[UPDATED with Congressional comment] Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reassured the Army today that its role is not “eroding” or “diminishing,” despite shrinking budgets, the rebalance to the watery Pacific theater, and the Obama administration’s commitment to “no boots on the ground” against self-proclaimed Islamic State. Instead, echoing comments by the Army’s own leaders, Hagel said the largest service’s role is not shrinking, simply changing. In fact, he even suggested the ground force could “broaden its role” in the Pacific by providing long-range, ground-based missiles — an idea advanced by influential thinktanks and the Republican chairman of the House Seapower subcommittee.
“In the near term,” Hagel told the Association of the US Army conference here, “the Army is unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan-type campaign – that is, regime change and occupation followed by nation-building under fire. However, this does not mean that demand for the Army is diminishing, or that the Army’s place in our national security strategy is eroding. It is not.”
“While there are no longer 150,000 soldiers engaged in ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as there were five years ago,” Hagel continued, “there are still almost as many soldiers either deployed or forward-stationed in nearly 150 locations around the world.”
Like the Army’s own leaders, Hagel emphasized the service’s shift to a wider variety of smaller deployments, from training Syrian rebels to containing Ebola to deterring a Russian invasion of the Baltic States. Those missions not only span the globe but the spectrum of operations from the purely humanitarian to irregular warfare to conflict against a conventional near-peer power.
Hagel even took time to tout the Army’s potential role in a high-tech conflict in the Pacific, historically considered a naval theater. “With our ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, the Army could broaden its role by leveraging its current suite of long-range precision-guided missiles, rockets, artillery, and air defense systems. These capabilities would provide multiple benefits,” he said, “such as hardening the defenses of U.S. installations; enabling greater mobility of Navy Aegis destroyers and other joint force assets; and helping ensure the free flow of commerce.”
“This concept is worthy of consideration going forward,” he said. “Such a mission is not as foreign to the Army as it might seem – after the War of 1812, the Army was tasked with America’s coastal defense for more than 100 years.”
Hagel did not specifically mention land-based anti-ship missiles, a new weapon that the Army would have to develop — and which Space & Missile Command chief Lt. Gen. David Mann recently dismissed as a “large, costly, exquisite capabilit[y]” the service couldn’t afford to invest in given the parlous condition of its budget. Hagel himself spoke of “leveraging [the] current suite” of systems rather than developing new ones. But it was nevertheless the highest level endorsement we’ve heard to date of an offensive land-based missile force in the Pacific.
[UPDATED: A Congressional source told us the general concept matters more than the specific technology. “The Army could buy a new mobile anti-ship system or leverage its current inventory, as Secretary Hagel recommended,” the Hill staffer said. “The issue isn’t about platforms, but future roles and missions. The Army should be thinking hard about innovative ways it can impose costs in the maritime environments of the Asia-Pacific and Arabian Gulf. Establishing a modern ‘Fortress Fleet’ would be a natural contribution for the Army to make and an affordable way for the U.S. to establish a local counter-A2/AD network.”]
Of course, any new mission needs money, a huge question mark given the automatic sequestration cuts to the 2016 budget and beyond mandated by current law. Hagel took his usual shot at sequester as “an irresponsible deferral of responsibility” on the part of Congress and made his usual call for its repeal. Tailoring the message to the audience, however, Hagel focused on the potential harm to Army readiness. In a move meant to appeal to his audience’s sensibilities, he spent much of his speech recounting the tragedy of Task Force Smith in the Korean War, a formative “never again” moment for the modern Army.
All told, Hagel said all the right things for an Army audience, starting with his invocation of his own service as a soldier during Vietnam. It’s another question how well he reassured a service which sees this administration as leery of land forces and willing to cut them to preserve its stand-off options from air and sea.