Is the U.S. Army In Decline?
What is the Army doing to stay at the top of the pack?
Key point: A new era of warfare calls for new capabilities.
The U.S. Army once was superior to every potential adversary in terms of combat power, what it called overmatch. This is no longer entirely true. In the future battlefields, the Army will face enemies that will be extremely lethal, more numerous, fighting on home turf and able to exploit the advantage of getting in the first blow. Unless the Army takes a number of steps in the near-term, it is likely to find itself not merely outmatched, but at risk of defeat.
In its most recent conflicts the Army benefitted from a number of advantages that are unlikely to be available in the future, certainly in other regions of the world. It had a secure logistical base largely free from interdiction. It could count on total air dominance. It didn’t have to face any long-range fires. While adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan made excellent use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the only anti-armor threats came from rocket-propelled grenades. Finally, the Army possessed the luxury of unimpeded communications.
Few, if any, of these advantages are likely to hold true in future conflicts, certainly none involving regional powers or so-called near peer adversaries. In Europe, Asia and even portions of the Middle East, the U.S. military will have to fight for air superiority. Even where adversaries have not deployed integrated air defenses, Army maneuver forces, bases and lines of communications are likely to be subject to massed rocket and missile attacks. Brigade combat teams will face an array of lethal threats ranging from sophisticated IEDs to advanced, tandem-warhead anti-tank guided missiles, precision guided artillery projectiles, long-range guns, armed drones and air-delivered weapons.
The Russian Army, for example, has demonstrated an impressive array of new capabilities in its operations in the Ukraine and Syria including the coordinated use of drones with massed artillery and rocket batteries, advanced area munitions and thermobaric warheads, extremely lethal and sophisticated anti-tank guided missiles and the use of electronic warfare to black out military communications. It has shown an impressive capability to rapidly mobilize and deploy significant combined arms forces. In Eastern Europe, the Russian Army also will be operating close to its supply centers and under the protection of an integrated air defense network.
The Army’s Operating Concept during the latter part of the Cold War was “fight outnumbered and win.” This made sense when the principal adversary was the Warsaw Pact. It was simple, clear and focused on ways, means and ends. The new bumper sticker is “win in a complex world.” It is essentially meaningless. In view of the Army’s declining end strength, aging equipment and platforms, and the rise of new threats, it is likely that the Army again will have to fight and to do so outnumbered.
The character of the conflict and adversary in Southwest Asia propelled the Army to concentrate on ways of enhancing the survivability of its deployed forces. Out of this effort came the highly mobile Stryker with slat armor and, more recently, a double-V hull to defeat IEDs. There were tens of thousands of heavily armored mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles and uparmored Humvees. Electronic warfare focused entirely on ways of detecting and jamming remotely-controlled IEDs. The Army even adapted the Navy’s Phalanx close-in defense system to protect critical facilities against rocket attacks. Soldiers were provided with improved body armor.
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The drive to enhance force protection and platform survivability is ongoing. The Army is seriously considering deploying active protection systems (APS) on at least a portion of its fleets of combat vehicles. APS systems such as the Israeli Trophy have proven highly effective against rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles. The Army is investing in a multi-mission launcher that can support the AMRAAM anti-aircraft missile as well as a future miniature hit-to-kill interceptor to counter rockets, artillery and mortars. The decades-old, open-topped M-113s are being replaced by a much more survivable Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle based on the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle. Army Aviation is deploying countermeasures to defeat infrared surface-to-air missiles and a navigation system for degraded vision environments.
But in order to fight outnumbered and win, the Army also must invest in near-term lethality enhancements to match its efforts in force protection and platform survivability. The Army recently undertook a short-term program in response to an urgent operational need from U.S. Army Europe to upgun some 80 Stryker vehicles with a new and more capable 30mm cannon. What about the rest of the fleet? The possibility of mounting an anti-tank missile such as the Javelin on the Stryker also has been suggested. The Army badly needs new precision munitions, the Multiple Launch Rocket System and mortar systems to defeat both enemy armor and also their rocket launchers and massed artillery. Plans to enhance the lethality of both the Bradley and the Abrams tank with sensor and targeting upgrades and, for the latter, a new multipurpose cannon round, need to be funded in the near-term. Directed energy weapons for tactical applications against hostile air threats, rockets and artillery are within reach. Then there is the need to match investments in advanced networking such as the WIN-T system with a new generation of electronic warfare capabilities that will render adversaries deaf, dumb and blind.
In counterinsurgency campaigns the goal, simply put, is to outlast the other side. Hence, the emphasis in Army modernization on survivability. In a serious conventional conflict with a near-peer, regional hegemon or capable non-state actor, this will not be enough. To fight and win outnumbered requires being more lethal than the adversary too.
This first appeared on the Lexington Institute website here.
This first appeared in 2016.