Who will do the important but unglamorous military work needed to succeed against the challenges of tomorrow?
In an abandoned coal mine in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, the Global Seed Vault stores duplicate examples of the seeds that make up the world’s agricultural heritage. With a relatively small staff the Crop Trust that operates the vault safeguards this essential biodiversity against a future calamity. It’s not sexy, it’s not profitable, but it is important work focused on avoiding a future apocalypse.
What if the work needed to adequately protect the Nation against the threat of future conflict required similarly unsexy work? What if those efforts were actually counterproductive to a service’s near-term funding goals? Who will do the important but unglamorous military work needed to succeed against the challenges of tomorrow?
It has been argued elsewhere, convincingly, that the Navy/Marine Corps team is best suited to safeguarding America’s interests and global stability in times of peace (reflected in the now-discarded “Global Force for Good” tagline). The Air Force has always sold itself—grotesquely, in some cases—as the post-WWII guarantors of strategic stability. The Space Force is now out there trying to figure out what to wear, trying to dominate high orbit, and competing for funding with its parent service, the past master of the budget wars up until this point.
What does that leave for the Army? In an era of low-level conflicts or protracted near-wars the Army currently advocates for itself a role as an embedded expeditionary force with persistent involvement in all theaters of U.S. military operations. This is the “tick” theory of forward deployment, which provides that “ground forces can defeat sophisticated adversary defensive schemes from inside positions”—a concept which at first glance appears to leave Army forces vulnerable, unable to maneuver, and liable to be bypassed. In so doing, the Army is both trying to give the National Command Authority the flexibility it wants in the early days of a developing national strategy and making the standard intra-Pentagon play for funding and continued relevance in an era between major wars.
What is the Army really for? Thomas Barnett’s wartime “Leviathan force” designed to fight and decisively win the nation’s wars on land comes closest. In the same document where the Army Chief of Staff argues for the embedded, expeditionary model to demonstrate relevance in the INDOPACOM area of operations, he acknowledges that “[t]he Army’s most foundational strategic role is the capability and capacity to prevail in large-scale combat.” The Army is the big hammer by which the Nation leverages its economic power and its sizeable population to rain comprehensive defeat upon its wartime enemies. The Army is supposed to be for WWIII…or something like it.
The gap between the Army that can compete for scarce defense dollars in today’s budget environment (“the Army of today”) and the Army the United States will need to win World War III (what I will call “the Army of tomorrow”) grows wider every day. The reasons are, on the one hand, political, and, on the other, a function of institutional biases inside the Army itself. The Nation has no stomach for long-term planning and the institutional Army, although usefully acknowledging a need for a longer-term plan and focusing on the future fight, is at the same time conditioned to a budget cycle-by-budget cycle internecine war for self-preservation.
Because of the Army’s role in the joint force, the important planning horizon for the Army is the distant one (“[f]ocus on the right planning horizon”). Anything that detracts from that future mission needs to be jettisoned by the wayside or handed over to the other services. We must be prepared to sacrifice the unneeded but job-providing Army of today in favor of the existentially necessary but less popular Army of tomorrow. Adopting the right planning horizon also makes a host of other decisions easy and obvious (e.g. does the “attrition tool” that is the ACFT make sense for a large, conscript Army of tomorrow?). A distant planning horizon would allow the Army, not to be a successful jobs program in the context of today’s budget priorities, but to be positioned to be successful in the context of tomorrow’s national priorities, when war is looming, budgets are irrelevant, and the nation looks to the Army as the backbone of its defense. If the Army, as an institution, is too afraid to let active component end-strength shrink in relation to the other services out of fear that it will never regain its primacy as the decisive arm of the U.S. military, then the institution’s concern isn’t the Nation’s defense, but the Army’s.
Strategy defines structure. What does success for tomorrow’s Army entail? What structure is needed to implement this strategic vision of the Army as tomorrow’s pre-eminent fighting force in large-scale combat? This involves identifying future bottlenecks in the rapid construction and fielding of the Army of tomorrow and cost-effective present-day mechanisms for overcoming them.
A Way Forward
Maintain essential capabilities. These are capabilities that cannot quickly or easily be rebuilt, involving skills that perish once the institutional underpinnings of their maintenance are removed. Examples that come to mind are the Army’s underwater combat engineers, Ranger regiments, electronic warfare personnel, and Apache pilots. The armed forces made that mistake when it came to equestrian skills and pack animals and later attempted to rebuild that capability, awkwardly, and in a hurry. The modern cavalry’s attempt to preserve maneuver reconnaissance and infantry-smashing tactics on the battlefield in the face of a hostile institutional Army is another example of how quick the organization is to jettison skill sets that have no other institutional home.
Ask any recruiter: there are things the Army can make quickly in a crisis (new privates) and things that the Army cannot make quickly in a crisis (mid-range and senior leaders).
Maintain the training base and force mobilization structure. The art and science of creating new Soldiers is obviously crucial to a scalable Army of tomorrow. So are the mobilization platforms needed to send those formations out into the world.
Husband experience. Ask any recruiter: there are things the Army can make quickly in a crisis (new privates) and things that the Army cannot make quickly in a crisis (mid-range and senior leaders). War bestows greater responsibility on everyone (Eisenhower was, famously, a lieutenant colonel at the outset of the second world war—seven years later he was a four-star general), but a basic skill set of military competence—such as possessed by non-commissioned officers and field grade officers who are staff college graduates— is infinitely easier to “keep warm” than to bake from scratch. An expanded selected reserve, a functional Individual Ready Reserve, and a connected and engaged Retired Reserve provide cost-effective solutions to keeping this experience accessible to the National Command Authority for use as a base upon which to build a large, wartime, conscript Army.
Stop fighting for active component end strength. The Army is people and people are expensive. Grow the (inexpensive) reserve components in relation to the (expensive) active component. The Army has pursued a strategy of placing much of its combat support tasks in the Army Reserve and maintaining combat power in the Active Component, while at the same time limiting the Selected Reserve’s size to a set fraction of the Active Component’s size. The Army National Guard—which already houses 50% of the Army’s combat forces—provides a ready solution whereby the “meat” of combat forces can be much more economically maintained within the Reserve Component until needed for large scale operations.
Invest in capabilities that allow rapid scalability and rehearse them. This involves personnel and training solutions (a credible implementation of the now dysfunctional draft, reserve component call-up, and a plan to stand up more basic training and officer candidate slots) as well as a plan to leverage the Defense Production Act into the production of military hardware. A credible plan for total mobilization is the ultimate form of “holding adversary assets at risk”; it means the Nation is serious about using the big hammer that is a wartime Army if and when required. The political toxicity of the draft has meant that little effort or attention has been placed on enabling or rehearsing this capability; the All-Volunteer Force has become a political article of faith even though it must be discarded to build a fighting force to win WWIII. The current discussion about the gender of draftees operates as a distraction to the larger problem: the draft is almost completely broken. The current selective service system isn’t designed to actually work and no one is interested in fixing it. Truth time: a Nation that is unwilling to mobilize its youth in its defense cannot long continue to exist, and America should come to terms with this reality sooner rather than later.
Have a plan to employ the 5-million-person Army. In the author’s modest experience, even apart from the politically fraught question of how to man a future war, even the more essentially martial question of how to fight a future war also receives scant attention. Contingency war planning itself is remarkably under-developed and such plans that exist do not carry the organization through more than the preliminary steps of any future conflict. There is no real reason for this: planning is cheap and planners are easy to come by.
Continue emphasis on modernization and research into new equipment and systems. Artillery imbalance with Russian systems is a long-standing area where solutions are needed and in development. Unmanned systems are also a developing new frontier on land, as well as in the air and at sea. The development of new optics, exoskeletons, and weapons systems seem ready to contribute to U.S. overmatch on the modern battlefield.
Mass forces. Don’t try to be the Marine Corps (or, for that matter, the Air Force, which they apparently resent). The Marine Corps has already moved away from overlap with the Army when it ditched its armor force. The USMC Commandant might have been on to something when he said, in 2020: “Army is huge…We need a big Army. They win our wars. The Marine Corps doesn’t win the wars. We win the battles.” The Army agrees: (“Soldiers aren’t fighting Marines for a job in the Indo-Pacific”). That said, a plan to use the Army to “create overmatch for the Joint Force Commander of the future by executing and enabling nonlinear operations” might not be as effective as one which is designed to enable victory by creating overmatch within linear operations.
Today’s Army seeks to maintain active component force structure and forward-deployed overseas missions. Because that is how it stays relevant. And relevance leads to funding. And funding leads to force structure. And force structure leads to jobs. This short-term approach will not serve the Nation well.
Tomorrow’s Army must be focused on creating a scalable platform that gets the maximum number of America’s sons and daughters into uniform, in turn generating the force needed to win a big future land war. Because that’s what the Nation needs. Or at least that is what the Nation will need. Ultimately, the Nation will either invest prudently in the Army’s essential war fighting and war winning capabilities, or it will allow the individual services to try and divvy up such near-term military tasks as show promise in attracting funding. The choice is a stark one. The decisions will have future consequences.
Garri Hendell is a major in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. He is a cavalryman who has led at the platoon and company levels as well as serving on staff at the battalion and division levels, at a state Joint Force Headquarters, and at the National Guard Bureau. He has also served a civilian Department of the Army branch chief in the personnel readiness division of the Army National Guard G1.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley testify before the House Appropriations Committee-Defense on the Fiscal 2022 Department of Defense Budget in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room, Washington, D.C., May 27, 2021.
Photo Credit: DoD Photo