The U.S. Army sees itself as the service that had to pay the price to get the job done in Iraq and Afghanistan, and rightly so. Ten years of air interdiction of the former and a rapid, air-dominated operation in the latter were not enough to achieve U.S. objectives. Nor was the initial combined arms campaign that overthrew the regime in Baghdad the solution. It took a grinding eight year ground-based stability campaign to bring some form of peace and normalcy to Iraq. The success of the surge in that country and in Afghanistan, albeit temporary, underscores the vital importance of boots on the ground in numbers to the prospect of achieving success in major conflicts.
Therefore, it must come as a shock to Army leaders, in general, and the new Chief of Staff, General Odierno, who played such an important role in Iraq, in particular, to discover that both the Obama Administration and the nation appear quite willing to gut the Army. It is not only that the Army is slated to shrink by some 100,000. Even more unfathomable is the willingness of the Department of Defense to formulate a new defense strategy that minimizes the role of ground forces.
The new defense strategy trumpets the decision to swing its focus to the Asia-Pacific region, an area which, it is argued, is the domain of air and sea forces. The conflict scenarios considered most likely in that region — defense of Taiwan, maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and securing the Southeast Asian straits — seem to admit only a minor role for U.S. ground forces. Even a war on the Korean peninsula is viewed as requiring primarily the employment of U.S. air and naval power and not ground forces. Since no one envisions deploying a land Army on the Asia mainland, what is the role for the U.S. Army in the main theater?
What about the second theater of concern, the Middle East? Here too the major focus is on Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, another air and naval conflict. The new defense strategy underscores the primacy of air and naval power here by stating that in the event of two simultaneous conflicts, the U.S. strategy in the second of these — presumably the Middle East one — will be to deny the adversary his objectives. In English, this translates as bomb them until they halt. Again, what role for the Army?
When I have asked senior Army leaders these questions, they respond by asserting that their service would play a major role in the event of conflicts in these two regions. The Army will help shape relationships with allies in those regions by conducting training missions and exercises. Really? Won’t our allies want to train and exercise with the U.S. Air Force and Navy since those are the two services the Pentagon says matter the most? Army leaders also point out that they would supply the beans, bullets and fuel for the Air Force and Navy. Perhaps the Army could bid on the next LOGCAP contract. I have even been told that the Army would be responsible for theater missile defense which seems a little odd since most of the missile defenses we will deploy on both the Middle East and East Asia will be the ship-borne Aegis/Standard Missile 3.
I believe there is a case for a strong Army that has both significant expeditionary capabilities and a major forward deployed posture. The problem, I think, is that the Army is so shell-shocked by how it is being treated at home that it is failing to advocate for itself. It is busy trying to salvage its few remaining acquisitions programs such as the JLTV and the GCV. It is increasingly difficult to appreciate the importance of these programs absent a strong case for ground power. If we are not going to do protracted stability operations and cannot identify a major opponent whose regime needs to be replaced, apparently it is difficult for the Army to make the argument for its role in future conflicts.
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