The Headwinds Looming for the U.S. Army

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The U.S. Army is facing a stormy period that will be marked by wrenching change in the coming years. In the early weeks of the COVID-19 shutdown, we argued that the defense budget would decline as a result of the simultaneous health and economic crises facing the nation. Seven months later, the effects of the pandemic are already worse than we could have predicted, and show no signs of abating as the virus continues to spread. That means that the Pentagon needs to prepare for even more sharply reduced budgets than it might have expected even a short while ago. And while this will force all of the services to make painful choices, the Army will face the most daunting challenges of all.



The rise of China and the primacy of the Indo-Pacific as the U.S. military’s most important theater of operations upend the Army’s longstanding role in American defense. For the first time in decades, land will not be the most critical domain of warfare, and it may not even be the decisive one. In a future war with China, the air and sea domains, together with space and cyber, will define the shape of the conflict. As a force organized, trained, and equipped for land warfare, the U.S. Army clearly will be at a huge disadvantage in both the strategic arguments and budget fights to come. Its budget, end strength, and force structure will all face significant cuts, which could easily exceed the cuts of the sequestration era. In order to adapt successfully to these tectonic shifts, the Army will have to grapple with becoming a supporting service, the shift from maneuver to fires, the growing mission of homeland defense, and rebalancing active and reserve forces.

Taking on a Supporting Role

Though the 2018 National Defense Strategy stressed great-power competition with both China and Russia, the Department of Defense is now explicitly prioritizing China over Russia. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has clearly stated that his goal is “to focus the department on China,” since he sees China as “the pacing threat” that the U.S. military must prepare for. And even though a potential Biden administration would voice much stronger support for NATO and U.S. allies in Europe, China will nevertheless remain the U.S. military’s most dangerous threat. The reasons why are simple and sobering: Only a rising China has the immense economic power, the cutting-edge technological prowess, and increasingly, the advanced military capabilities that could match (or even exceed) those of the U.S. armed forces — and potentially defeat them.

This shift has profound implications for the Army. For decades, the Army has arguably been the U.S. military’s primus inter pares, the first among equals, of the four services. During the Cold War, the U.S. Army formed the bulk of NATO forces postured to deter or defeat a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. It also provided most of the forces that served in Korea, Vietnam, the 1991 Gulf War, and more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army has grown accustomed to being what’s called the supported service, where the other services help enable its land operations. Yet the explicit prioritization of China over Russia means that this relationship is about to flip. The Army will be a supporting service in any potential conflict with China, tasked with enabling the other services in a conflict that would span the vast air and maritime domain of the Western Pacific.

That will be a seismic shift for the Army, since it will no longer conduct the primary combat operations against the nation’s greatest strategic threat. It will fundamentally upend the central warfighting roles and missions the Army has traditionally played against the most dangerous U.S. adversaries for over 75 years. Its ground combat forces will remain essential for deterrence (and, if necessary, fighting) on the Korean peninsula, but otherwise its role in the Western Pacific against China will remain limited. Yet despite this shift, the Army is planning to conduct littoral operations throughout the region that in many ways duplicate missions the Marines have traditionally performed, and updated in their most recent doctrine and Commandant’s Planning Guidance. Instead of competing with the Marines for a major role in the littorals, the Army should instead focus on providing critical enablers to the rest of the joint force in the Pacific. These include capabilities like land-based air and missile defense, theater-wide logistics and engineering, electronic warfare, and potentially, long-range precision fires. The service’s new Multi-Domain Task Forces, with their integrated cyber, space, fires, and electronic warfare functions, may also provide other innovative capabilities to the Pacific fight that could be more useful than maneuver forces.

The Army’s traditional ground combat capabilities will still be required in Europe. Russia remains the most capable and dangerous potential U.S. adversary in the land domain, and U.S. Army forces will still be required to defend Europe from Russian aggression and buttress NATO’s defense. But those missions, which were the main U.S. strategic priority for many decades, are now a lower national priority than deterring and possibly fighting Chinese aggression in the Pacific. The fact that the Army’s primary combat mission is now a secondary national security priority will pose enormous challenges for the service, including almost certain cuts to Army force structure and end strength, and present an uncomfortable degree of risk in the European theater.

The Shift from Maneuver to Fires

Finally, the Army is being disrupted by the changing relationship between fires and maneuver, as both weapons technology and the importance of long-range precision fires in future conflicts rapidly advance. Traditionally, the Army has devoted a sizable part of its end strength to maneuver units — primarily the infantry, armor, and cavalry formations that assault the enemy and seize and hold terrain — and relied on fires from artillery and rockets to support those maneuver forces. But the advent of precision long-range fires is inverting this traditional relationship. Traditional artillery used to support maneuver troops generally has a range between 15 and 25 miles. Today, land-based precision rockets and missiles are being developed with potential ranges of over 1,000 miles.

This unprecedented technological leap-ahead is completely altering the roles of fires and maneuver. For the first time, land forces will be able to strike adversaries at strategic ranges without having to utilize nuclear weapons — and that means that they might be able to deliver strategic effects. In the near future, the Army may be able to use precision long-range fires to shatter adversary units, command and control networks, and vulnerable logistics and supply routes. The Army’s main contribution to a future war in the Pacific could soon involve using these new and powerful weapons to strike a wide range of naval and island targets, without utilizing its maneuver forces at all.

This means that the Army is now overinvested in brigade combat teams. These major maneuver forces will not play a significant role in any conflict with the nation’s primary strategic threat, and so will need to be cut as force structure and end strength decline. With their large footprints and substantial electronic signatures, these brigades could become vulnerable targets for the growing threat posed by enemy long-range precision fires. Infantry brigade combat teams should be particular targets for reduction, since their lack of protection and mobile firepower gives them low survivability in any high intensity conflict in Europe. The Army should try to reinvest some of the resources freed by these cuts to procure more new long-range fires and further enabling capabilities for the Pacific.

The Growing Mission of Homeland Defense

The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that the United States is better prepared to defend its vital interests overseas than to protect its citizens from attacks at home. Yet for all of the human suffering that the pandemic has caused, basic necessities like food, water, and power remain widely available. But a massive cyber attack against the United States could far too easily disrupt the supply chains that make these essentials available. And a deliberate attack against U.S. space assets could disrupt or destroy critical communications capabilities, as well as the positioning, navigation, and timing capabilities that enable GPS and other critical infrastructures. Any future conflict with a major foreign power will almost certainly spill over into the homeland, with potentially devastating consequences.

As the direct threats to the homeland continue to grow, the Army will play an important role in helping prevent such attacks, and an even greater role in helping to mitigate their consequences. Throughout the nation’s history, the Army has been the principal military service that has provided for the protection of the United States and its citizens at home. Whether those missions entailed battling native Americans on the frontier, policing the Mexican border from bandit raids, or responding to earthquakes, hurricanes, floods or wildfires, the U.S. Army has been a crucial part of the toolkit, with multi-faceted and incomparably capable organizations standing ready to provide a wide range of logistics, communications, and engineering support.

Active Army forces will only have a limited role to play in this vital mission. In a conflict that occurs mainly at home, or an overseas campaign that engages relatively few Army forces, the active Army could help provide logistics, communications, and engineering support for civil authorities within the homeland. But the Army’s reserve component, and especially the Army National Guard, will be far more critical for this mission. The National Guard operates day-to-day under the command of state governors, and is the first military entity on-call to respond to civil disruptions that exceed the capacity of local authorities. During the pandemic, both National Guard and the Army Reserve forces have supported local authorities in missions like food distribution, and providing capabilities like medical augmentation units and mortuary affairs to hard-hit areas. In a major homeland calamity, the reserve component would take on even broader missions, such as providing humanitarian assistance, restoring power and water, and preventing civil disorder. Regardless of the budgetary constraints to come, the rising vulnerability of the homeland means that the Army will have to increasingly prioritize capabilities that can respond to catastrophic domestic events.

Rebalancing Active and Reserve Forces

The Army has always viewed its active forces as the first among equals within the three elements of the total force. Active Army units have traditionally been accorded the first priority for scarce resources, new equipment, and even emerging new missions such as cyber defense. Yet the coming era of fiscal austerity combined with the growing threats to the homeland may well require inverting that traditional relationship. Reserve forces are a wise strategic investment during lean budgetary times, because they preserve both combat and support force structure at far less cost, and provide vital capabilities for both domestic and overseas scenarios. Future wartime demands may find these forces pulled in both directions, but they nevertheless remain a cost-effective investment across a huge range of missions. As the budget axe falls, the Army should not simply make equal cuts to active, reserve, and Guard end strength and force structure in order to share the bureaucratic pain equally. Instead, it should consider preserving some more reserve capabilities above active capabilities, in order to strengthen the total force’s ability to defend the homeland effectively while also husbanding critical war-fighting capabilities in the most economical way possible.

Such decisions would pose an immense cultural challenge for the Army, however. When defense budgets contracted during the sequestration era, the Army’s active and reserve components engaged in an all-out bureaucratic war that can only be characterized as fratricide, leading Congress to charter an independent commission to referee the fight. The Army, and the country more broadly, cannot afford to repeat that experience. As the Army chief of staff, Gen. James McConville faces the daunting task of managing this countercultural change. He should do so by ensuring that active, reserve, and Guard forces all have an equal seat at any table where cuts are considered. And after tough decisions have been made behind closed doors, all of the Army’s senior leaders should emerge with a unified approach that emphasizes the needs of the entire Army rather than any of its individual components.

Navigating the Army’s New Strategic Environment

Taken together, these changes will challenge the Army’s traditional identity as the service that delivers war-winning outcomes on land for the nation. It is going to get smaller, and become a supporting service in the nation’s primary theater of potential conflict. Its missions will also expand to include a greater role in homeland security, and the importance and relevance of its reserve component may eclipse that of its active forces in some domains of future conflict. Navigating the Army through these tremendous challenges will require imagination, resilience, and resolve at every level of command, especially as resources decline. Army senior leaders will need to challenge some of the assumptions that have long guided the force, and overcome deeply ingrained orthodoxies about the relative priorities of warfighting versus support, fires versus maneuver, and active versus reserves. Doing so successfully will help assure that the Army can remain a relevant and vital component of the nation’s military power as it transforms in the years and decades to come.



Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Staff Sgt. William Howard)