The U.S. Army may be at a critical turning point, with promises of more troops, more modernization and more money. More commitments might also be coming as a Trump-era foreign policy takes shape.
Already, the Army began 2017 with almost 182,000 soldiers deployed in 140 locations in support of eight named operations. Major operations include dismantling the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; denying safe haven for Islamic extremists in Afghanistan; supporting NATO’s collective security in Europe; expanding partnerships with allies in the Pacific; conducting security cooperation operations and working with partner armies in South America; and deterring transnational threats in Africa while promoting regional security and stability, and strengthening interagency and international partnerships.
Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit public policy research group focused on national security issues, uses the phrase “perfect storm” to describe the situation.
“Today, the U.S. Army faces the proverbial ‘perfect storm’ consisting of ever-increasing demands, ever-more capable threats, and a shrinking force structure and continuing budget strictures,” Goure writes in a Lexington Institute research paper, “Near-Term U.S. Army Modernization: Buying What Is Available and Buying Time.”
“In this new world, the U.S. Army is at a high risk of being outnumbered, outgunned and outmaneuvered by prospective adversaries.”
The force structure may, for now, have ceased shrinking as a result of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that stopped and even slightly reversed the Army’s troop drawdown. The Army might even grow, as the Trump administration has talked of ramping up the Regular Army to 540,000 soldiers instead of the 476,000 previously planned.
Troop numbers, though, aren’t the full picture. Since the end of the Cold War, Goure writes, the Army has been reducing critical capabilities based on what was expected to be a reduced threat, improved technological superiority of U.S. weapons systems, and the belief there would be no serious challenge to U.S. naval and air superiority.
Things didn’t work out as planned, however. Reductions left the Army with key capability gaps, and naval and air superiority has eroded because of improved military capabilities by other nations. The Army, Goure writes, has ended up with urgent operational needs and lacks funding for what he calls a “sensible modernization program.”
Goure cautions that extra troops could add as much as $8 billion to the Army’s annual costs. “Organizing, equipping and supporting the additional units could easily double this figure,” he writes.
World ‘Awash in Change’
Defense Secretary James Mattis, the retired Marine Corps general chosen by Trump to head the Pentagon, said at his January confirmation hearing that the world is filled with security challenges and is “awash in change.”
“Our country is still at war in Afghanistan, and our troops are fighting against ISIS and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere,” said Mattis, who was sworn in as defense secretary on Jan. 20. “Russia is raising grave concerns on several fronts, and China is shredding trust along its periphery. Increasingly, we see islands of stability in our hemispheres, democracies here in Europe and Asia under attack by non-state actors and nations that mistakenly see their security in the insecurity of others. Our armed forces in this world must remain the best-led, the best-equipped and the most lethal in the world.”
Retired Army Lt. Col. Andrew F. Krepinevich of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments similarly warns the U.S. is at “a strategic inflection point,” facing challenges “on a scale not seen since the Cold War, and arguably not experienced over the past century.” Writing in a January report “Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasia Defense Strategy,” Krepinevich, who is a distinguished senior fellow at the defense policy group he founded in 1993, says U.S. military dominance is being challenged, and the U.S. has lost its nuclear monopoly over countries in the developing world.
Further, the proliferation of advanced military-related technology produces what he calls the democratization of destruction “that finds even small groups with the potential to inflict damage far exceeding what comparably sized groups were able to do a generation ago.”
A January national security report from the RAND Corp. says the U.S. “is in many ways in an enviable position compared with its rivals” because “the nation faces no certain existential threat.” There are potential threats to the U.S.’s very existence from China and Russia, but both countries are “ambiguously both adversaries and partners—though recently, both appear to be moving more firmly into the adversary camp,” RAND says in the report “Strategic Choices for a Turbulent World.”
Still, “the only unalloyed U.S. adversaries are North Korea and violent jihadist movements, as expressed by ISIS, al-Qaida and related groups.”
Large Deployments to Europe
Russian aggression in Eastern Europe has resulted in renewed discussion about committing more resources to Europe. Already, the pace of exercises and training has increased, with large rotational deployments. There is also talk, at least on the political level, of permanently basing more U.S. Army units in the theater, possibly in the Baltics.
Short of permanent basing, the U.S. has a commitment through 2020 to train and advise Ukrainian security forces and is engaged in rotating an armored brigade combat team through Europe.
Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, U.S. European Command commander and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said the January rotation of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division to Eastern Europe marked a historic moment.
“It is great to see our Army at the front, integrated with the combined and joint air and naval forces of the United States, our allies and partners,” he said.
As the nine-month deployment began, Col. Christopher R. Norrie, the brigade commander, said the mission was deterring aggression. “No one wants a conflict in this part of the world, and we are looking forward to our role in helping prevent it,” he said.
“The prospect of fighting a near-peer adversary today—not just here but anywhere in the world—is concerning,” Norrie said, suggesting “increased access to technology, an emphasis on combined arms doctrine, and the ability to simultaneously exploit vulnerabilities across multiple domains offset our capabilities in ways that are difficult to anticipate.”
The pace of deployments related to Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine’s efforts to create and expand training capacity for Ukrainian forces is expected to increase in 2017. Initial focus has been on direct training by U.S. soldiers of Ukrainian troops, but the long-term effort is to create a dedicated cadre for a combat training center at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center near Yavoriv.
Russia had been improving relations with the U.S. before its use of military might in Ukraine in 2014, but the country has been working against U.S. policies involving Syria, Iran and China and is forming a closer relationship with Turkey, a NATO member and onetime close ally of the U.S.
Krepinevich, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, warns that Russia is a major power. “Today Russian conventional forces, while modest in comparison with those of the Soviet era, are significantly more formidable than those of the early 2000s. Moscow now boasts a larger army than any European power, while its submarines deploy to areas where they had not been seen for a decade or more,” he writes in his January report.
Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve commander, said while the situation is different in Iraq and Syria, it is also, in some regards, the same.
In a December teleconference, Townsend said the international coalition countering the Islamic State group made progress in 2016, but the battle is far from over. In 2014, the effort concentrated on “helping our partners halt ISIL’s relentless onslaught,” he said, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In 2015, the coalition focused on “helping the government of Iraq and our partners in Syria defend, while they organized and built or rebuilt their forces and began to counterattack.” In 2016, the campaign was “all about the counteroffensive, liberating terrain and the population in Iraq and Syria from the clutches of ISIL’s brutal control.”
Islamic State Degraded
The result, he said, is the Islamic State’s military capacity is degraded. Its propaganda is less effective. The organization’s capabilities are reduced while capabilities and resources of the Iraqi security forces and Syrian partner forces “continue to grow.”
While not providing specific troop levels, Townsend said the U.S. will be sending additional teams in the future to advise, assist and train. In a subsequent interview with Kimberly Dozier for The Daily Beast, Townsend said it would take about two years for the coalition to defeat Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria.
A complex and potentially dangerous situation remains, with reports that North Korea has intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of being fired from mobile launchers, a new wrinkle in facing the unpredictable Kim Jong Un. Mobile launched missiles are likely to have a shorter range than the ICBMs previously tested by the regime, but they require more careful monitoring.