For years now, the dominant meme in discussion of the future of U.S. national security, generally, and military forces, in particular, has been the challenge posed by adversaries using so-called asymmetric strategies and tactics. At the lower end of the conflict spectrum there are the terrorists and insurgents. At the medium and high ends there are nation states acquiring nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and anti-access and area denial capabilities. In recent months, the focus of discussion has been on the potential challenges to U.S. military superiority at the high end of conflict and the need, in particular, to invest in improved air and naval capabilities.
However, the greatest asymmetry facing the U.S. is one of our own making. It is a product of the unwillingness of politicians, defense officials and some military leaders to accept the reality that our adversaries today and prospective opponents in the future intend to fight on and for land. We have been there, done that and don’t want to do it again. President Obama’s proposed authorization for the use of military force against ISIS promises to pursue the enemy anywhere with all our means save one: enduring offensive ground operations. To adversaries focused on the land and, more specifically on ground operations, this is a great glaring neon sign that says “keep doing what you have been doing.” The U.S. doesn’t intend to run you to ground, to stay the course once war starts in order to achieve victory.
The idea of ground combat in the Middle East – or in Eastern Europe or the Asia-Pacific region for that matter – scares the daylights out of U.S. leaders. So it is no wonder that if we shy away from deploying the best equipped and trained ground forces in the world that our friends and allies, including the members of the vaunted 60 nation anti-ISIS coalition, don’t want any part of land operations either. We are left with the bizarre situation today in which the President rains down imprecations on ISIS, promises to degrade and destroy it and leads White House summits on violent extremism while U.S. officials and military trainers scurry around the Middle East trying to scare up some competent ground forces to do the necessary fighting.
Granted, our current adversaries so far lack the technologies, platforms and force structure to operate effectively in the air and on the seas. But there are other reasons why their preference is for the land fight. Arguably, the delta between their capabilities and ours is less. They can leverage tactical advantages such as superior knowledge of the terrain, the ability to hide amidst civilian populations and human intelligence. In some instances, land combat, fighting mano-a-mano has a cultural resonance or serves to support a particular ideological narrative. Most important, the land is where our adversaries hope to build their caliphates, nations and empires.
Prospective adversaries also are focused largely on dominating the land. Russian military operations in Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine have been overwhelmingly ground forces-centric. Their so-called hybrid warfare model looks pretty conventional, whether the special operations forces wear insignias or not. Rebel troops in Ukraine are employing hundreds of multiple rocket launchers, long-range artillery pieces, main battle tanks and surface-to-air missile batteries. The recent ceasefire agreement required that both sides pull back their heavy weapons. The threat that has NATO’s heart in its throat is the tens of thousands of Russian land forces just across the Ukrainian border. So much for the myth of little green men.
Discussions of the North Korean and Iranian threats have tended to concentrate on missiles and nuclear weapons. But both these nations are land powers and their goals are focused on acquiring or dominating adjacent lands. North Korea’s primary challenge to the U.S. and its neighbor to the south has always come from its massive army and the tens of thousands of artillery pieces and rocket launchers within range of Seoul. Iran’s campaign for regional hegemony focuses on the use of its militias and support for semi-conventional forces such as Hezbollah. For both these countries, missiles and nuclear weapons are a deterrent umbrella underneath which they hope to conduct more conventional offensive operations.
Then there is China. Beijing appears focused on acquiring the ability to reach out and touch others while staying safe behind a high technology version of the Great Wall. But it will require substantial land power if it wishes to liberate Taiwan, break out past the First Island Chain, prevent an undesirable reunification of the Korean peninsula, control the new Silk Road into Central Asia or acquire new lands in Siberia.
The U.S. Army has had some difficulties of late, making a compelling case for the value to this nation of investing in dominant land power. There are four arguments they need to make. First, this nation cannot allow an unfavorable asymmetry in one of the key domains of warfare. Second, we cannot allow prospective adversaries an easy avenue to achieving their military or political objectives. Third, ground forces are the anvil and air/naval forces the hammer to destroy our opponents; each performs better in the presence of the others. Fourth, dominant land power is, along with nuclear weapons, the ultimate deterrent.
Find Archived Articles: