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

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7 Comments

  1. First read Bob Scales book on war to more fully understand the experience level required in a modern Combat Infantry Soldier. Assume for the near and longer term Infantry Brigades and Battalions within sustaining Divisions will migrate away from current conflict models and transition back to more linear warfare, which appears as the Chinese Infantry strategy since they have daily conflicts with their neighboring countries. The Rangers and special forces aside are not well suited currently for linear warfare. They are superb raiding and strategical forces when you include Delta, but neither are supported with the sustaining power currently for direct sustained force against a strong well equipped Infantry or Armored formation in a linear fight.
    Having taught Infantry Tactics at Bde and Battalion level and served as the first senior OC at JRTC following command of an Airborne Battalion with 17 rotations and then serving as the Director Training, Doctrine, Operations for the Infantry School at Fort Benning I was engaged as the primary owner of the 90 manuals, many doctrine, for the Infantry.
    We destroyed the Infantry squad when we went to nine men, the Bradly model, we know now from experience that the all volunteer force is far superior to a draft army. We also know that we need 11 or better yet 13 soldiers in an Infantry Squad, if you are going to have at least eight figters left in a unit in sustained combat. We also know that while there are good soldiers in the reserve most small unit commanders and staff need considerable intensive training for linear combat. We also know, but are politically unwilling to admit that women should not serve inside combat Infantry fighting units. They are invaluable and essential for many other combat tasks, flying, engineers, key staff jobs in Intelligence, signal, and Cyber to name a few. Do not over look that 70% of the combat casualties are in the Infantry front line fighters most Infantry, Armored Cav, and combat Engineers.
    What we need now is fifteen mixed heavy and light Divisions well staffed and another eight separate highly Mobile brigades. I would go with two airborne divisions along with four airborne brigades to provide immediate combat force deployment particularly in the Pacific. Given technology we need to carefully re-examine how best to equip these Divisions, best organized against a Chinese model. We must assume in the pacific that we allow Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and several others to become part of a Far East defense alignment. We should not assume NATO will send ground support, perhaps navel, air, engineers, and logistics elements.
    More importantly consider how long it took to get new, reserve and guard combat units ready for Normandy, Korea and even Vietnam. Trained leadership is the biggest challenged at all levels in the Infantry. Scales makes the point that most soldiers should not come directly into Infantry units when drafted, better to wait until they are more mature – this leads to less casualties.
    I recently talked with part of the staff in an elite Infantry Battalion, when asked how they were now training with the draw down in Afghanistan, their response was how to train for the Linear Battlefield against a determine well equipped enemy.
    Long response to say I believe your comments need considerable discussion, I do appreciate that you and the war college have this topic on the radar. For the record this training on race does little to build teams that have grown up with the belief that all lives mater. The sec def should know better as and old airborne leader.

  2. With regard to the information provided by our author above, let us consider the following thought; this being:

    That the U.S. Army has come (or should come) to understand that — re: threats to our nation from rivals such as China and Russia —

    a. “The human domain is the critical area of competition” — today and going forward — and that, accordingly,

    b. “Society was the current and future battlefield.”

    (See the 2017 Small Wars Journal article “The Battlefield of Tomorrow Fought Today: Winning in the Human Domain” by James B. Linder, Spencer B. Meredith III and Jason D. Johnson.)

    From that perspective, then, to:

    a. “Adopt the right planning horizon” and

    b. “Build an Army” (etc., etc., etc.) “for World War III?”

  3. Addendum to my comment above:

    In MG Linder (now retired) and his co-authors’ paper “The Battlefield of Tomorrow Fought Today: Winning in the Human Domain” (see my initial comment above); in this such document, these authors suggest that:

    a. The human domain is the critical area of competition today and going forward and that, accordingly,

    b. Society is the current and future battlefield.

    Question: Why is this?

    Answer: Because today — and much as in a New/Reverse Cold War —

    a. It is the U.S./the West who now — both at home and abroad — is engaged in “revolutionary” activities; that is, engaged in activities seeking to transform both their own states and societies — and indeed those of the rest of the world — this, more along exceedingly “new/modern” political, economic, social and value lines. (This, in support of such things as globalization and the global economy.) And, accordingly,

    b. It is state and non-state entities such as Russia, China, Iran, N. Korea and the Islamists — and indeed certain traditional/conservative elements in both the U.S./the West and elsewhere throughout the world today — who, in the face of this such challenge/threat, are now (a) moving out smartly to resist these such “revolutionary”/”modernizing” efforts; this, so that (b) the individuals in these entities might maintain — and/or expand upon — their current levels of status, safety, privilege and power, influence and control.

    (Note that in my item “b” above, and as in the Old Cold War, how [a] the conservative/the traditional elements of various states and societies; how these can become [b] the “natural allies” of populations and governments seeking to resist, and/or “contain,” the “revolutionary”/”modernizing” efforts of an enemy state and/or its society.)

    Bottom Line Question — Based on the Above:

    If my above depiction of a New/Reverse Cold War is accurate (to wit: a “war” in which the U.S./the West, in this case, has become the “revolutionary”/the “modernizing” entity) — and if this such depiction, thus, becomes the “right planning horizon” for our “building an Army” (etc., etc., etc.) “for World War III” — then what will this (“revolutionary”/”hearts and minds?”) Army (etc., etc. etc.) look like, today and going forward?

    1. In my comments above, I have suggested that the “war” that U.S./the West finds itself embarked upon today, this is war in which finds:

      a. The U.S./the West engaged in “revolutionary”/”modernizing” activities and, in this context,

      b. The opponents of the U.S./the West (those both here at home and there abroad) engaged in “containment” and/or “roll back” activities.

      “For Putin, he suggests, the populist wave in Europe was a predictable response to the permissiveness of European societies, particularly with regard to immigration and gay rights. And in the rise of the right across the continent he sees an opportunity to address himself to a wider audience. ‘The Russian conservative turn . . . must be exported, and Putin sees himself as the harbinger of that anti-modernist movement.’ ”

      (See the Mar 24, 2018 The Irish Times article “Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin: Two Takes on the Russian President” by Raudhan Mac Cormaic.)

      From that perspective, then, might the following information regarding “revolutionary”/”modernizing” activities — in this case seen in a letter from John Adam to Thomas Jefferson dated 24 August 1815 — might this be of some use to the “revolutionary”/”modernizing” U.S./the West today?

      “As to the history of the Revolution, my Ideas may be peculiar, perhaps Singular. What do We mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington. The Records of thirteen Legislatures, the Pamphlets, Newspapers in all the Colonies ought be consulted, during that Period, to ascertain the Steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the Authority of Parliament over the Colonies.”

      https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-08-02-0560

      Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:

      With regard to the suggestion by John Adams above — that the American Revolution was, in fact, won through “public opinion” efforts long before Lexington — might this such information coincide and agree with MG Linder and his co-author’s contention (see the fourth to last paragraph of their paper I reference in my initial comments above) that “left-of-bang” measures/”operation preparation of the environment” measures are what are key today?

  4. The never ending quest…what to do with the Army ? Threat assessment is a tricky, slippery thing. Just when you think you’ve identified the next “greatest threat” and started preparing to meet that threat something or someone else comes looming out of the murky distance. Without a doubt we have spent a lot of time, effort and money on preparing for a war that won’t happen and we’ve had I don’t know how many experts warn us about future conflicts that never happen. My point is there is such a thing as being “over prepared” or better yet, being prepared for the wrong conflict. In that light, wouldn’t it make more sense that instead of focusing on specific threats, such as China or Russia, to prepare to be the best soldiers we can be ? It is well and good that our Army be prepared for combat and that’s how we should proceed, but without the added emphasis of being prepared to fight a specific foe. We’ve been prepared (relatively speaking) to fight the Russians since the end of World War Two…and yet we haven’t had to fight a “Industrialized Nation War” since the Korean Conflict, nearly seventy years ago. Grand plans are devised for a fight for the Fulda Gap or stopping “them” at Bremerhaven…and yet that has never happened and very likely never will. The emphasis should be on sound application of pertinent tactics, expertise with weapon systems, communications, etc.. At some level the Command should be acquainted with common potential opponent’s Order of Battle, tactics, etc., but an overly focused approach detracts from better preparation of the skill sets of their own soldiers abilities. Essentially, we’ve been diluting our efforts and routinely find ourselves prepared for the wrong war.

  5. First off the Navy doesn’t care about anything other than the Navy or Navy’s supposed fight. The aircraft carrier and it’s supporting cast was determined to be obsolete and highly vulnerable near land based air in 1942 and this was driven home during Okinawa in 1945. When untrained pilots in obsolete aircraft always got through and struct home. Japan started the battle with 14000 aircraft and after sending 2500+ with fuel for only one-way still had over 10,000 at end of battle. So much for carrier air dominance over the fleet.
    The Navy, just like in WWII, will call for almost all of the Airforce and Army to be utilized providing secure operating areas under which the navy carriers and surface forces can safely operate. Back then the Navy was against the Air Corp’s four engine bombers until they wanted them for themselves. Same with being against the Army having merchant shipping with which to operate until the Navy confiscated the army’s ships so they could resupply Hawaii at the beginning of the war. Note Army ended war with largest navy in the world because it was so hard to be supported by the navy.., keep in mind each B-1, B-2 and B52s all carry more ordnance than an entire carrier wing and only place the pilots at risk.
    The navy like then is spending so much money on systems that will be useless in the next war except as targets. They’ll be like the Battleship fleet in the first year or so of the war after being sunk at Pearl Harbor. After being raised and repaired they spent their time sailing slowly in circles along the west coast so as to be seen doing something and so as not to waste the precious fuel remaining in Pacific. If wasn’t for Admiral King forcing their use the battleships would have been scrapped for their steel so maybe the army could’ve had armored landing craft at Omaha Beach. Yes their landing were made out of plywood. Finally in spite of all you have heard there were 78 major amphibious landings in the Pacific and the army did about 3/4 of them. Mostly without major navy fleet support.

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