A perfect storm is brewing over Washington as the four services face what they view as the existential threat of a change in their share of the defense budget. U.S. fiscal woes, profoundly exhausting land wars in the Middle East and South Asia, and a rising China are all combining to push American defense officials toward a strategy hinging on coercive employment of air, sea, space, and cyber power. In this environment, inevitable questions about the relevance of large ground forces are surfacing — again.
U.S. ground forces provide three key strategic advantages to U.S. decision makers. They seize and hold terrain. They operate and when necessary apply violence with discriminations against armed adversaries among and adjacent to vulnerable populations. And, their presence demonstrates physical commitment to the security of partners and interests.
Risks associated with diminishing any of these advantages should be weighed very carefully as defense officials ponder defense cuts.
This is not new. The last decade opened with acolytes of Rumsfeld’s transformation declaring their own end to the history of war. American forces would succeed on future battlefields exclusively through precise application of lethal force. Wonder weapons would excise threatening enemy military capabilities from stand-off ranges, overwhelming opponents with volleys of precision-guided munitions, commonly launched from unmanned systems. The entire enterprise would be protected by unblinking eyes aloft and impenetrable missile defenses.
In this worldview, land conflicts were old news. Airmen and sailors would control the global commons and deny adversaries any freedom of action. Any U.S. boots on the ground would come from U.S. Special Forces, as locals carried out the bulk of the fighting.
In spite of its 21st century language, however, the Rumsfeld transformation rested on 19th and 20th century logic. Classical realism predominated. Competitor states and their high-tech, anti-access militaries were our only consequential threats. Of course, inconvenient truths got in the way, as a decade of irregular war slowed the rush to transform. Suddenly, myriad forms of violent competition – between peoples and between peoples and states – proved very dangerous to key U.S. interests. In the real world, political instability, militias, criminal enterprises, insurgent groups, and terrorists often posed the greatest physical hazards; hazards that proved hard to untangle and destroy without the intervention of U.S. soldiers and marines.
Perversely, it was the costs associated with coming to grips with these new-age threats that quickened the rush back toward Rumsfeld’s transformation over the last few months. Wonder weapons and special operators are back in vogue. Land conflicts and the capabilities essential to their prosecution are passé again, as contemporary defense wisdom holds that future land wars will fall on the shoulders of foreign forces raised from scratch by American advisers. The new logic argues that direct U.S. defense responsibilities can be limited to containing China, coercing badly behaving rogues like Iran, and relentlessly hunting down the remnants of al Qaeda and its affiliates. If true, substantial savings are available through significant cuts to the Army and Marine Corps.
Frankly, the alternative view isn’t getting a fair hearing. Some additional post-war ground force reductions may be inevitable. Nonetheless, renewed commitment to the same high-tech off-shore balancing strategy advocated at the start of the last administration and drastic ground force reductions associated with it may unnecessarily limit future U.S. military options. Ground forces are, after all, the U.S.’s principal leverage in the historically active “messy middle” that lies between peace and major conventional war – space populated by armed interventions in the developing world, wars within important states, and peace operations.
Recent instability in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Mexico provide windows into compelling future land-centric threats. Imagine, for example, civil conflict necessitating seizure and protection of critical foreign infrastructure, strategic resources, geography, or dangerous capabilities; opposed stabilization of collapsed states possessing substantial sophisticated military capabilities – including WMD; or punitive reduction of criminal or terrorist sanctuary posing fundamental challenges to U.S. security.
In any of these cases, U.S. ground forces may be called on to respond under severe time constraints, force their way into conditions where no viable partner exists, initiate complex operations upon arrival, and fight very discriminately against a wide array of hostile actors. This places a premium on forces that can deploy quickly in substantial numbers, operate immediately with little or no requirement to stage or reconfigure, maneuver effectively protected from a variety of threats, and, finally, fight adversaries and assist at risk populations in a highly distributed fashion. Current debates begin with the need to cut without asking more fundamental questions about what the force may be asked to do; thus, downplaying these important attributes.
Compared to the declining assets of traditional allies, U.S. ground forces are increasingly unique in their responsiveness, size, and capability. However, like our allies, austerity and artificial reductionism threaten to severely limit future ground force options. Securing the right numbers and types of ground forces to prevail across the likeliest range of future contingency demands will be very difficult in the current fiscal environment. Failure to do so, however, promises substantial risk.