How Will the U.S. Field a Futuristic Army?

Making a large shift in military priorities could push future adversaries to try to exploit our weaknesses.

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Sgt. Bobbie Crawford removes her new body armor after training on a firing range on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, in Fort Campbell, Ky. Female soldiers from 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division are field testing the first Army body armor designed to fit women's physiques in preparation for their deployment to Afghanistan this fall.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Surveying various news and opinion websites and periodicals these days one might get the distinct impression that the future of warfare is all about airpower, seapower, robots, computers and commandos. With the desired shift among many members of the foreign and defense policy intelligentsia to the more maritime and aerospace friendly environs of East Asia after a decade-plus long political-military morass of involvement in Southwest and Central Asia, this is perhaps understandable. And the U.S. Army is taking somewhat of a budgetary beating these days due to the nation's economic circumstances, war fatigue after a decade of boots on the ground, and due to various geopolitical future visions (wishes?).

So it is noteworthy that the American flagship of foreign policy opinion,  Foreign Affairs, devotes valuable page space to two perspectives on the future of the U.S. Army in the most recent issue.

In the first piece " Why the U.S. Army Needs Armor," Army Major General H. R. McMaster, Lieutenant Colonel Chris McKinney, and Colonel Mark Elfendahl argue against the aforementioned grain for the maintenance of the Army's unprecedented heavy armor capabilities.

McMaster is uniquely suited to head this effort as he is a leading defense intellectual and proven combat leader in both conventional and irregular warfare settings. During the first Gulf War his relatively small-sized cavalry troop knocked out an a much larger sized Iraqi Brigade in a half-hour at the Battle of 73 Easting and later, during the Iraq War, his 3rd Armored Cavalry regiment, along with attached forces and Iraqi security forces, innovatively cleared and held the insurgent infested Tal`Afar before FM 3-24: Counterinsurgency and the Surge even existed.

Arguing against the grain that the pivot to Asia obviates the need for heavy armor, these officers argue that:

As military technologies continue to spread, all three types of adversaries – states, nonstate actors, and hybrid entities – will employ advanced weapons to deny U.S. forces the ability to operate in protected areas. To address this challenge, the military will need armored forces to fight their way through long-range weapons fire and gain physical contact with hard-to-find opponents. Tanks and armored vehicles can maneuver quickly to strike the enemy from unexpected directions with multiple forms of firepower at a range of two to three miles. With the right training, organization, and equipment, armored forces can survive and succeed in the face of highly capable enemies.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Perhaps then this explains why Congress overruled the wishes of the Army and decided to buy more tanks? Probably not, of course. Those investments likely have more to do with the protecting the defense industrial base and keeping jobs in prime electoral districts, but none of that undercuts the importance of maintaining robust, trained armored and mechanized forces to deter or defeat future enemies whether they be rebels, robbers, or rogues.

In " Why the U.S. Army Needs Missiles,"  Jim Thomas, the Vice President and Director of Studies at the future war-oriented Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, argues more in line with those calling for a smaller Army. He states that the conventional wisdom today is that the Army will bear the brunt of defense cuts, but that:

[This] conventional wisdom, however, will prevail only if the army fails to adapt to its changing circumstances. Since the 1990s, the United States' rivals have dramatically increased their capacity to deny Washington the ability to project military power into critical regions. To date, the air force and the navy have led the U.S. response. But the army should also contribute to this effort, most critically with land-based missile forces that can defend U.S. allies and hinder adversaries from projecting power themselves. The army should thus shift its focus away from traditional ground expeditionary forces – mechanized armor, infantry, and short-range artillery – and toward land-based missile systems stationed in critical regions. By doing so, it can retain its relevance in U.S. defense strategy.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

In some sense, this would take the Army back to its coastal artillery days, but would be a massive institutional culture shift – both of which he mentions, but still gives a bit too much short-shrift to the degree of change required. Such difficult transitions, of course, are no excuse for not to moving in that direction if warranted. But making such a large shift in priorities almost certainly would push future adversaries to try to exploit our weaknesses, which would likely be on controlling terrain which heretofore had been the major reason for maintaining a robust Army.