What will happen to ground forces after the war in Afghanistan ends has been a parlor game in the Pentagon since President Obama laid out the beginning of the U.S. drawdown.
The Pentagon already has ordered moderate cuts in the force between now and 2016. The Army’s active-duty force will come down from 570,000 to 520,000, and the Marine Corps from 202,000 to 186,000. A more drastic downsizing could be in the cards if the nation’s finances take another turn for the worse.
For the Army and Marine Corps, the end of fighting may be welcome news. But the conclusion of the conflict also could mark the beginning of another battle, one that ground forces must face, at home, after every war: a struggle for relevance and for resources.
In the wake of every conflict since World War II, ground troops have been declared obsolete. And each time, the prognosticators have been wrong, says military historian John C. McManus.
After a decade of grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the conventional wisdom is that America will have no tolerance for any more ground fights. Policy makers will take that as a cue that it is now time to shift defense dollars from infantry to high-tech weaponry that can be fired from aircraft or ships, far away from the battlefield.
That would be a huge mistake, says McManus, the author of “Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II Through Iraq.” In the book, which examines in detail 10 major conflicts over six decades, he concludes that “foot soldiers,” regardless of technological advances in weaponry, end up carrying the day every time the United States goes to war.
Presidents, lawmakers and military leaders consistently fail to learn the lessons of history and, wishfully, presume that every ground war will be the last, McManus says in an interview.
In the dawn of the nuclear weapons age, the accepted view was that ground troops no longer would be needed. Similar prophecies transpired after every major conflict, but the exact opposite has happened, says McManus. The common thread that connects each war, he says, is that ground soldiers have done more than 90 percent of the fighting and dying.
There is a “disconnect” between the reality and what people want to believe, he says. “Americans constantly have to relearn this lesson” that bloodless wars are not possible. Strategists and policy makers hope that standoff weapons can take over, and that “we can let technology do our dirty work,” says McManus. But wars inevitably tend to come down to a contest of wills, on the ground.
During his research for “Grunts,” McManus found it unsettling that the Army’s budget historically has been smaller than the Navy’s and Air Force’s. Some of the wealth was redistributed in recent years by former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who made it a personal cause to shift more resources into ground forces.
Before leaving office, Gates cautioned the Army to brace for the predictable guillotine that always looms following a major war. And he predicted that the service will lose funding as the nation sours on ground wars and resources begin to shift to naval and air forces.
“In the competition for tight defense dollars within and among the services, the Army must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements,” Gates tells Army cadets in a February speech at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
The Army, he notes, “will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size, and cost of its heavy formations to those in the leadership of the Pentagon, and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, who ultimately make policy and set budgets.”
Gates expressed confidence that the Army has become wiser after a decade at war, and will not revert to a Cold War mentality. “From the look of things, the Army will not repeat the mistakes of the past, where irregular warfare was shunted to the side after Vietnam,” Gates says. “The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq — invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country – may be low,” but there will still be a need to prepare for low-intensity conflicts and unexpected crises. Gates’ “main worry” is that the Army will fail to retain and inspire its brightest, and most-battled tested young officers to lead the service in the future.
Gates alludes to an age-old problem that the Army has had to confront many times before, says McManus. “You don’t want the careerist mentality to take hold. That tends to stifle innovation and drive away competent younger officers.”
McManus suggests that Gates might be taking an overly optimistic view of what lies ahead. Short-term thinking tends to prevail at the Defense Department, and the accepted wisdom increasingly will be that Afghanistan will be the last time the United States deploys a big land army. Nobody can predict that, he says, but the notion that the next conflict only will involve naval and air forces ignores historical trends, McManus says. “Urban areas are where most of the world’s population lives,” he says. “That’s likely to be the arena of contest. And if that’s the case, that is an infantryman’s province for the most part.”
The value of urban warfare skills became apparent in almost every war: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq. “This emphasizes how important it is to be ground savvy,” McManus says. The assets that aerial and maritime forces bring — air-to-surface weapons and naval gunfire — put civilians at risk and create a “real liability in that kind of environment.”
Completely abandoning counterinsurgency also would be misguided, he says. “I understand the Army has to prepare to fight conventional wars. I also think it will be a mistake to think they can get away from counterinsurgency,” he adds. “It is still likely to be where they’ll end up.”
After Vietnam, it was the Marine Corps that moved to the forefront of U.S. counterinsurgency planning, as the Army in the 1970s “literally was destroying the counterinsurgency manuals,” McManus says.
To the Army’s credit, the recent wars have led to organizational changes that will help it stay relevant in the future, such as shifting more authority to lower-level units, he says. Combat in Iraq and Afghanistan for the most part has been led by captains and sergeants. “I think that is a very good trend,” says McManus. “I like the emphasis on authority at the lower level. That is the way it tends to be in practice.”
Recent efforts to extend the reach of the Army’s information networks down to the squad and platoon levels mark a turning point in small-unit empowerment, he says. “I don’t think this is a fad,” he says. “The more information you can get down to the company level and below, the better.”
Infantrymen typically only get the worm’s eye view of the war and their most often-heard complaint is that “we don’t know what’s going on,” says McManus. If the Army follows through on promises to provide more access to information — via smartphones and tablet computers — the implications would be significant, he says. Young soldiers now “demand” to be plugged in, so to speak.
But ground-war advocates still would like to see more emphasis on helping foot soldiers become more dominant on the battlefield.
A case in point is reducing troops’ combat load. A plight that may never go away is the weight of the equipment that a soldier has to carry on his back.
Army and Marine Corps procurement officials have been trying to crack this nut for years, and have failed. Anyone who has watched the award-winning documentary “Restrepo,” where a platoon of U.S. soldiers trudges through Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, can observe that the problem is only getting worse.
“I don’t see any headway being made,” says McManus. “For all of our innovation and technology from the last 20 to 30 years, Americans still have not solved this issue.” Humping 120 pounds of gear is bad for soldiers’ health and weakens their effectiveness, he says. “That comes in part from our expectation that soldiers have to have everything.”
More work needs to be done to provide water purification systems, smaller radios and solar-charged devices so troops don’t have to carry as many batteries. The weight of a soldier’s rucksack restricts mobility, will cause orthopedic problems and wear guys down no matter how great a shape they are in, he says.
Former commandant of the Army War College retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, a military historian and analyst, for years has blamed the Defense Department for failing to pay adequate attention to improving equipment and training for small infantry units.
Soldiers still go to war with M2 .50 caliber machine guns, which although still considered among the best, were originally issued in 1921, and fly Vietnam-era Chinook helicopters, Scales said.
Although the Pentagon is spending far more money on infantry equipment — about $17,000 per deployed soldier — than it ever has, ground forces still have not benefitted from the innovation seen in other areas of warfare, Scales says. Compared to the overwhelming superiority that the United States has in naval and air warfare, when it comes to ground combat, the American military “hasn’t come as far as it should,” says Scales.
In Afghanistan, for instance, small units have been hugely vulnerable to enemy ambushes and roadside bombs because commanders don’t have enough intelligence on the enemy, Scales contends. Despite deployments of thousands of unmanned spy aircraft, units lack information, or even adequate means to communicate with other units.
Scales blames these deficiencies on a Beltway culture that is fixated on big-ticket weapons, on “picking a fight with China” and on hypothetical wars in space and cyberspace. Washington policy makers dodge meaningful discussions about the tactical aspects of war on the ground because close-contact combat is “dirty, horrific and bloody,” says Scales. “People just don’t want to talk about that.”
Ground forces not only need to be better prepared from a “cognitive” perspective but also should be bolstered by a weapons-acquisition system that supports their needs, says Scales. “The current acquisition system is optimized to develop technology that’s centered around big-ticket systems that take decades” to reach fruition. By contrast, the enemy rolls out countermeasures in months or weeks.
The military bureaucracies brag that they incorporate “lessons learned” from the wars into their future planning, but that is not enough, says Scales. Fixing shortfalls in ground forces cannot be achieved individually by the Army or the Marine Corps, he says. “It will take a national effort. … I’d like to see the nation commit the resources to take dominance on the ground to the level that is found in sea and air warfare. … I’d like to see the science and technology leaders treat this as a problem.”
This is rather simple, he says. Policymakers should do their homework. The “American thing” is to look at the future rather than the past, he says. “But history is pretty uncomplicated. … All you have to do is read what happened in the past. It’s not going to guarantee success but it is going to be a major help.”