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:
Beyond combat formations, Army units also provide enabling capabilities to our allies—from command and control, to intelligence support, to logistics—bolstering their effectiveness as well as our own. The efficiencies gained through these partnerships lead to greater stability in peacetime and greater effectiveness in war, all at costs far below what would be required for any one nation to attempt to operate alone. In an era where regional instability more and more carries global consequences, these activities and others like them are increasingly crucial contributions to the nation’s security.
It’s in these areas that the Army is likely to provide the greatest benefit to national security in the coming years. Working more closely with foreign militaries during peacetime through educational exchanges, training efforts, military exercises, senior-leader visits, foreign military sales and multinational research and development will become increasingly vital to shaping the security environment, preventing conflict, and setting the conditions for the Army to prevail if conflict occurs. More broadly, such military-to-military programs form a critical means by which the U.S. government encourages and enables countries and organizations to work with the United States to achieve strategic objectives, and the Army plays a leading role here.
Army-led military-to-military activities help the United States to achieve its strategic objectives in several ways, some of which are unique to the Army and cannot be achieved through Air Force- or Navy-led military-to-military programs, if only because most military forces around the globe are army-centric. First, Army military-to-military activities enhance the ability of America’s foreign partners to maintain stability and security in their own neighborhoods, thereby helping to prevent conflict before it can start. By building partner capacity for self-defense and a sort of international neighborhood policing through army-to-army programs and activities, the U.S. Army helps to spread the responsibility of defending common security interests.
Second, if conflict occurs, military-to-military activities better enable the U.S. force and its allies to more efficiently and effectively operate in coalition environments, which remain vitally important to U.S. military endeavors. Despite a decade of coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan—and all the interoperability gains made in those theaters—there is still much to be accomplished. If Washington wants U.S. forces to train as they would fight, then the role of the Army in building and maintaining interoperability and partner capacity is vital.
Third, highly capable, even interoperable allies and partners mean fewer American boots on the ground, lessening the burden on the Army to generate combat brigades for deployment rotations and thereby reducing costs in the long run. Without a draft, Washington will need to rely on capable allies to fill those requirements in the event of a major or longer-term conflict. Casualty risks to allied troops and America’s own are greatly reduced with increased interoperability—for example, the ability to talk on the same radio frequencies, employ the same tactics, techniques and procedures, share intelligence, and utilize the same ammunition in weapons, fuel in vehicles and energy sources at forward operating bases.
Fourth, capable allies are confident allies, and confidence in mission success is a key element in their political leadership’s willingness to engage in expeditionary operations and their public’s willingness to support those operations. In turn, this takes the onus off Washington to lead, potentially reducing the number and type of U.S. forces necessary for any particular operation. “Leading from behind” is no epithet—it is a model applicable to situations where the interests of U.S. allies are vital but America’s are less so. The Army can help to promote the willingness of American allies to engage in expeditionary operations in defense of common interests by strengthening their capabilities and enhancing their own sense of confidence.