For the U.S. Army, It’s Not About the Story

July 12, 2016

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

Recently, the new Army Secretary Eric Fanning repeated what by now is a familiar refrain in defense policy circles: The Army must tell its story better in order to get the resources it needs.  The “tell the story better” narrative is by now a familiar one — and a misguided one.

The fundamental problem is not the quality of the Army story; the problem is a fundamental disagreement about what current and future warfare entails. It is a disagreement over how to design military forces to achieve desired strategic and political outcomes within resource constraints and trade-offs. It is a disagreement over the theory of warfare held by the Army on the one hand, and the theory of warfare held by a large number of policy analysts on the other — including much of today’s civilian political leadership.

As a recent article by Army Major Robert Chamberlain points out, a theory of warfare is a description of how a military intends to produce strategic outcomes. A theory of warfare guides the kind of force that you need to grow and field to produce a desired strategic outcome. Army senior leaders have expressed how they believe the Army will likely fight now and in the future. The purpose of this brief article is  not to capture this theory fully, but rather to point out that the Army has told its story of how near- and medium-term wars are likely to be fought, and the service has argued for an endstrength and force modernization program based on this view. What parts of the Army story are critics rejecting and why? That should be the focus of the discussion.

The Army view is that conflicts in the future, like those in the past, will ultimately be resolved on land. Army forces will be essential components of joint operations to create sustainable political outcomes while defeating enemies and adversaries who challenge U.S. advantages in all domains: land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace. Army contributions to joint operations provide multiple options to civilian and military leaders. These capabilities include tailorable and scalable combinations of special operations and conventional forces, regionally aligned and globally responsive combined arms teams, and foundational theater capabilities to enable joint operations.

Land-based threats emanate from the fielded forces of hostile nation states and from areas where state weakness allows non-state enemy or adversary organizations to operate. Conflict often arises from disorder, and land forces are needed to overcome the effects of this disorder. Although the ability to project power onto land from the air, maritime, space, and cyberspace domains will remain vital to joint operations, the employment of land forces will remain essential to achieve political outcomes.

Army leaders have made the case that the continuities in the character of war are just as important as any changes in warfare. As Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley explained, wars are ultimately decided on the ground. Because the desire for control over territory, populations, and resources is a frequent cause of war — witness the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)  today — the Army’s ability to deny enemy control of the land domain is fundamental to prevailing in armed conflict. The ability to control territory remains a critical function of the Army, and arguments about Army end strength are linked to assumptions about this fundamental characteristic of warfare.

Moreover, because territory matters, the ability to consolidate gains matters as well. The Army’s theory of warfare argues that forces must be able to compel outcomes without the cooperation of the enemy and that achieving sustainable political outcomes will require the consolidation of combat gains through the establishment of stable environments. Consistent with this view of warfare, the Army has rejected idea that wars of the future will necessarily be short. “Wars are funny things. They have a logic all of their own. And they rarely conform to preplanned timelines,” Milley has said.

Since the environment will remain unpredictable, the Army theory of warfare holds that its forces must be able to fight and prevail along the full spectrum of conflict, from stability operations to high-intensity conventional conflict. Army former   Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence Gen. Mary Legere has explained that in today’s complex security environment, the Army does not have the luxury of a single opponent or threat and must be prepared to respond to all adversaries. Milley has explained that the Army must sustain the counterterrorist and counterinsurgency capabilities that it developed over the past 15 years “while simultaneously rebuilding the capability to win in ground combat against higher-end threats such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.” The National Commission on the Future of the Army backed up the view that demands for Army forces are increasing.

To achieve the ability to fight across the spectrum of conflict and respond quickly to contingencies, Army leaders have consistently argued for protecting readiness and for linking readiness and end strength to deterrence, since “you can only deter your opponent if your opponent believes that you have the will and the capability.” Deterrence depends upon the ability to deny the enemy the ability to accomplish its objectives. Some senior Army leaders such as Gen. Ben Hodges would prefer forward-stationed units (such as brigade combat teams in Europe), a smaller Army and political decisions outside of their control preclude this in the near term. Army leaders have expressed skepticism that wars can be won with advanced technologies, arguing that “after the shock and awe comes the march and fight.” They likewise believe that combat vehicles will continue to play a central role in warfare, providing soldiers with mobility, lethality, and protection to defeat enemy forces and/or seize, occupy, and defend land areas. The operational environment is not going to be static, and Army forces must be prepared to transition rapidly between major combat, military-to-military engagement, and humanitarian assistance. The Army will need to continuously combine offensive, defensive, and stability operations through a blend of combined arms maneuver and wide-area security (which includes counterinsurgency).

Gen. Milley and other leaders have made the case that prevailing in war takes more than killing high-value terrorists with drone strikes and small-unit raids, and that special forces cannot do it all. Nor can a small Army simply grow when needed. Milley has also pointed out that if the Army becomes too small, the nation cannot simply recruit more people, put them through basic training, and “presto,” have a unit. Soldiers take years to develop the competencies and skills necessary to wage modern ground combat.

Under the guise of “tell a better story,” defense leaders are talking past each other and avoiding the tough conversations they should be having. Secretary of the Army Fanning should engage critics over the specific aspects of the kinds of war they believe are most likely to unfold, since there are implicit and unchallenged assumptions that underpin the views of those who claim that the Army needs to do better at telling the story. Should the United States reconsider its position on forward presence in Europe?  How important is the Army for providing a robust deterrent to America’s adversaries? And perhaps most importantly, will the ability to control territory from the land remain fundamental to warfare in the future?


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

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Christopher Blanton

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at!

7 thoughts on “For the U.S. Army, It’s Not About the Story

  1. The author is basically correct. The problem I have is that U.S. foreign policy is to poke its nose into everybody’s face. There’s nothing wrong with DOWNSIZING today’s U.S. Army, putting much of that capacity into the Guard so when its needed, it’s there. But we have to get out applying American military force to these unending “local issues.” Let the locals handle some of the issues themselves. We’re NOT the world’s policemen, and IF we wanted to be then we should start charging all these countries for our services, even it required us to simply confiscate local resources (like we should have done in Iraq and Afghanistan).

    1. While I disliked cutting the reserves and guard years ago, and today’s guard has many combat veterans, it won’t always be so. Over time reserve and guard units become little more than advanced boots with obsolete equipment because the government won’t fund them or train them. The whole guard system is based on the cannon fodder of the civil war.

  2. This would have been a really interesting and useful article had it not ended just where it should have begun: by identifying the specific “disagreements” undercutting the requirements that Ms. Schadlow believes comprise the Army’s unsellable theory of victory.

    1. But she does, throughout the paper. The key Army assumption being: “Wars are ultimately decided on the ground,” which makes the statement that “…land forces will be essential components of joint operations to create sustainable political outcomes,” an understatement — the Army’s position is that land forces are the DECISIVE component of joint operations. Always.

      Another key element in the Army’s position is that U.S. foreign policy requires them to be prepared to fight protracted conflicts (rather than raids) on short notice in faraway places (requiring a substantial, strategically mobile standing force), against near-peer adversaries (requiring high-tech, operationally and tactically mobile combined arms forces). That’s certainly the worst-case scenario, but given the ambiguity in strategic direction, it’s hard to fault them — the other services are using the same assumptions.

      The last position is that the Army doesn’t need to change to meet those strategic and operational goals — the way they manage the force was good enough then, so it’s good enough now. That’s more startling, especially when they point out they have close to half the total force not immediately deployable, that Reserve Component take too long to mobilize and train up, and the long-running concern about the drain of mid-to-senior company-grade officers and mid-level NCOs.

      Each of those threads needs to be pursued:
      1) Where and with whom may the U.S. find itself fighting in the next 10-20 years, and to what end?
      2) Is landpower the decisive element in those conflicts or a variable in the joint mix, depending on strategic environment and objectives?
      3) Are there alternative ways of managing the force that make a larger proportion available without degrading training. Can the RC be maintained at a higher level of readiness, and take less time to mobilize? If retention improves, are there implications for force size?

      The Army may be right — there may be no more blood left in the stone. But while the other services are experimenting — rather painfully, in some cases, and some not terribly smart — to stretch resources, the Army declares itself too big to fail.

      1. Dr. Schadlow effectively and consistently highlights the narrow and aspirational view of how DoD would prefer conflict to unfold, but not one based on patterns of reality. This aspirational view of conflict masks risks and steers the Department into making less than informed choices regarding future warfare.

        1. Too pithy. What are those “patterns of reality”? How do they remove strategic initiative from the United States to determine where, when, and how it employs military force? Too many of the arguments floating around are based on improbable scenarios to justify certain paths, or unavoidable worst-case assumptions due to a lack of strategic direction. Absent better direction, one can’t fault the services for that, but we do ourselves no favors by glossing over those issues.