Why does the United States maintain an Army? This question has bedeviled successive American administrations and even Army Chiefs since the end of the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Iraq (then the world’s fourth largest army) in Operation Desert Storm, there didn’t seem to be a threat warranting the retention of a large and technically advanced Army. For a while it appeared that the Army was destined to be a cross between the Foreign Legion and Agency for International Development. Initially, Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom focused political and military leaders in Washington on the role of the Army as the premier force for defeating overseas insurgencies and providing stability for failing states. A decade later, we were finished with that idea. The National Defense Strategy proposed that the United States would no longer be involved in large scale, protracted stability operations.
During this period, the Army didn’t do much to help itself. For the longest time it couldn’t – or wouldn’t – make a credible case for war on land and hence for its very existence. At the same time, it rejected intellectually the purposes assigned to it by the American political system. The Army’s intelligentsia kept trying to come up with surrogates for large-scale offensive land operations. First there was the idea of occupying a failed state in order to secure its caches of nuclear weapons. Then there was the megacity threat. Hunting down insurgents with long-range weapons occupying parts of massive urban complexes such as Karachi, Lagos or Dhaka seemed to be a project of sufficient size and complexity to warrant maintenance of a large and sophisticated Army. Neither of these caught the imagination of the governing class. The continuing fierce resistance by the American people and its political leaders to the idea of protracted counterinsurgency campaigns in the Middle East, Africa or South Asia seemed to doom the case for a big Army.
Then along came Russia, or more precisely President Vladimir Putin. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, military operations in eastern Ukraine, efforts to destabilize the Baltic states and continuous threats to use nuclear weapons against NATO countries has changed the strategic landscape. Instead of out-of-area operations against terrorist groups, NATO is back to its core mission, the defense of its members against external aggression. The playing field once again is Europe and the adversary is the Russian military.
The adversary is not the Warsaw Pact armies with their masses of tanks and artillery poised along the inner German border supported by a large Air Force, thousands of rockets and missiles and follow-on echelons composed of dozens of reserve divisions. But neither is it the post-collapse Russian Army. Almost a decade of reorganization and modernization has produced a military organized for rapid, long-range operations, albeit for specific contained goals and capable of using advanced weapons systems including drones, surface-to-air missile systems, precision artillery and rocket strikes, and heli-borne assaults.
The Russian moves caught NATO and the U.S. Army essentially by surprise. NATO had vitiated its heavy combat forces and spent its dwindling defense resources reconfiguring itself for expeditionary operations in distant lands. Much of the infrastructure to support robust combined arms operations were abandoned, allowed to decay or simply left in the wrong place for a NATO Alliance that expanded to 28 countries including the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. The U.S. Army had followed the pattern, reducing its ground forces presence in Europe to two light infantry brigades.
Now the threat is back and with it the need for substantial ground forces in Europe. The problem is that the Pentagon only wants to send small forces back and to rotate them periodically in and out of Eastern Europe. The challenge for the U.S. Army Europe according to its head, Lieutenant General Benjamin Hodges, is to make 30,000 troops look like 300,000.
Right problem, wrong solution. It is time to send the U.S. Army back to Europe where it can effectively deter Russia and serve as a shield behind which the nations of Europe can rebuild their ground forces, air defenses and logistics infrastructure. The U.S. Army needs to redeploy multiple armored combat brigades, additional Patriot air defense battalions, attack helicopter units and advanced sensors to Europe. One system that could be deployed in the near-term is the JLENS aerostat sensor to detect low-flying aircraft and cruise missiles. There also needs to be investments in additional sets of combat equipment, stocks of ammunition and mobility infrastructure.
The reality is that we don’t want to send the Army into the deserts of the Middle East, the urban sprawls of Asia and Africa or the islands of the Western Pacific. So let’s be smart and send it where it can do some good: back to Europe.
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