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Precision Weapons Drive ‘Desperate Need’ to Reshape Land Forces

Posted by Doug Macgregor on

No matter who wins the presidential election in 13 months, massive cuts in defense spending are inevitable. The Service Chiefs are already under pressure to come up with billions of dollars in spending cuts.

We have arrived at a critical turning point in the history of the Republic, a point where organizing, planning and spending for the future cannot be left to America’s senior military leaders. Fortunately, fewer and fewer members of the House and Senate are willing to pretend the flag officers who lead the service bureaucracies speak with omniscience on the conduct of war, today or in the future. For the first time in decades, members privately question the wisdom of placing senior military leaders on a pedestal, especially since they are officers who’ve never confronted capable enemies with opposing armies, air forces, air defenses or navies.

The point is the time has never been better to disengage from the economically expensive World War II, industrial-age paradigm of single-service warfare (land/air/sea) in favor of “integrated, all arms” operations based on maneuver, strike, ISR and sustainment (logistics).

Savings from reorganizing both forward presence and integrated command and control in the regional unified commands will also be critical to fund and master the development and employment of new capabilities in the form of unmanned platforms, integrated missile defense systems and directed energy weapons.

The formerly messianic pretensions on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill to spread liberal democracy at gunpoint are giving way to bipartisan pleas for a viable national military strategy; a strategy that restores American economic strength and aligns the structure of American military power with the United States’ true strategic defense needs, not ideology or special interest agendas. Of course, if American voters anticipate the arrival of a new national military strategy anytime soon, they better not hold their breath.

Behavior on Capitol Hill is frequently shaped by the forces of hype and publicity, and national military strategy is sadly part of it. The proponents for nation-building interventions who believe the “progress” of Western Civilization is readily transferable to non-Western societies may be in full retreat, but they have not given up. Like bad weather, they’ll always be with us, but they cannot stop the forces of change. The next 20 years will not look like the last 20 in American military affairs.


Americans increasingly reject interventions to forcibly develop or change nations with American military power. Ten years after 9/11, there is almost no support for preemptive war to avert a later and, allegedly, more dangerous conflict. In fact, the lesson of greatest importance from Iraq and Afghanistan is not counterinsurgency, but the necessity of avoiding occupation, reconstruction, nation-building, or the pretense of liberation inside backward societies with dysfunctional cultures. Opportunistic politicians and generals can no longer define strategic failures in Iraq or Afghanistan as success and spend money without accountability, let alone any enduring strategic framework relating military power to attainable policy goals. The period of reckless spending of blood and treasure is ending.

Indeed, if future American political leaders are compelled to intervene with military power in the Middle East, Africa or Latin America, then, the government will be under pressure to limit its military commitment to a mix of forces designed to wipe out all known and suspected enemies in the country or region threatening the United States and its interests. The target set for such operations will also include people and infrastructure that support the enemy. Moreover, future congresses will demand the withdrawal of our forces making sure the inhabitants of the targeted region know with certainty that further threats emanating from their soil will result in the same devastating outcome.

Reorganization of the Army and Marines to operate within an integrated aerospace-maritime/maneuver-strike framework to execute these missions should be at the top of Capitol Hill’s list, not imaginary future mobilizations to fight on the Asian mainland against a grossly exaggerated Chinese threat. It is impossible to separate the “tectonic” shift in the international system from the way the Army and Marines are organized to fight. Future strategic conditions are unlikely to support the forward basing of significant U.S. Ground Forces on foreign soil.

The message to the ground force is straightforward: Instead of acting as immovable objects on land, ground forces (like their air and naval counterparts) must become mobile, deep penetrating, self-contained mission-focused capability packages designed to operate within a tightly organized Maneuver, Strike and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) complex against dispersed state or non-state opponents. A built-in side effect of this new mission focus is that the historic single service command and control structures supporting institutional concepts of warfare with their roots in World War II and the Cold War are no longer congruent with United States security needs; needs ranging from missile defense to global expeditionary operations.

Today, the compression of command echelons into a flatter, multi-service integrative command structure is now a strategic imperative. It’s enabled by the impact of long-range precision effects – kinetic and non-kinetic; effects achieved with a vast array of aerospace and naval strike forces based on the rapid and region-wide dissemination of critical information. It’s also necessary to save money we cannot afford to invest in large, single-service headquarters.

This approach will not sit well with the Army or the Marine bureaucracies, both of which stand to lose in the competition for flag officer overhead and “people in uniform.” However, the trend lines are irrefutable. Military establishments that integrate functions and capabilities across service lines while simultaneously eliminating unneeded overhead are not only less expensive to operate and maintain; they are likely to be far more lethal.

Precision effects (kinetic and non-kinetic) utilizing a vast array of strike forces enabled by the rapid and timely dissemination of information through networked intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities point the way to a fundamental paradigm shift in the character of warfare. For example, today a military contest on the model of Kursk in July 1943, a battle that involved nearly 940,000 attacking German and Allied Forces and 1.5 million defending Soviet Forces in a geographical area the size of England, would result in catastrophic losses for the Soviet side. Today, any ground combat force that immobilizes itself in prepared defenses on this World War II model will be identified, targeted and annihilated from a distance.

These points simply reinforce the desperate need to reorganize the Army and Marine ground forces to provide more ready deployable combat power inside a joint rotational readiness system that is complementary, not competitive in content and capability. This outcome can be achieved at lower manpower levels, but not without sweeping change in how these forces organize to fight. Whether they like it or not, Army and Marine combat formations must bring different, but mutually reinforcing capabilities to the joint fight.

Thirty years elapsed between the cavalry charges of 1914 and the dropping of the atom bomb. We should expect at least as much technological change in the next 20 years. Reequipping the current, Cold War force at great expense to the American taxpayer is not the answer. It’s time for serious reform and reorganization; something the Service Chiefs cannot do without informed and determined civilian leadership.

Doug Macgregor, retired Army colonel, heads Burke-Macgregor Group LLC, a consulting company. A member of the AOL Board of Contributors, he is also the author of four books on military affairs including Breaking the Phalanx (Praeger 1997), Transformation under Fire (Praeger 2003) and Warrior’s Rage (USNI 2009).

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