For the past several years, the U.S. Army has been struggling to define its purpose in what was expected to be a post-war environment marked by an aversion on the part of the American public to overseas military involvement, in general, and land wars, in particular. The 2012 Defense Strategy and 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review made clear that the nation was not going to conduct any more large-scale, long-term stability operations nor more than a single all-out major contingency operation involving substantial land forces. As a consequence, the Army saw a future in which its end-strength declined from a high of 570,000 to no more than 450,000 and possibly below 400,000. Having spent more than a decade fighting and dying in Southwest Asia, the Army is being told “thanks for your contributions to national security but we are not going to be doing your kind of operations in the foreseeable future.” Even those who saw the continuing need for a strong U.S. military tended to be focused on the Chinese military and the corresponding requirements for more air and naval power.
The Army, along with the Marine Corps and Special Operations Command, responded by articulating the concept of strategic landpower. Cynics saw this effort as an attempt by the Army to justify force structure and command billets in an era of declining resources and reduced relevance for land forces. But as intensifying conflicts in the Middle East (and elsewhere) make clear, there is a real and growing requirement for U.S. strategic landpower.
Strategic landpower is based on a simple but increasingly compelling set of principles set out in an eponymously titled white paper. The first and most important of these is that armed conflict is a contest of wills between two or more parties. The goal in employing U.S. military power, generally, and in the use of strategic landpower, specifically, is to win this clash. One need look no farther than the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, the fourth since the latter took power in Gaza, to appreciate that both sides are attempting, so far without success, to break the will of the other.
The second principle is that because war is a clash of wills it is one of the basic human-centered activities not only conducted on land amidst populations but shaped by human factors such as culture, ideology and social organizations; what the white paper terms the “human domain.” It is vital to understand and be able to influence those human factors in order to achieve a strategic victory This was a lesson the U.S. military learned at great expense in terms of treasure and lives over the last decade but apparently forgotten almost immediately as we withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan. The sudden rise of ISIL, in particular, but also events in Crimea and Ukraine, the fighting in Libya, the growing strength of Boko Haram in Nigeria, etc., speak to the power of human factors and the absolute importance of having a deep appreciation of the human domain.
The third principle is that strategic landpower is uniquely suited to exercising influence and control within the human domain. Air and naval power can have a decisive effect on the course and outcome of military operations but only landpower can operate in what one recent commentary described as “the space between peace and war,” either before or after a conflict. The collapse of the fragile central authority in Libya following the successful air war against Gadhafi and a similar failure of Iraqi forces in the face of ISIL’s assaults speak to the important role of U.S. military forces, but most particularly landpower in supporting the creation and maintenance of local security and political stability, and the consequences of our withdrawal of that capability. Even before it had decided to initiate air strikes on Islamic State forces, the Obama Administration sent hundreds of advisors into Iraq to assess the situation and coordinate with local forces.
Strategic landpower can be just as important in peacetime, providing reassurance to friends and allies, deterring aggression, building relationships and credibility with local governments, militaries and populations, and developing the understanding of the human domain essential to intelligence and diplomatic efforts. The emergence of so-called ambiguous warfare as practiced by Moscow and others only heightens the importance of U.S. forward deployed land forces in that period of neither war nor peace.
Strategic Landpower is that rarest of tracts, a political manifesto masquerading as a statement on military doctrine. It is rare also because recent events have demonstrated that its authors were prescient. Its basic message, that all forms of conflict and not just wars are essentially political in nature and contests of will and must be treated as such, should guide the administration’s thinking as it seeks to respond to a growing array of international crises and conflicts.
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