The Necessity for Ground Power: A US Army Perspective


2013-05-07 by Richard Weitz

I had the opportunity to attend the U.S. Army War College XXIV Annual Strategy Conference in April 2013.

This focus was on “The Future of American Landpower,” in light of the evolving U.S. national security strategy and the future international security environment. The Annual Strategy Conference is the U.S. Army’s flagship event for thoughtful examination of key strategic issues facing the Army, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Government.

In his presentation on “Recoiling from Long Wars, or How We Re-Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Bombs,” Dr. Conrad Crane of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center argued that there was a historic pattern in U.S. troop deployments abroad that threatens to weaken U.S. security in the future even more so than it has in the past.  After the conclusion of most major overseas deployments, the United States always “pivots” from relying on the presence of classic ground forces to relying on a technological “silver bullet.” the technological “silver bullet” solutions that have been proposed in the past have not worked, and they will continue to result in the strategic whiplash.

In Crane’s view, people often see technology and long-range strikes as the “silver bullet” that can replace classic ground deployments.

This is the “preferred mode of asymmetric warfare” for technologically advanced, democratic states, such as the United States, where people want to spare human lives. “Wounded warrior” advertisements and programs hurt recruitment. Airpower has often been an alluring substitute for land force deployment, with the promise of fewer American casualties, but that it rarely lives up to people’s inflated expectations. The United States has gone into WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan with unrealistic perceptions of the utility of airpower, and every time the response has been, “we will get it right next time.”

Crane pointed to the U.S. experiences following both WWI and WWII. After WWI, it was believed that technology and diplomacy would help prevent conflicts, but in the end the United States was forced to rearm and rebuild its land power to face the challenge of WWII.

After WWII, the United States looked to the nuclear program and other technologies to deter the Soviet Union and decreased spending on land power forces, leaving it unprepared for the strategic demands of the Korean War, where superior U.S. airpower failed to solve the problem. The result of such a “pivot” is that once the ground forces have been reduced and the technological “silver bullet” purchased, a strategic surprise occurs somewhere that necessitates the rapid reconstruction of the ground forces which have withered. Crane says that this causes a whiplash as land power commitments are needed somewhere else, and this level of unpreparedness is due to the repetitive recoil described above.

During the U.S. planning and execution for World War II, a massive modernization and mobilization took place within the American force structure. There were major flaws in the process. Crane emphasizes that most of these flaws were due to the underestimation of the required numbers of ground forces. He points to the “90 division gamble,” which coincided with the “273 air group splurge” as a manifestation of this dilemma: by choosing to over invest in the production of modern aircrafts and assume that only 90 divisions were needed for the war effort, commanders in Europe were desperate for infantrymen, but there was a surplus of idle aircraft on U.S. airfields.

Yet, American hostility to the lengthy use of land power persisted.

In 1945, U.S. troops went to Korea, occupied it, set up an ineffective and divided government, and then left as soon as possible, in 1948. Because the investment was not made in full the first time around, the United States was drawn back into Korea in 1950 to fight an even bigger war. It took 30 more years for democracy to emerge in South Korea, but having this democratic powerful ally was worth the U.S. investment in deploying land power, though the costs could have been considerably less if “carried to fruition” the first time around.

According to Crane, the current decision making environment in Washington D.C. maintains that land power deployments result from a poor decision-making process, which can and should be avoided.

The new technological “silver bullet”: cyber capabilities. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, along with others, has claimed that ground force reductions can be compensated by increasing the development of cyber capabilities. However, Crane warned his audience not to forget the four new realities that exist within the cyber world:

1) the more capabilities you have, the more vulnerabilities you have

2) there is no economy of force in cyberspace

3) you cannot defend everything successfully all the time

4) once you have fired a cyber bullet, you have proliferated it.

Thus we must be prepared for degraded cyber-warfare capabilities. Our own offensive capabilities will be very limited, and will be tightly controlled. Furthermore, cyber-warfare has limited utility against non-state actors.

Crane warned against further cuts in the U.S. ground power structure.

In the past, the United States has been able to recover from bad force structure decisions through reorientation and expansion, relying on the draft and national industrial mobilization. However, the problem today is not just the scarcity of defense manufacturers, but that the U.S. industrial producers that were converted to wartime production during WWII no longer exist. Also, soldiers’ required skills are much more complicated today, so drafting and training ground forces would take a lot longer even if there was a draft system in place.

We now have an “expansibility-gap”: resources that allowed rapid mobilization in the past are now gone or vastly degraded. Due to the increased speed of human interaction and that the margin of error has been significantly reduced, the prospect of mobilizing a sufficient ground force in the face of a new threat is dim.

The United States had difficulty doing this in the past even when those institutions were viable. Due to the demise of the draft and the reduction of the industrial base, Dr. Crane concludes that there is really no capacity to expand the total force structure in a significant or timely manner. The only way that the Army or other branches can increase the active component in the face of a new strategic threat will be to rely upon the reserve component, and doing so requires major policy changes.

Crane argued that the United States must maintain the total force structure it now has to meet the requirements that will arise in the future, as they have historically arisen after every overseas U.S. conflict.

Although the Pentagon would like to remain focused on the Pacific, and rely on contractors rather than permanent soldiers, Crane believes that we have replaced Cold War containment with a form of democratic peace theory as our core grand strategy, which will necessitate U.S. intervention and the deployment of ground forces in the future. Inflated expectations for technology will also draw American into conflicts or create spillover—as we have seen in Libya—that will eventually require a U.S. ground force intervention to protect U.S. national interests.