Six Seductive Stories That Undercut the Army


In his defense budget request to Congress for 2016, the secretary of defense referred to a “post-war Army.” The U.S. Army, however, is not post-war, nor is it even inter-war. It is at war and has been, continuously, since shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, the U.S. Army has never been a “post-war Army.” It has existed, always, to protect the American homeland, deter our adversaries, reassure our friends, and be ready to defeat enemy forces. Like the maritime, aerospace, and cyberspace forces it works with as part of our joint force, the U.S. Army must maintain an active presence and readiness to constantly influence an enemy’s calculations. The U.S. Army is an active player in the ongoing competitive landscape that surrounds us.

As the new Army chief of staff and new secretary of the Army assume their roles, and as the National Commission on the Future of the Army continues its deliberations, they will be confronted not only with the post-war Army myth, but five other false narratives that they must counter if they are to affirm the enduring value of a strong and capable Army. These narratives are seductive to budget-conscious policymakers, undervalue the importance of land forces in securing our nation and advancing our vital interests, and often go unchallenged.

A Counterterrorism “strategy” is enough. Counterterrorism is a powerful operational capability to kill individuals and degrade organizations at the tactical level and, ideally, to do so in a way that advances a broader political strategy. But counterterrorism can never, and has never, had strategic effects on its own. Counterterrorism destroys, but does not secure or rebuild. We need to look only to Libya and the sectarian civil war across the Middle East for recent evidence of how raids by drones and special operations forces are insufficient to defeat enemy organizations and address the causes of violence.

All the United States needs is a small active force and a large reserve component. The public, and its political representatives, must understand that an active Army of over half a million men was strained to sustain a commitment of 130,000 troops to two theaters of war. An active Army of 450,000, for example, can only generate one-third of that strength in terms of deployable capabilities. It takes, for instance, some 132,000 troops to keep 44,000 troops deployed in the field. Like the U.S. Navy, which requires 11 carriers to maintain two forward-deployed hubs, troops and equipment must rotate through states of rebuilding and training. The National Guard must be ready for domestic emergencies and to help protect the homeland, but for overseas combat operations they require time and money to achieve and maintain the level of training to operate in what new Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley refers to as “the unforgiving crucible of ground combat.” And the National Guard is needed to provide the strategic depth necessary to sustain operations over time. The Army Reserve provides essential combat support and logistical capabilities early in a contingency operation and throughout the campaign, but preferred deployment cycles for a Reserve unit are one year on a mission in every five. The reality is that the total Army needs the synergistic capabilities of all three components (active, National Guard, and Reserve), and all three components are getting too small to secure the nation. We need to shift from talking about “end strength” — which refers to how large the Army should be, but which means little to the American public — to explaining the Army’s actual capability to deploy to meet the nation’s requirements.

Capacity in battle-ready land forces can be regenerated rapidly. The complexity of today’s weapon systems, communications networks, and mission requirements demand education and training over long lead times — all of which is necessary for unit cohesion as well. It takes a particularly long time to develop leaders who possess not only the tactical and technical expertise, but also the judgment necessary to lead America’s sons and daughters into battle. When the Army expanded in 2007 to meet the requirements of the surge in Iraq, it took close to three years to build new, battle-ready brigades. The challenge of growing tens of thousands of troops to deploy is extraordinarily difficult.

Airpower can replace landpower. Airpower is critical to our nation’s arsenal but it does not win wars by itself. Control over territory matters. The self-proclaimed Islamic State has made territorial control the center of its operational strategy. People live on the land, and governments exist to provide order and control resources within a territory. Without security and stability over contested regions, the United States and its allies cannot achieve its broader foreign policy goals. For example, the ability of an active force that can respond quickly to contingencies such as Korea undergirds U.S. policy in Asia. The use of force, or the threat of its use, enables diplomatic leverage. That’s why armies are enduring requirements for any nation seeking to exercise power. As the Air Force chief of staff observed last year: “You don’t dictate end states from the air. You can’t control territory. You can’t influence people. You can’t maintain lines of control after you’ve established them. That will take a ground force.”

America can optimize its Army for one form of war. America needs an Army that is able to conduct operations across the full spectrum of conflict because enemies will adapt to evade strength and attack vulnerabilities if one capability is chosen over another. Respected analysts such as Dave Johnson, Steve Biddle, Mike O’Hanlon, Phillip Lohaus, and Nate Freier have consistently shown that the past 15 years of war required armored forces, light forces, and special operations forces. No amount of advanced technology will change this because these types of requirements derive from the nature of war, American security interests and obligations, potential enemies, and geography. Russian, Iranian, and Chinese military and political strategists all acknowledge the need for a broad range of conventional and unconventional capabilities.

These myths, unless countered, combine to create what defense analyst Frank Hoffman has called “pink flamingos,” the counterpart to the “black swans.” Pink flamingos are predictable events that are ignored due to biases. Many of these biases are formed to protect institutional interests and are resistant to obvious ongoing and impending threats to national and international security.

The Army continues to counter many of these troublesome narratives itself. The Army’s Operating Concept (AOC) explained that the Army cannot predict who it will fight, where it will fight, and with what coalition it will fight. The AOC emphasized the need to balance technological modernization with the human, cultural, and political continuities of armed conflict.   It affirmed the value of a deterrent force — a force that can overmatch U.S. adversaries. The Army’s top commander in Europe, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges has consistently argued for the need to “give our political leaders options” and warned that we are not “going to have six months to get ready,” but that it was going to be “come as you are, plug and play.” In General Milley’s confirmation hearings he explained the risk of major war as being “significant and trending higher.”

But this is not only the Army’s case to make. It is an issue of national security and these are arguments that political leaders and elected officials must advance.

Today’s threats include non-state actors who are orchestrating the genocide of ancient religious and ethnic groups, reordering state boundaries, and controlling populations, territory, and resources through intimidation and brutality. Revisionist, undemocratic state actors are using their power nimbly and aggressively to undermine the institutions that underpin the post-World War II security and political order. Europe is now on the front lines of the disorder that has resulted from war among the people and the resurgence of Russian military strength on the continent. And these problems are not isolated from one another. A Syrian–Iranian–Russian alliance is further destabilizing the region and actively undermining U.S. interests and relationships with allies.

In a world of conflicts that are essentially competitions for control over territory, resources, and populations, it is astonishing that there should be continuing questions among many about the utility and mission of the U.S. Army.

The Army does not need a new mission. Its mission is clear and enduring, and its role as relevant as ever — no matter how seductive the alternatives may appear.


Nadia Schadlow is a senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation who occasionally writes on defense and foreign policy-related issues.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army