Army War Game Tackles Existential Question: Why Ground Forces?
Sometimes their ideas miss the mark and vanish as quickly as they appear. Other times they stick and become part of concepts, strategies and doctrine. An ongoing series of war games — dubbed "unified quest" — is intended to answer the question of why the United States needs a large ground force even after current wars end. Facing tight budgets, force reductions and a shift of Pentagon focus to air and sea power, the Army is looking to carve out a new identity that will keep it relevant.
The Army is in transition, said officials gathered here at the Army War College for a week of working group debates and blue-versus-red war gaming. And this year’s seminar, set in a fictional 2020 world, will seek to articulate how the Army will fit in the national security picture under a new defense strategy that shuns the use of large, conventional land forces.
“We have to clarify the role of the Army,” said Col. Mark Elfendahl, chief of joint and Army concepts. “Some people have been questioning what the heck do we have an Army for. We need to remind ourselves and remind the military and remind the nation what the Army provides and what it offers . . . What can we do that no one else can do?”
Chief among leaders’ concerns is what the Army can’t do — project power with the same effect as the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
“The Army is the only service that doesn’t have its own projection capability,” said Col. Bob Simpson, lead integrator for the Army 2020 campaign of learning. The Army has to lean on the other services in this regard and has pitched a few ideas for collaboration, such as joint sea-basing and future airlift concepts. But budget cuts could add tension to the discussions, as the other services may not want to invest in efforts they don’t consider part of their core missions, Simpson said.
One of the war game scenarios being played out involves a blue force invasion of a country where the enemy has decimated entry ports, leaving refugees in need of humanitarian assistance. Brig. Gen. Bill Hix said it may be advantageous in such a situation for the Army to leave containers afloat, sending materials in as needed, as opposed to trying to get everything ashore amidst the chaos. The service is looking at any option that would require less reliance on airfields and ports, Hix said.
Together, the services are working on a concept for entry into places where adversaries have the ability to deny access and movement. The Army must pinpoint what capabilities it can provide for these missions, officials said.
“When a commander needs something, they go to the Navy, the Air Force and the Marine Corps, because they are forward,” Brig. Gen. Wayne Grigsby Jr. told colleagues during a June 6 discussion. “How do we do that?”
The Army is dissecting the defense strategic guidance announced in January and looking for ways to become involved in the Navy and Air Force concept for air-sea battle. “With our strategic focus shifting to the Asia-Pacific region, it is of vital interest that the Army has a major role in that," Elfendahl said. “Seven of the 10 largest armies in the world are in the Asia-Pacific region."
Another goal is to define how conventional forces will partner with special operations units. Army leaders said their war games show that SOF and conventional forces are interdependent. Most of the military’s special operators come from the Army, which has had success teaming them with conventional forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. But such partnerships need to be cemented in training and doctrine, officials said.
War game participants said the Army must be flexible in order to be relevant in a wide range of missions, from disaster relief to cybsecurity, from land to other domains.
The concepts developed by Army leaders recognize that “we can’t take for granted air, sea, space and cyberspace dominance the way we’ve enjoyed it the last 10 years,” Simpson said. “And that recognition makes the land domain that much more relevant to solving some of these problems.”
Even cybersecurity can be combined with land operations, officials said. If an adversary operates on a closed network that the military can’t hack, the Army could physically fight to get access to it and dismantle it, Simpson suggested.
But the new defense strategy makes it clear that the Pentagon will not be designing forces for long, protracted ground wars. The focus is on preventing conflict, and failing that, going in, winning decisively and ending wars quickly.
The Army is putting to the test these ideas and more in two scenarios here this week — the aforementioned invasion which takes place in the Middle East and a classified operation in Asia-Pacific. Officials said the latter involves a high-intensity conflict with a failing nuclear state.
In the Middle East scenario, they employed shore-to-ship missiles and underwater mines to try and stave off an invasion. As the blue force came closer, the enemy used swarming boats and drone strikes. They could also rely on social media to spread the word about what they viewed as an unwarranted invasion, they said.
The good guys don’t always win here and sometimes have trouble anticipating the enemy’s moves.
Retired Marine infantryman Darrell Combs, who oversees the development of overall strategy for red forces, said he wished he could have a dollar “for every time a blue guy said, ‘I don’t think red would do that.’”
Retired Col. Bill Chamberlain, who also is known as “Col. Crusty” and leads the red forces during the actual playing of the game, said, “They’re learning an awful lot from me this week. Lots of things they didn’t expect.”
Leaders hope what the blue forces miss during the game can help them better anticipate the role of the Army come 2020 and ensure that, as Simpson put it, the service doesn’t go the way of the Montgomery Ward stores.