Beyond the Last War: Balancing Ground Forces and Future Challenges Risk in USCENTCOM and USPACOM
April 30, 2013
A storm is brewing inside the Pentagon on the future demands for ground forces. The Defense Department’s internal challenges, from budget cuts, sequestration, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are stifling deliberate consideration of where, how, and under what circumstances senior policymakers may employ significant U.S. ground forces (i.e., Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations) abroad. Resources follow priorities; currently, future ground force capabilities are not high on the list.
As policymakers look to embrace leaner, stand-off approaches to future conflicts, the CSIS study, Beyond the Last War: Balancing Ground Forces and Future Challenges Risk in USCENTCOM and USPACOM, peers into an uncertain national security future to identify the most likely, most dangerous, and most disruptive archetypal ground force requirements. Given regional trends and U.S. interests, the report identifies illustrative ground force pacing demands and qualitatively assesses capabilities to meet these demands over the next two decades.
The report couldn’t be timelier. As DoD concludes its Strategic Choices Management Review and heads into the next Quadrennial Defense Review, it faces a range of complex security challenges whose potential ground force implications are both manifest and diverse.
Q1: What does the future ground force operating environment look like?
A1: The future operating environment will commonly be disordered. U.S. adversaries will use asymmetric capabilities and methods. Given finite forces, expansive theaters of operation, and, in many cases, viral instability, future ground operations will also tend to be more distributed and less decisive.
No single current events-snapshot can adequately illustrate potential demands. However, the last few months have been instructive. Since the beginning of the year, a disruptive domestic terrorist attack occurred with roots in foreign extremism. Civil conflict in Syria entered a new, darker chapter with the alleged use of chemical weapons. Iraq’s fragile political arrangement may collapse into renewed civil war. Uncertainty about the stability of two acknowledged nuclear powers—Pakistan and North Korea—lingers. At the same time, North Korea demonstrates both new military capability and increased bellicosity.
In the Asia-Pacific region, territorial disputes are increasingly militarized, raising the prospect for sudden conflict escalation among important states. Asia also faces the constant threat of natural disaster and potential public health emergencies. Uncertainty colors the security backdrop of the greater Middle East as well, given that region’s unpredictable political transformations and attendant transnational instability. Throughout, a recalcitrant Iran threatens to foment, exploit, or “free-ride” on the region’s endemic challenges.
These scenarios all have unique ground force implications. Demands could range from establishing security of at-risk populations, geography, infrastructure, and dangerous weapons to potential future confrontations with fractured adversary military forces. Contrary to an emerging DoD consensus that focuses on combating unfavorable regional order wrought by adversary states, Beyond the Last War concludes that disorder marked by failures of responsible authority present equally troublesome future prospects. Indeed, Beyond the Last War argues that U.S. ground forces are more likely to respond to instances of foreign disorder, catastrophe, and third-party conflict than they are to overt cross-border military aggression.
Q2: How should U.S. ground forces prepare to meet the environment’s new challenges?
A2: Beyond the Last War suggests that five pacing archetypes capture future large-scale ground force demands in USCENTCOM and USPACOM: humanitarian response, distributed security, enable &
support actions, peace operations, and limited conventional campaigns. In the context of the report, “large-scale” includes force commitments exceeding in size only those of an Army division, the ground combat element of a Marine Expeditionary Force, or an equivalent combination of Army, Marine, and special operations forces. Of the two principal “warfighting” demands—distributed security and limited conventional campaigns—the former is more likely and thus an ideal benchmark for future force optimization.
Distributed security could involve significant combat action and, at its highest level of intensity, might require U.S. ground forces to operate in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) environments in the face of sophisticated military capabilities under less formalized command and control than anticipated in major combat operations. Given the current focus of DoD guidance on more traditional deter/defeat missions, this archetype is likely the most “disruptive” future demand, as over time it may represent a family of contingencies that DoD is by design progressively less prepared to address.
This fact, coupled with the requirement for Army forces in particular to be the principal enabling hub for joint operations in all theaters, indicate that ground forces will need to evolve, adapt to, and innovate in strategic and operational conditions that are fundamentally different than those confronted before and since 9/11. While a classically realist outlook—focusing on competitor states—defines emerging post-war defense policy, it may only be appropriate to a narrow slice of future U.S. defense challenges. Beyond the Last War argues that a more complex outlook marks potential U.S. ground force demands.
Q3: Given the report’s findings, are U.S. ground forces adequately prepared to meet their most disruptive future demands?
A3: On the current course, probably not. Beyond the Last War employed an independent and comprehensive risk assessment process across six major risk categories to arrive at its judgments. These categories included:
- Understanding the strategic and operational environment,
- Shaping strategic and operational conditions and outcomes,
- Projecting forces,
- Employing forces and capabilities to achieve operational objectives,
- Protecting and sustaining forces consistent with operational conditions,
- Terminating military operations consistent with objectives.
The report found that future challenges risk is either increasing or static in all six categories. This judgment is founded on a number of interrelated factors. Three are worth noting here.
First, the previous decade of war has seen U.S. ground forces serially prepare for and execute military operations under very specific operational conditions—counterinsurgency from an extensive and fixed support base. While U.S. forces adapted to and are substantially conditioned to succeed under these conditions, it is unlikely they will be replicated completely in the next major operation. Second, current DoD priorities focus on traditional state-based challenges. Beyond the Last War found this perspective to be incomplete, especially as it relates to ground forces. Indeed, an acute focus on the most obvious traditional challenges may over time leave the ground components underprepared for their most “disruptive” future demands. Finally, service culture, biased toward preparing for high-end major conventional combat operations at the expense of other demands like distributed security or large-scale enabling, hazards preparing for exquisite military challenges that are less likely to emerge over the next two decades. In short, the ground force community itself may allow the comfortable to crowd out a more complex and unpleasant reality.
Q4: What attributes should the future ground force exhibit?
A4: Beyond the Last War found that an increased likelihood of intervention as a result of consequential disorder and disaster, combined with growing requirements to enable large-scale partner operations and actions will necessitate that U.S. ground forces become more easily and rapidly tailored to operational circumstances. The demands implied in Beyond the Last War indicate that U.S. ground forces will require new levels of operational adaptability. They will need the flexibility to respond with the right combinations of military capabilities and adjust operations in train to fast-moving changes on the ground, often under conditions that are either unanticipated or discounted in prior strategic planning.
The combined impact of these factors is clear. A “one size fits all,” multipurpose force may not adequately meet future specialized operational demands. In addition to mission tailoring, the force will also need to be rapidly scalable in size to meet emerging demands. Deploying U.S. forces will require the capability to begin operations from a generated, cold start and operate and sustain themselves in a distributed fashion, often in austere and sometimes CBRN-contaminated environments, all without the benefit of well-developed forward basing.
Overall, the force will need new or enhanced capabilities as well. These will include new tools to shape and understand the complex human dimensions of conflict and crisis. Further, fewer forces will necessitate greater routine integration of Army, Marine, SOF assets and forces. The tyranny of distance imposed on a largely CONUS-based force will also require innovative solutions for more rapid and distributed deployment. Over time, all forces will need to benefit from capabilities and concepts where “deployment = employment.” In addition, the diversity of future threats will require new levels of protected mobility and firepower across the force regardless of where those forces lie on the deployability spectrum. Finally, ground forces will need to explore new initiatives in air and missile defense, precision long-range fires, and CBRN defense and mitigation.
Q5: What are the principal challenges to future adaptation?
A5: In the current fiscal and decisionmaking environment, ground force senior leaders are “fighting uphill.” The combined effects of war-weariness and mandated defense reductions will certainly make adaptation more difficult. Overcoming these real obstacles will necessitate clear-eyed risk assessment by all key stakeholders during the forthcoming QDR. This starts with more expansive consideration of all possible hazards. In spite of current plans and policy preferences, Beyond the Last War found some of these alternative challenges to be the most dangerous and disruptive prospects on the American national security landscape.
Nathan Freier is a senior fellow in CSIS’ International Security Program and the project director and principal author of Beyond the Last War: Balancing Ground Forces and Future Challenges Risk in USCENTCOM and USPACOM. Stephanie Sanok is deputy director of CSIS’ International Security Program and a contributing author to Beyond the Last War. Jacquelyn Guy is a project coordinator and research assistant in CSIS’ International Security Program and a contributing author to Beyond the Last War. Curtis Buzzard is a promotable U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, a military fellow in CSIS’ International Security Program, and a contributing author to Beyond the Last War. Sam Eaton and Megan Loney are interns with CSIS’ International Security Program and contributing authors to Beyond the Last War.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.