The Last Army Standing

What is the value to the United States of the Army? This is a question which the Chief of Staff, General Odierno, and senior uniformed and civilian leaders of this venerable organization are having trouble answering. They have experimented with a number of different arguments. For example, they assert that people and governments live and work on land and it is on land that you will have the greatest possibility to influence their behavior in peace or war. Forward deployed Army units demonstrate a national commitment, provide an opportunity for engagement with foreign militaries, elites and populations in ways that air and naval forces cannot and build a valuable knowledge base about foreign countries. When it comes to the role of the Army in war, they argue that all violent conflicts are clashes of will and the best way of impacting the adversary’s will is to seize his territory. A related point is that only ground forces can ensure a decisive outcome to a conflict; nations and non-state actors alike have demonstrated an ability to withstand protracted air strikes and naval operations. The ultimate deterrent short of nuclear weapons is the threat of occupation and regime change. So far, none of these arguments appear to be clinching the deal.

The most powerful strategic argument for the U.S. Army may simply be this: it is the last army standing in the Western World. Economics teaches us that scarcity tends to increase the value of a good. Large, capable, expeditionary land forces are becoming a scarce commodity. In the two decades since the end of the Cold War, the land forces of the Western powers have withered to the point of near irrelevance. The German Army has shrunk from around 500,000 when the Berlin Wall fell to some 180,000 today. Even at this number, Germany has had difficulty deploying as few as 10,000 soldiers to Afghanistan. Britain’s legendary thin red line has become almost gossamer. From a Cold War strength of 225,000 with an entire armored corps deployed in Germany, the British Army is scheduled by 2020 to shrink to 127,000 of which only 89,000 will be Regulars. The French Army has declined by nearly the same amount from 236,000 in 1992 to only 107,000 today. The Dutch Army recently sold all of its tanks. The only NATO land force of substantial size is the Turkish Army of 400,000. It is ironic that the next time the gates of Vienna need to be defended it could require Turkish troops.

Elsewhere in the world the situation is much the same. There are few serious armies and none with the capacity to deploy much beyond their own borders. The Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces have never numbered more than 150,000. The big kid on the block, so to speak, is the army of the Republic of Korea, at 500,000. But it is focused solely on the threat from the North. Australian land forces, albeit small, have traditionally punched above their weight, operating side by side with the United States Army from Vietnam to Afghanistan. One reason the United States is interested in closer military ties with India and Vietnam is because these countries are land powers.

U.S allies are investing in air and naval forces. This is a good thing. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program already has eight international partners with additional countries such as Israel, Japan and South Korea lining up to buy the new fighter. The Libyan operation demonstrated how far our NATO allies had come in their ability to conduct a protracted air campaign. Great Britain is building two new aircraft carriers and a fleet of advanced attack submarines. Japan already has several Aegis missile defense capable destroyers. What they are not doing is matching these steps with investments in ground forces.

A robust, flexible and expeditionary Army provides the United States with a unique strategic instrument. The reason for this is because there are serious and growing dangers in the world not only from rogue states and violent non-state actors but as a consequence of natural and man-made phenomena. For allies and friends confronted by threats to their territory, populations and governments, the U.S. commitment to their security is enhanced by an ability to quite literally stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their armies. For adversaries there is the political as well as military value in a force that literally can come to their neighborhoods and dig them out of their spider holes. For populations, including our own, suffering from earthquakes, tsunamis, storms and major infrastructure failures, the Army’s ability to provide water, power, communications, transportation and engineering support cannot be minimized. Before we allow it to become like those of our European allies, we should consider the value of having the last Army standing.