One of the great tragedies of the wars of the last decade is the number of people in uniform suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Trauma is not a condition limited to individual soldiers, although they clearly suffer the most. Institutions can experience trauma too. More than the other services, the Army seems to be suffering from a collective case of post-September 11 stress disorder (PSSD). Over the past decade it has suffered from a series of blows to its self-image and vision for the future which are proving difficult to overcome.
The first of these traumas was the failure of the Intelligence Community and the Pentagon to anticipate the rise of Islamist terrorism and the need to conduct protracted counterinsurgency and stability operations. Alone among the services, the Army focused all of its attention, including in its acquisition strategy and organizational reforms, on the wars it was fighting. To a large extent the Army mortgaged its future in the effort to address the current challenge.
Having been the victim of what the 9/11 Commission called a failure of imagination and having paid an extraordinary price, the Army then suffered repeated new traumas at the hands of the Pentagon’s leaders. No less a figure than former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared in 2010 that, “In my opinion any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Moreover, he argued, decision makers “must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements.” Gates’ successor, Leon Panetta, added a fresh trauma by signing off on the Pentagon’s new defense strategy which limits the Army’s future participation in major regional conflicts to just one theater and promises to never again engage in nation building. This is the reward for the Army’s phenomenal response to September 11?
Then there are the psychological and budgetary traumas associated with repeated failures of the Army’s major acquisition programs. Over the past decade the Army has had only one successful major acquisition program, termed ACAT I, the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) which is a derivative of an EADS commercial aircraft. When it comes to armored fighting vehicles, the Army is zero for eight or nine times at bat when it comes to new starts. The most painful of these was the cancellation of the multi-billion dollar Future Combat System in 2009. The only successes it has had are with the Stryker and MRAP, both of which were based largely on existing vehicle designs. The Army is trying again with its Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), a program which, unfortunately, suffers from an incomplete story line and continuing uncertainty about the platform’s eventual cost.
The Army has been repeatedly traumatized and does not know quite how to think about its future. As a consequence, Army planners are trying to figure out how to cover all potential threats, focusing their threat or operational environment briefings on the massive array of economic, political, technological, geo-physical, demographic, cultural, religious and other variables at work in the world. There is an almost breathless quality to Army briefers recitations of global factors. Mind you, they haven’t a clue how to interpret such factors or what kinds of conflicts they will produce. No one does.
The Army leadership seems terrified of being the victim again of an unanticipated threat or mission. That is a major reason why the Army is focused on the so-called hybrid adversary — an opponent with bits and pieces of every possible threat from criminal gangs and terrorists through cyber attacks, ballistic missiles and even nuclear weapons. By positing the hybrid adversary, the Army leadership believes they can be prepared for any possibility. The problem is that countering the hybrid threat is not a good bumper sticker and it is a lousy vision for the future.
The case for the Army rests with enduring truths about the nature of conflict and the requirements for ground forces. The most obvious one is the tyranny of geography. People live, work and fight in specific places on land. Holding the right territory always has strategic, operational and tactical value. Another of these is the relatively slow pace of tactical maneuver on land compared to that by air or naval forces but the enduring quality of holding territory with boots on the ground. A third truth is that virtually the only way to force a recalcitrant foe to capitulate is by defeating them on the ground.
This brings me back to the GCV as a part of the solution to the Army’s PSSD. I have struggled with the Army’s justification for the GCV which is to have a vehicle in which an entire squad can travel. Big deal. However, I have recently changed my mind as I ponder the question of the Army’s vision of itself. Whatever the merits of such a capability may be at the tactical level, it is at the core of the strategic argument for the Army. Since time immemorial, the character of every Army and its ability to attain its goals has resided in its tactical organization. For the U.S. Army this is the squad. The squad is the U.S. Army; it is the group to which men give their allegiance and on whom they rely. The Army has repeatedly shown that properly equipped, a squad of soldiers can be successful in any mission it is assigned. The Army needs to have a vehicle that can move an entire squad successfully to where it is needed and support it in the conduct of the full spectrum of missions. It really does come back to the right boots on the right piece of ground at the right time.
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