Need plumbing supplies, lighting fixtures, tools, building materials, paints and even ornamental plants, go to Home Depot. Need heavy, medium or light combat forces, medical, intelligence, transportation, logistical and signal units, call the U.S. Army. No job too small or too big; overseas or at home, the Army can provide everything from Special Forces teams all the way up to a Heavy Corps. Thousands of Army National Guardsmen are currently conducting search and rescue and providing disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Home Depot will design your new home addition and even help prepare the site for your new home. The Army plans to go even farther, looking to shape the strategic environment by influencing governments and peoples around the world in order to remediate the conditions that would otherwise lead to conflict.
This is the Army’s new strategic vision as outlined in recent speeches by its senior leaders. If it is to be taken seriously, it marks a dramatic change from the vision that informed Army planning for almost a century when the purpose of the Army was to defeat opposing land forces, achieve control over foreign territory and, if necessary, depose hostile regimes. Although the Army still promises to be able to perform its basic wartime missions, it is clear that the service’s leadership believes it will be doing more repair, remodeling and general contracting than large-scale demolition and reconstruction. Which is somewhat strange, since in his speech at this year’s Association of the United States Army’s annual conference, General Raymond Odierno, the current Chief of Staff, provided the best statement of the Army’s fundamental strategic value to the nation that I have ever heard.
“The Army represents one of America’s most credible deterrents against future hostility. We prevent miscalculations from erupting into war, and we defeat an adversary when it does. No other nation can match the U.S. Army’s ability to rapidly deploy large numbers of troops over extended distances, sustain them and deliver precise, discriminate results.”
A number of commentators have suggested that the Army’s new vision is little more than an attempt to maintain relevance — and hence, sustain its share of the defense budget — as war in Afghanistan winds down and the Pentagon attempts to pivot to the Asia-Pacific region. This criticism is both cynical and somewhat unfair. In reality, the Army has always provided a wide array of vital combat support and combat service support functions for the joint force. It is inevitable that because of its human resources and ability to deploy and sustain itself on virtually any terrain, the Army will be called on disproportionately to deal with many of the lesser contingencies that will arise in coming years.
But the Army does appear a tad desperate to identify a central or defining mission or purpose. The recent announcement that it will stand up an Office of Strategic Landpower to facilitate closer partnering between the Regular Army with Special Operations Forces seems like a bit of bandwagoning. So too does the current proposal by some Army strategists to create a new early entry capability, a la the Marine Corps.
The relevance of the Army is not going to be strengthened by becoming more like other elements of the joint force. The Army’s identity is directly tied to the description of its core mission provided by General Odierno. It is also the reason that the Army disposes of so much capacity to provide support to the joint force abroad and to civil agencies at home. The Army must avoid turning itself into Home Depot; it needs to be a Bechtel, America’s number one construction company. This means it must continue to focus on big jobs. Once the Army moves away from this central mission, the logic that supports its proposed force structure and acquisition strategy is likely to fall apart.