Squeezing Water from a Stone: Five Missed Opportunities in Planning the Future of the U.S. Army


During the past 15 years, the U.S. Army has borne the brunt of the demands of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also called ISIL) — wars that are far from over. In this context, the fact that Congress felt compelled to establish a commission to consider the future mission and purpose of the Army tells us something dismaying about the quality of strategic thinking in Washington. As disorder spreads in the Middle East and regional powers such as Russia flex their muscles, we will undoubtedly rely time and again on the Army, whose reason for being is to deter and defeat adversaries. The real question is what resources Congress needs to provide to the Army to enable officers and soldiers to perform this mission.

Let’s start with the positive. The National Commission on the Future of the Army, which reported out last week, made some valuable points. First, it pushed back on some bad, politically driven ideas that questioned the need for a robust Army. The report affirmed that “land power will be required to fight and win wars now and in the future, despite the aspirations of some to fight wars at arm’s length.” It also stated that demands for Army forces are increasing. While these points might seem obvious, they implicitly challenge the worldview of the Obama administration, which has consistently undervalued the role of conventional ground forces in its way of war and for keeping the peace.

Second, the commission rightly focused attention to a key tension facing today’s Army: how to balance the need to prevail in a fight against conventional and irregular enemies and the requirement to reshape the Army for future challenges. The report insists the Army must do both. Unless the Army is able to win the wars that “we’ve got,” as Jim Dubik has pointed out, it will have a hard time positioning itself for future wins.

Third, the report highlights the problem of “risk to mission” and “risk to force.” The former means that Army forces do not have the capability and capacity to accomplish assigned missions — whether in the near term (e.g., “fight tonight”) or the longer term. It makes the excellent point that because the joint force is interdependent, Army risk to mission has a domino effect on the capability of the entire joint force. “Risk to force” addresses the problems that the Army will face as it seeks to maintain the health of its all-volunteer force. It noted that the force was at risk in several ways, including the fact that the Army cannot recruit and retain enough qualified men and women with the needed skill sets.

Fourth, the commission correctly praised the Army for some of its “creative options on organizational designs for major Army combat formations” and urged the continued modeling of “alternative Army design and operational concepts — including the Reconnaissance Strike Group, Hybrid Battalion Task Force, Stryker Global Response Force, and the Reconnaissance and Security Brigade Combat Team.”

Fifth, the report reaffirmed the value of armored forces for conducting major combat operations, particularly in Europe, noting that such forces take significant time to prepare and resources to sustain. The commission noted that underestimating armored force requirements increases risk to mission and recommended that the Army should increase armored brigade combat team (ABCT) capacity based on the current and projected threat environment.

If commissions exist to speak truth to power, however, this one might have spoken louder on other key debates affecting the future of the Army.

First, the commission pulled its punches on Army end strength. It endorses a minimum level of manpower, while admitting existing rotational policies actually leave the active duty force understrength in the event of simultaneous contingencies. On the one hand, it countered arguments for additional troop reductions, making clear that a total force of 980,000 (with an active Army of 450,000) was the “absolute minimum” that the United States would need in order not to incur greater risk. On the other hand, however, it discussed the problems that a force of this size would have in undertaking the missions assigned to it, given Army rotation policies, existing Army commitments, and the need to be prepared to handle “three significant near simultaneous events” — such as a large-scale homeland defense response, a large-scale conventional operation, and a limited-duration deterrence mission. Though the report refers in many places to the tensions caused by existing rotation policies, it does not clearly draw out the operational implications for a force of 450,000: An active Army of that size cannot fulfill its missions while maintaining the needed rotational base.

Since the report also offers an extensive discussion of modeling used by the Army it might have used some models to explore the limitations of 450,000 active duty troops given existing and future mission requirements. Sustaining deployments calls to mind what Kevin Benson has described as the mathematics of war, which takes into account what is required to go to the war, fight and win the war, and establish the conditions for security so that a transition can take place.

Second, as discussed at length at War on the Rocks by Andrew Hill of the U.S. Army War College, the report was oddly silent about one of the key problems that the Army — and the nation — has struggled with for the past 15 years: the problem of how to consolidate the gains of combat, often through extended stability operations. The commission seems to accept the commitment expressed by the Pentagon in the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” The trouble is, reality keeps intervening in the form of continued challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as other civil wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.

While the political will to sustain a meaningful footprint in Afghanistan and use conventional military force to bring Middle Eastern civil wars to an end may not be in the cards in this administration, refusing to plan for something does not mean it will go away. As such, the omission of stabilization-related missions is surprising and I would be curious to know if the commission considered the issue behind closed doors.

Third, the commission hedges about how to modernize the Army. While the commissioners seemed to support the Army’s approach of prioritizing readiness and capacity, it noted that its “consequences for modernization are regrettable.” It warned that the Army’s current efforts to protect science and technology investments, incrementally improve existing fleets of vehicles, and delay the procurement of the next generation of platforms will strain its ability to build the foundation for the future force and put major acquisition programs at risk. Thus, while it stated that “investing in near-term readiness is a must,” it warned that if more resources could not be identified for modernization through changes in Army structure, processes, and programs, the long-term risk to force and mission would be significant. As David Johnson of RAND has pointed out, even if we do not end up in a conflict with Russia and China today, future conflicts “will almost surely find us confronting their weapon systems. We are vulnerable to these capabilities now, and these vulnerabilities need to be dealt with now to avoid operational and political surprise” in the future.

Fourth, the commission hedged regarding the need for more U.S. forces in Europe. It did imply that the United States had made a serious mistake in removing so many troops from Europe given the shifting strategic picture there. It also did “suggest” that, in light of the relatively lengthy timelines associated with deploying armored brigade combat teams, there was a need to return to permanent stationing of an ABCT in the region. But its language was not as strong as that in a new report by U.S. European Command. This report states clearly that the United States

cannot fully mitigate the impact felt from a reduction in assigned military forces through the augmentation of rotational forces from the United States. The temporary presence of rotational forces complements, but does not substitute for an enduring forward deployed presence that is tangible and real.

Fifth, the report fell in line with the Obama administration’s stubborn and dangerous refusal to identify threats by name, which, of course, has specific implications for what the United States, and its Army, must do to defeat its adversaries. The commission chose to echo White House obfuscation with its observation that “terrorism has emerged as the most visible threat to Americans and the nation’s allies.” It might have used its platform to identify these groups not as terrorists (terrorism is a tactic) but instead to describe what is in fact threatening the United States: a mass movement led by extremist and violent Islamists with clear ideological, political, and military objectives that require a tailored political-military strategy to defeat it. With its almost stilted reference to ISIL as “the organization currently receiving the most attention on the threat spectrum,” the commission perpetuates the White House’s insistence on parsing each “organization” that embodies this threat, as if there were no connections between the “organization” that is ISIL and the virulent political and religious ideologies roiling the states and the many disintegrating states of the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world.

It is hard not to think that the commission’s recommendations are a bit like trying to squeeze water from stone. If we want the Army to be able to perform its assigned missions, which include handling three simultaneous operations, deterring adversaries such as Russia and China, and engaging in the long war against violent Islamists, we need an active force larger than 450,000 troops and we need sound policies and laws that permit appropriate access to the 530,000 troops in the Guard and reserve. Innovation, new designs for combat units, and wishing away threats won’t do the job. The commission missed an opportunity to explain to policy-makers that, in light of current and likely future challenges, the bottom line is that underinvestment in our Army is creating unacceptable risk in our military’s ability to deter and defeat adversaries.


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


Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Grady Jones, U.S. Army

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