The authors are with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster issued a warning April 5 to the Senate Armed Services Airland subcommittee saying that the service will be “…outranged and outgunned by many potential adversaries in the future….” This statement garnered much attention in the media, but it artificially assesses Army capabilities in a stovepipe and fails to account for the realities of joint power projection. Bottom line: the individual services don’t fight wars, the Combatant Commanders do by assembling an optimized mix of forces from each of the services to execute a given strategy to attain a desired set of conditions against a specific threat.
Focusing too much on individual service capabilities without recognizing how they fit within the broader joint construct reflects classic Washington D.C. parochial budget posturing. While it is important that each service is adequately equipped, it is crucial to ensure that such priorities are defined within a broader strategic context.
No war has been won through the mere presence of personnel or material—whether they are infantry, tanks, ships, or airplanes. If that were the case, the United States would have prevailed in Vietnam with the presence of half a million US boots on the ground in 1968, or through the expenditure of over one trillion dollars on personnel and resources over the past 14 years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bottom line—it takes an insightful, flexible, and prudent strategy to deliver victory in any military operation.
History stands in testament to this reality. No amount of bravery at a personal level can overcome the lack of a robust plan. Whether discussing the strategically bankrupt Rolling Thunder bombing campaign from 1965 through 1968, the failed 1980 Operation Desert One rescue mission In Iran, or the poorly planned and botched execution of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in 2002—the raw projection of personnel and equipment into harm’s way without a viable course of action leads to disaster. It is fundamentally immoral to ask America’s sons and daughters to exercise bravery and sacrifice to fill the void of inadequate strategy.
National security challenges must be actualized in terms of ends, ways and means. This is a process best executed in a truly joint fashion—using the right force in the right place at the right time—considering the capabilities from each of the services. What was troubling about General McMaster’s testimony is that he advocated a single service approach. Contrary to his testimony, it is exceedingly unlikely the US Army will ever be “outranged and outgunned” because when the U.S. goes to war it does so with components from all the services—not just the US Army.
To put it simply, a soldier on the ground working in coordination with a B-1, B-52, the assets of a carrier air wing, or standoff munitions from a ship is afforded immense range and overwhelming firepower. Those capabilities assembled as a joint task force create a synergy greater than any single service component alone. In short, the combatant commands will never allow the US Army to be “outranged and outgunned.”
Shortchanging modernization in all the armed forces over the last several years has handicapped key power projection capabilities, but it is hard to imagine a scenario in which US leaders would put land forces in harm’s way without the capability for air strikes, aerial resupply, aero-medical evacuation, precision navigation and timing, command and control functions via aircraft, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) from air and space-based assets, standoff fires from ships, sea-based logistics, the ability to communicate through the electro-magnetic spectrum, etc.
Assuming every conflict solution involves occupying land is an unfounded and risky assumption. Instead of pushing individual service solutions to gain budget support, military leaders need to focus on creative, insightful ways to secure desired objectives without projecting undue vulnerability. As Army Gen. George Patton said: “The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other dumb bastard die for his.”
The United States requires the best Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force in the world to present leaders with the widest variety of options to meet our security interests around that world. Rarely do we get a choice regarding when and where we will send forces into harm’s way. Those realities demand a balanced, ready set of forces able to dominate in air, space, cyberspace, on the ground, and at sea to meet our national security strategy. Wise national security leaders will shape Army interests, Navy interests, Marine Corps interests, and Air Force interests into American interests. It is critical that policy and budget decisions, along with their associated talking points, reflect this objective.