Endangered Ground Forces?
November 1, 2011
Tomorrow General Raymond Odierno, the chief of staff of the Army, and General James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, will testify before the House Armed Services Committee on the potential impact of sequestration. Testimony occurs against the backdrop of an emerging defense strategy that implicitly deemphasizes future employment of large numbers of soldiers and marines, opting instead to rely on air, sea, space, cyber, and Special Forces capabilities employed from over the horizon. The contours of the strategy appear to be unfolding in practice in recent operations—NATO’s air and naval actions in Libya, air and special operations strikes against terrorists, and, finally, U.S. combat advisers in Africa. Inevitably, these will be key exhibits on one side of the showdown over the defense budget.
To its proponents, the new strategy is cleaner and less costly than the last decade’s “long war.” What may appear cleaner, less costly, and admittedly less painful now, however, may not by itself be the best available option for securing at-risk interests in the future. Indeed, while policymakers certainly prefer to avoid large ground operations, the strategic environment will not always conform to their preferences. As a consequence, we suggest policymakers carefully weigh the risks associated with sharply limiting unique U.S. ground force advantages going forward. Among its closest allies, only the United States can project ground forces worldwide in significant numbers, force entry on arrival, maneuver protected in strength against a variety of threats, and finally, conduct simultaneous combat, security, and stability operations among vulnerable populations. New limitations on these advantages may unnecessarily limit future military options.
Q1: What is the current status of aggregate U.S./partner ground forces?
A1: In sum, the stark reality is increasingly leaner ground forces across the board. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps, for example, will cut 67,000 active duty service members by 2016. This is likely the first and not the last postwar reduction. Key U.S. allies are reducing their ground forces and capabilities more dramatically. Specifically, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany are on a path to cut active ground force strength by 107,000 personnel over the next six years.
Manpower reductions alone, however, do not adequately capture new limitations on allied and partner capabilities. Close European allies, for example, are in the midst of a cost-driven conversion to lighter, “medium-weight” forces. These can be quite useful in lower-intensity stabilization missions (e.g., peacekeeping, foreign security force assistance, and disaster response). However, allied forces in general possess much less aggregate utility and depth for more intense contingencies involving significant combat action. In this regard, U.S. ground forces are increasingly unique in their size, capability, and employability across the broadest range of military operations.
Q2: Do the on-going reductions really matter? After all, don’t U.S. actions in Libya and drone and Special Forces strikes against terrorists demonstrate a diminishing role for ground forces?
A2: Ground force reductions matter a great deal, particularly those that would limit future options. Moreover, recent stand-off successes in unique missions like Libya do not universally undermine the case for maintaining sizeable ground forces. Without question, deterring threats or defeating them at safe distances with precision weapons, proxies, or Special Forces may be preferable to large-scale ground interventions. However, relying on these methods alone and foreclosing future options for more direct forms of military intervention altogether are as impractical and risky now as they were a decade ago when first suggested in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s transformation agenda. Resurrection of the Rumsfeld perspective—air, sea, and space power to counter miscreant states; specialized units to target terrorists; and military advisers to influence regional outcomes—is attractive given fiscal pressures, war weariness, and perceptions of recent low-cost military success. However, we suggest caution given a broader examination of the environment.
Q3: What is the greatest risk associated with the emerging strategic approach?
A3: The greatest risk is severe limitations on future U.S. response options in the event of foreign crises. Balance in defense strategy is critical. However, cultivation of high-tech air, sea, space, and cyber advantages—reinforced with robust Special Forces—will neither prevent nor provide adequate solutions for a whole family of compelling contingencies emerging from the historically active “messy middle” (e.g., interventions in the developing world, internal threats to important states, and peace operations). Nor, for that matter, is “flooding the zone” with U.S. advisers likely to prevent all future large-scale ground force demands.
U.S. decisionmakers, therefore, are on the horns of a dilemma. The most avoidable wars—challenges pitting the United States against competitor states boasting “high-end asymmetric threats”—are the very challenges they would prefer to refocus on. The less preventable crises, on the other hand—those against which large numbers of Army and Marine Corps general purpose forces would be indispensible—are anathema to current DoD policy preferences. These involve the very failures of political authority within important states and between important populations that are increasingly likely. Recent events like the Arab Spring demonstrate, for example, how quickly circumstances like these can breed violence that threatens critical infrastructure, geography, or resources; limits access to the global commons; undermines the surety of dangerous military capabilities, or puts vulnerable populations at extreme peril. Disentangling these challenges from stand-off ranges is, in a word, impossible.
Very different assumptions about the importance of U.S. ground forces emerge from this perspective. Here conflicts within states—fueled by the information revolution and armed by a proliferation of lethal capabilities and methods—will challenge U.S. interests more immediately than will wars between states. Assess, for example, the prospects of the United States successfully preventing civil conflict in nuclear-armed North Korea or Pakistan or important Middle Eastern states. In all cases, disorder, fatally undermining local authority, may go viral, requiring rapid intervention to protect allies, vulnerable populations, key strategic infrastructure or capabilities, and/or strategic resources. Further imagine expanding narco-insurgency or violent succession crises in the hemisphere, challenging the security of the United States itself. Finally, before discounting future ground interventions, ask if Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Iran might become Syria and what that might portend for regional security as a consequence. All of these are illustrative but also transferable to other important regions. Response to any of these may require U.S. ground forces to seize and hold key geography, operate and apply force discriminately—limiting the impact of violence on vulnerable populations—deny hostile actors secure sanctuary, and if necessary, fight for, secure, and stabilize vital territories in the face of a sophisticated opposition.
Q4: What does an expanded view of the challenge set mean for U.S. ground forces?
A4: Success under the conditions outlined above requires a force that can deploy in significant numbers, with very little warning, over strategic distances. It requires the ability to force entry under hostile or uncertain conditions. Once on the ground, it demands forces that can conduct simultaneous combat, security, and stability operations on 360-degree battlefields, maximizing the adaptability inherent to a general purpose force. Finally, while there are certain to be significant future limitations on the objectives pursued and the resources applied in contingency operations, the aggregate U.S. ground force will require sufficient depth for sustained operations. Making the conscious choice against intervention is quite different from not having the choice at all. Current views on the future utility of ground forces hazard leaving future presidents without important options.
Nathan Freier is a senior fellow in the New Defense Approaches Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC , a visiting research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute in Carlisle, PA, and the primary author of the recent CSIS report U.S. Ground Force Capabilities through 2020. Akhil Iyer is a research intern with the CSIS New Defense Approaches Project and a contributing author of U.S. Ground Force Capabilities through 2020.
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).
© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.