Army’s Next Fight Might Be for Relevance
Army leaders and outside advisors are prepping for what will be a contentious debate within the Defense Department on how to reshape the U.S. military for future conflicts.
There is growing concern inside the Army that the narrative in Washington already is being seized by advocates of naval and air warfare, and that the Army has yet to put forth a coherent vision of how land warfare fits in the picture.
During a four-day seminar last week, titled, “What the Army Must Do,” groups of officers and subject matter experts from academia and civilian agencies engaged in lengthy discussions about the way ahead for the Army as the war in Iraq winds down and a troop withdrawal begins in Afghanistan.
“We want to figure out how the Army can be effective in 2020,” said Brig. Gen. Patrick J. Donahue II, director of concepts development and learning directorate at the Army Training and Doctrine Command.
But in planning for the future, it is apparent that the service's immediate obstacles are not in a foreign battlefield but inside the Washington Beltway. During a Dec. 9 panel discussion on the last day of the seminar, participants voiced concern that, as military spending declines and the nation sours on land wars, the Army could face plunging budgets and diminishing clout within the national security apparatus.
Several experts were particularly peeved that the Pentagon’s new “air sea battle” concept for future wars emphasizes Navy and Air Force high-tech weaponry as key to countering rising powers in Asia but neglects to address the role of ground forces. The air-sea battle concept captures the emerging meme in U.S. national security — that land wars soon will be passé and the future is about long-range strike weapons and advanced warships.
The only acknowledgment of any Army contribution in air-sea battle is as a provider of theater missile and air defense, said Fred Svedarsky, chief of the concepts division at the Army’s combined arms concept directorate, in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
The emphasis on air and sea capabilities ignores the reality that if the U.S. military intends to engage an enemy in a hostile area, ground forces are essential to securing access, he said. If U.S. enemies know that the only points of entry to a hotspot are the Suez Canal or the Red Sea, their ability to “deny access” will be greatly facilitated, he said. The Army, unlike the other services, has unique expertise in negotiating other ways to enter a territory, by land, Svedarsky said. “If we can provide other options, that would complicate the enemy's planning.”
“When I read that [air-sea battle] concept, what was striking to me was the total focus on systems and platforms and no recognition of the Army's role” in securing basing rights, transit agreements, border crossings or other means of entering a foreign land, he said.
The Army has “big role to play in anti-access area-denial” strategies, said Michael Raimondo, a military analyst at the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, in Quantico, Va. Once aerial weapons achieve control of the airspace, it takes ground forces to “uncover and defeat the enemy's anti access capabilities” such as buried mines, snipers and ground artillery, Raimondo said.
“The Army would be well served to continue to change the context of the dialogue … from a context that is about high-end technology and high-tech platforms and move it to the context of maintaining operational access,” said Raimondo.
Experts on the panel seemed troubled that the current debate on future wars assumes that “anti access” threats are predominantly long-range missiles and submarines, and overlooks an entire dimension of the war, which is that enemies are going to seek to foil U.S. forces on the ground with automatic weapons, shoulder-fired missiles, roadside bombs — the same weapons that insurgents have deployed successfully in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As the Army shrinks post-Afghanistan, it will consider finding new ways to counter the enemy’s “area denial” techniques, such as electronic sensors, officials at the seminar said. “Once you are someplace, they [the enemy] will litter the place with IEDS. If you have a small force, you could use ground sensors to secure it,” Lt. Gen. Keith C. Walker, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center said during a media roundtable after the seminar. These sensors could be a mesh of stationary micro sensors and autonomous roving robots that would feed commanders a picture of the battlefield.
Another topic of discussion was how the Army would maintain its presence in strategic areas of the world, such as Asia, when it will have fewer foreign bases and most of its forces will be stateside.
This concern harkens back to the late 1990s, when the Army feared for its relevance as its forces were deemed to slow and heavy to deploy to urgent crises. For a U.S.-based force, the ability to rapidly move troops is “going to be a problem for the Army,” said Steven Metz, a strategist at the Army War College.
Another theme that emerged from the seminar is the notion that, barring a major war, the Army might not be needed, or even wanted, in many parts the world. In Africa, for instance, foreign allies typically need help building roads, hospitals or assistance in humanitarian relief, but they do not always welcome U.S. military presence. “How to you work with someone who needs you but doesn't want you?” asked Lt. Col. Thomas Talley, an advisor at U.S. Africa Command.
“We have to be careful that what we do in building partnership capacity is not regarded as provocative,” said Svedarsky.
Donahue recognized that trying to plan for the future in these uncertain times when the Pentagon’s budget is under fire and the nation faces economic hardship might be a stretch.
“It’s really hard to do when we are still invested in the current fight,” he said. The seminar, which is part of a year-long series called “Unified Quest 2012,” did not attempt to predict funding levels or force size, but strictly looked at what “capabilities” the Army believes it should have in 2020, Donahue said.
What kind of Army the United States should have, alas, is not a decision for the Army to make, said Gregory Fontenot, director of foreign military and cultural studies at the Army Training and Doctrine Command. “The United States is not necessarily going to afford or want to pay for maintaining an army that we’d like to have or that we think is pertinent or appropriate.”