The rise of China is the one overarching national security challenge for the foreseeable future, and it will be vital to continue maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific region through deterrence measures. Complicating those efforts is the need to modernize and restructure the U.S. military.
The Pentagon’s plans to expand the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, reorient the Marine Corps and build a Space Force with warfighting potential are being pursued largely with the growing threat from China in mind. However, the Service largely being left out is the Army. The Army has not been able to articulate a substantive role for itself in the Indo-Pacific region. Unless it does, the Army risks suffering a significant reduction in resources and end-strength.
Earlier this month, in an address to the Navy Institute, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Chief of Staff of the Army, General Mark Milley, warned that the U.S military faced “bloodletting” as the Pentagon struggled to fund major expansion and restructuring programs for the other Services. Wearing his CJCS hat, General Milley declared, “I would advocate, and bias going forward, heavy investment in sea, air and space-centric platforms.”
While the Chairman did not single out the Army for cuts, it seems certain that his bias, if reflected in future defense budgets, spells trouble for the Service he once led. In the same address, General Milley acknowledged as much: “Look, I'm an Army guy,” Milley said. “And I love the Army…but the fundamental defense of the United States, and the ability to project power forward [are] going to be naval and air and space power.”
The Chairman’s comments reflect the central theme in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy: the return to an era of great power competition. While both Russia and China are classified as great powers, the pacing threat is from the latter, which has the economy, technology, manpower and political will to pose a grand strategic challenge to the United States and allies, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. China may overtake the United States as a naval power within the next decade. Countering China may require the “bias” in defense investments suggested by General Milley.
The Trump administration appears to agree with General Milley’s assessment. Last year, it stood up a new military Service, the Space Force, reflecting the broadly-held view that space was now a warfighting domain and that U.S. space assets were increasingly threatened by Russian and Chinese anti-satellite capabilities. The proposed FY 2022 defense budget contains a massive increase in funding for Navy shipbuilding. The U.S. Marine Corps is undertaking a radical restructuring to make it more capable of supporting maritime operations in the Indo-Pacific region. The Air Force, which is struggling to get bigger, will definitely get better with substantial investments in the F-35, B-21, KC-46, Advanced Battle Management System and long-range munitions.
The U.S. Army is the one Service still struggling to find its footing in the future competition with China. Today, the Army is struggling to meet simultaneous demands for forces in multiple overseas theaters while also providing critical support at home in response to the challenges of the pandemic and repeated natural disasters. At the same time, it is investing heavily in its six modernization priorities and working on changes to doctrine, organization and training required to address the era of great power conflict.
What should the role of the Army be in the Indo-Pacific? Army leadership itself is uncertain. It is planning to set up multi-domain task forces to conduct experiments in the region to test new fires capabilities, advanced electronic warfare, intelligence and air/missile defense capabilities. The Army is looking at future deployments with its new long-range fires systems, such as the Precision Strike Missile, mid-range weapons based on the Standard Missile-6 and Tomahawk cruise missile, and a long-range hypersonic missile.
But if all the Army plans to do in the Indo-Pacific is deploy fires systems and air defenses, it risks irrelevance and a major hit to its budget. The role of supporting the Navy with long-range fires is one claimed by the Marine Corps. Moreover, what is the value to the theater commander from a few more batteries of long-range missiles, given what the Sea Services plan to deploy?
The Army’s forte is the deployment of large, combined formations that can conduct extensive and prolonged land campaigns. This is the role it maintains on the Korean peninsula, where the Army deploys the 2nd Infantry Division plus supporting units to help the Republic of Korea deter the threat from North Korea. This is the kind of mission that justifies a large and expensive Army.
Earlier this year, the Office of the Secretary of Defense initiated a study of the role of the Army in the Indo-Pacific theater. Its objective was to consider ways of strengthening the Army’s posture in the Indo-Pacific region in general, and the role of large, heavy formations in deterring China.
Dominating air, sea, and space is not an end in itself. It is an intermediate step toward the ultimate goal of controlling or denying critical land. The idea that deterrence can be achieved by relying primarily on air and naval forces is just wrong. We’ve been down this road in the ten years between the Gulf War and 9/11; the theory was wrong then, and it is wrong now. At present, the United States is not going to be able to counter the People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps no matter what long-range fires system they deploy. If Chinese forces manage to land in Taiwan, it will take an Army heavy corps, at minimum, to help the Taiwanese forces defeat them.
Is there a place for large Army formations elsewhere in the theater? Clearly, the Korean peninsula is one possibility. But a presence in other areas would be a clear indication of a U.S. commitment and a strong deterrent to Chinese aggression.
A Biden administration will certainly articulate a new National Security Strategy that differs in many respects from that of the Trump administration. But it will be impossible to deny the basic reality of great power competition and the continuous growth of the Chinese military. It is up to the Army’s senior leaders to articulate the value of large land forces for deterrence and warfighting in the Indo-Pacific region.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC.