forces.

The skies over the battlefield will be crowded with loitering munitions and unmanned aerial vehicles. These agile cruise missiles are designed to engage beyond line-of-sight ground targets. With proximity-fused, high-explosive warheads, these systems will remain airborne for hours, whether day or night. Equipped with high-resolution electro-optical and infrared cameras, enemy operators will locate, surveil and guide the drones to targets on the ground—U.S. ground forces.

When these loitering missiles are integrated into the enemy’s strike formations, armed with precision-guided rocket artillery that fires high-explosive, incendiary thermobaric warheads, including submunitions with self-targeting antitank and antipersonnel munitions, warfare as we know it changes. The rockets fired from just five Russian BM-30 Smerch launchers can devastate an area the size of Central Park. At the same time, integrated air defenses will protect the strike formations from U.S. air and missile attack while enemy armored forces maneuver to exploit the chaos and close in with accurate, devastating direct fire from automatic cannon, antitank guided missiles and high-velocity guns.

Imagine the impact of the aforementioned events on the contemporary Army’s thousands of paratroopers and air-mobile or truck-mounted infantry. The consequences for gas-guzzling “upgraded” tanks and infantry fighting vehicles designed in the 1970s will be no less profound. Without integrated air and missile defenses to protect them from top attack, or their own precision-strike capabilities to counter the enemy’s strikes, the mix of enemy capabilities employed as described will crush them too.

None of this is news inside the Pentagon. In the building, it’s an open secret that without a strategic reset, today’s Army ground forces are ambulatory patients lining up for rescue by American air power. The problem is that the U.S. Air Force is already overstretched. U.S. air power must also contend with the proliferation of lethal air-defense technologies in combination with electronic warfare—a recipe that can degrade, and in some cases negate, the effects of America’s precision-strike weapons, GPS-based navigation and guidance systems.

Twentieth-century warfare taught that armies are more often defeated by dogma based on earlier successes than by the skill of new enemies. The last century also taught the importance of integrating new, survivable warfighting capabilities inside new, highly mobile organizational constructs at progressively lower levels. Unfortunately, the possibility that the U.S. Army’s 1942 organizational constructs—brigades, divisions and corps—may be the wrong answer to twenty-first-century opponents is anathema to the Army’s three- and four-star generals. This is why more money without new leadership won’t fix the Army.

During a February 27 meeting at the Lexington Institute, Maj. Gen. David Bassett, Army Program Executive Officer for Ground Combat Systems, said, “Sometimes I’m asked, ‘do you really think it’s a good idea to keep the Abrams tank until 2050?’ No, [but] you develop a strategy for the resources that you have. . . . What we haven’t done is give you a strategy for the resources that we don’t have.”

When general officers openly admit to doing stupid things, civilian leadership is vital, particularly when Congress gives the U.S. Army $120 billion a year, a sum roughly equal to the Russian national defense budget. Even with this enormous sum, the Army four-stars insist they cannot make more than three brigade combat teams ready to fight.