Five Other Challenges Facing The Army
Everyone recognizes the biggest challenges facing the U.S. Army. They are the same across the services and are all related: Declining budgets require significant force structure cuts. At the same time, the U.S. military must still meet a broad range of missions, including deterring aggression, fighting major conventional conflicts, engaging with allies and partners, and securing the global commons through homeland defense and support to civil authorities. It must accomplish all of these missions while resetting the force, avoiding hollowness and investing in future capabilities, particularly those focused on maintaining a technological and operational edge in the high-end fight. For the Army, there is also the mission of completing the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
These challenges would be enough for any organization to address. The Army, however, has five other challenges: strategic landpower, envisioning future combat on land, joint countering of anti-access/area denial threats, balancing the active and reserve components, and investing in the soldier. These challenges go to the heart of the nature of military operations on land, which is what makes the Army unique among the services, and how a host of global trends—demographic, technological, political and even social—will impact the way states are able to employ military power in general and landpower in particular.
1. Making the Case for Strategic Landpower
The most important and difficult of these challenges is making the strategic case for U.S. landpower. Historically, the most significant role played by the U.S. Army, broadly defined, has been as a stability force. Although they have been intense, the periods of war—that is, force-on-force conflict—have been relatively brief. Stability was the classic function of the Army along the American frontier. For more than four decades after World War II, the Army’s primary mission was deterring conflict by ensuring the stability of the dividing lines between East and West both in Europe and Northwest Asia. For most of the past decade, the Army has led the efforts to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the stability mission is not in good standing with the nation’s political leaders and the American people. The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review explicitly rejected conducting long-term, large-scale stability missions.
The Army’s response (together with U.S. Special Operations Command and the Marine Corps) is the concept of strategic landpower. The Army has rediscovered Clausewitz, arguing that the singular purpose of military power is to influence the behavior or affect the will of a target government, population or group. Since people live on land, landpower is the most effective means of influencing will and behavior. There are lots of discussions in Army leadership circles about “Phase 0” operations (when military forces work to gain the trust of foreign powers), activities it can perform “left of the bang” (proactively anticipating and preventing hostilities before they begin), and the creation of regionally aligned forces to do collaborative training and provide presence. It follows that if behavior or will can be changed without the need to engage in hostilities, this is a very cost-effective use of military power.
The reality is that the strategic value of landpower is today what it has been throughout recorded history: to fight and win wars. War is a nation’s most serious business. If a nation wishes to deter war, it must demonstrate a credible ability to fight and win wars. The best way of demonstrating this capability is with a robust and integrated joint force that includes a strong landpower component. A strong landpower component is one that can control critical territory infrastructure and populations. This often requires defeating hostile land forces. Only a robust Army can do this.
2. Envisioning the Future of Land Combat
The second challenge the Army faces is to articulate a convincing vision of major land combat in the future. Since the Army is continental U.S.-based, it must address how joint power will be projected forward and what operations the Army will pursue once ashore. There are many issues that need to be considered. For example, how does global urbanization fit into land warfare? Imagine the Battle of Fallujah on the scale of a Cairo, Karachi or Pyongyang. How will U.S./NATO land forces defend the Baltic states or Poland in the event of Russian aggression? One issue from the past that needs to be addressed again is the nature of land warfare in the presence of nuclear weapons.
Contrary to the urban myth, the American people are not casualty-averse, but they are against waste. They are not against long fights, either, at least when the cause is considered worthy. In wars of choice, though, they are unquestionably sensitive to both the price paid and the time taken. Consequently, our political and military leaders, particularly those in the Army, must be very careful not to define future land campaigns on the assumption that they must all be short and virtually casualty-free.
3. Working with Others Against A2/AD
The third challenge is to more closely embed the Army in emerging joint approaches to countering anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threats. Simply put, unless advanced A2/AD threats are defeated, landpower cannot be projected forward or sustained once in place. Forward-deployed Army forces will need to defend themselves, particularly against cruise and ballistic missiles but also against rockets, artillery, mortars and unmanned aerial systems.
The Army currently deploys or is researching a range of capabilities that will play a vital role in future joint operations in an A2/AD environment. Systems such as Patriot, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense and future land-based directed energy weapons will be just as important to defeating A2/AD threats as anything deployed by the Air Force or Navy. The key to countering A2/AD threats and fully empowering the joint force is in advanced networks that seamlessly connect sensors and shooters. In a networked environment, forward-deployed Army sensors can provide the information to permit remote engagement by Navy air and missile defenses or Air Force long-range strike platforms.
4. Balancing Regular Army and Reserve Forces
The fourth challenge, one shaped by the answers provided to the preceding three, is to establish an appropriate balance between the Regular Army and the reserve component. The Army’s proposal, based on the need to prepare to fight high-end, conventional conflicts, emphasizes the traditional role of the National Guard as a strategic reserve. Mobilization restrictions and training requirements make it highly doubtful that the National Guard could generate brigade combat teams rapidly enough to meet the initial response timelines for future conflicts. At the same time, the National Guard’s roles in homeland defense and under Title 32 in support of state missions are likely to become more important.
The Army has produced a well-reasoned and fair proposal. It would restructure the total force to address prospective overseas threats while also maintaining the ability of both the National Guard and Regular Army to support civil authorities in the homeland. Changes in aviation assets will concentrate AH-64s in the Regular Army and give the National Guard much more useful UH-60s.
5. Investing in the Soldier
The fifth challenge is to define and then see through a long-range investment strategy that addresses long-standing difficulties associated with deploying, employing and sustaining major land forces on hostile battlefields.
One area that perhaps should not be invested in is the Army’s vehicle program. This is now reduced to just two platforms: the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. Yet, without a major breakthrough in materials, power plants and weapons systems, it is not clear why the Army should invest scarce resources in a new armored fighting vehicle at this time. The same is true for helicopters.
Betting on the future also means betting on soldiers. The Army believes that its most important asset is its people. Therefore, anything that can be done to improve the physical and mental performance of individual servicemembers will see tremendous returns. If it has one spare dollar to invest, the Army should put it in human performance. In particular, the Army needs to devote as much attention to soldier mobility, equipment weight and individual protection as it has to armored vehicles.
Given the way the international environment is evolving, it is unlikely that current budget and force structure challenges will be long-lasting. Regardless of the resources available to the military in general and the Army in particular, these five challenges still need to be addressed and resolved.