Debates over the future course of warfare wage constantly. Each American military service has its own preferences, but the services generally “play nice” so everyone continues to get a slice of the (shrinking) pie. Of the services’ preferred methods of warfighting however, there is clearly a sore thumb sticking out. The US Army’s traditional model of overwhelming and devastating an enemy with a superior ground force is simply outdated. Technology is too pervasive, lives are valued highly, and complete annihilation of the enemy is no longer politically acceptable. Counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate the conundrum of balancing political objectives with military capabilities. Tactical superiority still wins battles, but does not win wars.
With the DoD’s focus on the Asia pivot and Air-Sea Battle strategy, the Army is the odd man out. Army chief of staff General Raymond Odierno admits that the Army needs to undergo significant change as downsizing occurs in conjunction with defense budget cuts, under sequestration or otherwise. But what niche can the Army potentially fill to distinguish itself, retaining its storied culture and equal footing with other service branches while serving a specific purpose for national security?
The Air Force has the skies covered, the Navy dominates the oceans, and the Marines are fully capable of carrying out expeditionary ground missions. The debate over reducing redundancy has a context in Congressional budget battles and the strategic executive warfighting assessments that guide them. Also at play are powerful and well-entrenched service interests and cultures, reinforced by the defense industrial base, veterans, and the public at-large. What challenges and opportunities does this present for the US Army?
The most highly-contested aspect of counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan is the degree to which we were equipped, and normatively required, to maintain a presence to facilitate peaceful transitions to regimes able to exercise reasonably good governance. The accountability requirement on administrations – the old “you break it, you buy it” mantra – should continue to influence policymakers’ decision processes on military involvement abroad. However, if our leaders decide that military initiatives that uproot a regime and/or alter political institutions are necessary for our national security, they ought to have the proper tools to rebuild states correctly to fulfill our ethical obligations in the international arena. Without taking a normative stance on the efficacy of nationbuilding, the US lacks a force trained and specifically enabled to accomplish that mission, therefore contributing to past shortcomings.
Matthew Schmidt of the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Planning recently wrote an interesting article stipulating that the Army is the only one of the services positioned to serve that occupying role necessary for a peaceful transition to a new regime. This is certainly not a popular mission, but one that is necessary if an administration is expected to have the full range of options in dealing with foreign policy challenges. The ability to maintain peace and uphold rule-of-law until political infrastructure is in place internally should be a qualifying requirement prior to any counterinsurgency war, large or small. If policymakers want to keep all options “on the table” as they address situations like Iran and Syria, this reinforcement mechanism would lend credibility to the threat of invasion and occupation, even if it remains only a threat.
Hypothetical Solution – The Army’s New Role
Let me begin with the caveat that this is not my endorsement as the future mission of the US Army. My father and grandfather both served in the Army, and I have a deep respect for its heritage (along with the other service branches). This is not intended as a criticism of the Army’s contemporary role per se, but an effort to point out how one service’s capabilities could be altered to bolster the range of capabilities available as national leadership contemplates foreign policy. The feasibility of such realignment would depend on a multitude of inputs.
What would the transition look like for the US Army to more adeptly occupy this role?
First, it would require significant alterations to training to prepare soldiers for peacekeeping operations. A larger focus would center on engaging foreign populations in a policing role – as an involved “community member” rather than as a disengaged, temporary occupying force. General Odierno has already hinted at some of the shifts necessary for a solid foundation: encouraging improved language and cultural skills among Army soldiers and “aligning” brigades with specific regions to develop expertise prior to deployment. The outcome of the election solidifies current troop withdrawal schedules and should create a window of disengagement, allowing some time for training adjustment.
Secondly, from an acquisition standpoint, the modernized Army has many of the tools necessary to carry out the occupying role with its present arsenal, which would partially alleviate its burden on the defense budget in the short-term. The Army could shift to the model recently followed by the Air Force to concentrate on the development of next-generation weapons. For example, it could invest in developing non-lethal technologies currently lacking in-theater to aid in the peacekeeping mission.
Personnel levels perhaps would not extend far beyond current downsizing depending on projections regarding the number of conflicts the nationbuilding force could handle at once. The Army would still be required to provide basic manpower support, transportation, and logistics (to Marines and/or SOCOM) for a ground invasion. However, this would become the secondary mission as influenced by training, since munitions support to ground troops can largely be provided through air or by sea.
The most difficult change would be garnering buy-in to this shift from the executive and legislative branches, industry, and the Army itself. With a rich history and embedded preferences, the Army is not traditionally receptive to huge changes of this nature. The Army could plausibly make the case that it should continue to train and equip for conventional warfare. That logic would continue by outlining a strategic realignment to reduce ground force redundancy ideally targeted at the smaller Marine Corps, which is dependent on the Army for logistics anyway. Yet the Marines remain more capable of conducting the type of counterinsurgency warfare that does not require a sustained presence in country, leaving that role to the Army to minimize redundancy.
If the United Stated wishes to be seen as an international leader on security, it could start by enabling a force to serve the policing role the UN lacks but the world badly needs. It might be sparingly used in this fashion due to political unpopularity, but it would provide a useful tool to US policymakers should the need arise.