Getting the US Army’s Future Right: Fitting In, Not Dominating the US Force Structure


2014-01-29 by Ed Timperlake and Robbin Laird

The US Army was mobilized for the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This mobilization phase is now ending.

The US Army now seeks to become more agile and effective in getting to crisis situations earlier rather than later.

A piece in National Defense Magazine highlighted this aspirational direction of Army thinking:

A team of Army strategists, think tank analysts and academics recently gathered at the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., to debate how the Army might change in order to be more relevant in a changing world.

“Based on the analysis we’ve done, we see things happening more quickly, not slower,” said Maj. Gen. Bill Hix, deputy director of the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Capabilities Integration Center. The command is conducting a series of seminars to probe how the Army would organize and equip its forces after 2020.

“We do not see that we have the gift of time when crises arise in areas where our interests are at stake,” Hix said Jan. 22 during a conference call with reporters.

But how exactly the Army would become lighter and faster is still to be determined.

Yet the Army is simply part of a joint force structure, with the USN, USMC and the USAF are the core elements for military power as the foundation for global reach in the decade ahead.

To take the example of the defense of South Korea against a nuclear North Korea, air and naval power can define and get to the fight; insertion of Army forces will not.

As a senior US commander in South Korea commented recently: “This is a come as you are war if we have one; not territory on which one will insert forces as was done in 1991 to deal with Kuwait.”

The US Army needs to fit in, rather than defining the decade ahead force structure.

It needs to become defined primarily as PART of the joint force; not the definer of the role of the other services in SUPPORTING the US Army in its missions.

If a large army is needed, mobilization can be done.  History has shown that.

The operation of large forces to control territory, to operate over significant distances within that territory to operate against insurgents, to operate as the key force for training and providing security for first Iraq and then Afghanistan are not going to be replicated any where else any time soon.

Before one rushes in to do these missions, one will have to ask with whose checkbook and for how long?

And then the question of duration of operations and relationship between cost of stays versus outcomes is crucial as well.

Iraq is the obvious test case.  Given that the US government was not able to shape a status of forces agreement to remain engaged in Iraq, the benefit of rebuilding the country is not obvious.

“Joe 6 pack” would want to know at least did the US can some special access to the provision of oil from Iraq.  And to that the answer is certainly a resounding no.

And with the Afghan government apparently poised to not allow US forces to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, the inability to conclude another Status of Forces Agreement with a “partner” on whose territory COIN has been fought, raises some fundamental questions about COIN as a dominant motif of operations to achieving American strategic objectives.

What is the relationship of COIN to clear US strategic objectives needs to be answered before the US lays down significant investment in men and treasure.

When the Pentagon was preparing for the invasion of Iraq, the neo-cons were certain the war would be short and decisive.  When it turned out not to be, the game was on to define the tools which could be used to avoid being tossed out of Iraq with the appearance of defeat.

Ironically, the derided French (“Freedom Fries” Rather than “French Fries”) and their experience in Algeria became an example of the rebirth of COIN in the US kit of warfare.  Yet a fundamental point was avoided: for France, Algeria was part of the country, and the insurgents needed to be defeated to preserve France.  The relationship of COIN to the strategic objective of preserving France was clear. Of course, the insurgents won; making the point of COIN moot.  At least there was a relationship between perceived strategic objective and the tools.

This is considerably less clear with regard to either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Now the Army wants to be rebuilt as a crisis force.

This may make sense to the US Army leadership, but does it make sense for the Nation?

Rather than rebuilding the Army to be THE core of a crisis force, the question needs to be asked what can the Army provide which is relevant to the joint force in dealing with crisis? 

It is not a question of the nation serving the Army, but the Army bringing relevant capabilities to the external challenges facing the nation.

What can the Army deliver which matters most in the period of rapid insertion of power into crises situations?

The shift from the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have a significant impact on the future of the US Army, its force structure, and approach. Credit Image: Bigstock
The shift from the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have a significant impact on the future of the US Army, its force structure, and approach. Credit Image: Bigstock 

One key element is the contribution of systems like THAAD to mobile defense of the joint force. As the US Army considers its contribution moving forward it is less about the armored forces than about the mobile defense forces.  It is less about the tank and more about the THAAD.

Recently, we published an interview with the THAAD commander on Guam and his treatment of the evolving role of Army Air Defense (ADA) provided a window into the evolving Army role. Lt. Col. Cochrane, the THADD Task Force commander who is currently based on Guam, provided insights into the efforts to shape a flexible, mobile defense force in front of the strike forces.

Missile defense is more than just one platform or system.  It is a classic case of what you call no platform fights alone.  It is a system of systems.  

We combine Aegis, with THAAD with short-range defense systems, etc.  

For example, at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, the 94th AAMDC and the 613 AOC coordinate air and missile defense for the Pacific Theater. The Navy and the Air Force all come together and conduct that coordination in terms of how we protect and coordinate our defense so that we are maximizing our capabilities.  

It is not just a single system standing alone or operating independently.  

It is the inter-dependence and the inter-operability of all these systems to all three of the branches that are actively engaged in missile and air defense.  

In my unit, we are looking aggressively at how to cross link with Aegis, for example

This is suggestive of an evolving and significant role for ADA in Pacific defense.

What makes little sense is the idea that the US Air Force will use its scarce lift and tanking assets to move Army forces around the Pacific to deploy rotationally in order to show up or to exercise simply with partners.  The only way the forces can get to a crisis is using scarce lift and tanking assets which will be used by USN, USMC and USAF assets to project power directly into a crisis, and not cascade forces over a longer period of time to show up.

A good case in point is to consider the role of the US Army going forward in a Pacific defense structure, which will be built around distributed operations and support for allies looking for plug and play forces to supplement their own efforts.

Let us review possible Army roles and approaches in the period ahead in the Pacific.

The most obvious one is its role in South Korea.  North Korea remains a key threat and the defense of South Korea remains a core challenge.  But reform is necessary both in terms of the coming transfer of command authority scheduled for 2015 and the changing nature of technologies and strategy which deterrence of North Korea demands.

Even within South Korean defense itself, the U.S. Army structure can change, and become more flexible and integrated into the air and naval forces to provide for mobile and extended defense.

In addition, missile defense, notably of U.S. bases in the region, and to support deployed forces is a core U.S. Army mission.  Smaller force packages, designed to operate with more mobility and lethality, along the lines of the evolution of Special Forces could grow in significance as partners in the region for regimes dealing with various threats.

But opportunities to link these forces with air and naval force evolutions should be leveraged moving forward.  For example, where is the U.S. Army’s thinking about operating with the F-35A along the lines of USMC thinking about the F-35B and the MAGTF?

Indeed, the key challenge facing the Army will be to shape an evolving force structure, more mobile, and more lethal, and better connected with the joint and coalition forces required as part of any Pacific strategy for the 21st century.

The Foreign Affairs Officer (FAO) Role

Although the U.S Army may not conducting direct combat operations in the Pacific, other than in the defense of South Korea, the Army is not limited to a purely military role and can contribute to realizing U.S. goals in the Pacific through its forward-positioned units. They can support both U.S diplomacy and a U.S deterrence strategy in both the military and political domains.

The U.S Army has long had a strong presence in the Pacific from California and Hawaii to Japan, South Korea, and the Southeast Pacific. The U.S Army Pacific Command (USARPAC) is responsible for the Asia-Pacific region and maintains Army units, the most notable being the 2nd and 25th Infantry Divisions (ID), dedicated to the region. Although the war in Iraq diverted the attention of some of these units, elements of the 2nd ID have always been stationed in South Korea and the 25th ID in Alaska and Hawaii.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the long-term stationing of Army troops in Europe, Japan, and South Korea have also taught the U.S Army how to better cooperate with foreign countries.

The human experience of being “in country” provides valuable cultural, and practical, information that cannot be gathered through the use of drones and satellites; human intuition and discretion is not an objective science that can be easily replaced with computers.

The Army recognizes the need for such “special” information, especially after having fought the unconventional war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where cultural sensitivity quickly became the highest priority through the “winning the hearts and minds” concept.

According to Army FM 3-16 says, “The commander’s understanding of the local infrastructure improves his or her situational understanding. While traditional reconnaissance elements still provide much information, local media, diplomatic mission personnel, and civilian agencies can provide information not available elsewhere.” This passage from an Army field manual emphasizes the importance of working with foreign countries in creating a holistic defense and deterrence strategy.

The U.S. Army is not unique in having a long history of prominence in Asia; most other militaries in the Asia-Pacific region are dominated by their armies.

Seven out of the world’s ten largest armies are located in Asia, while twenty-one out of twenty-eight chiefs of defense in the region are army generals. Furthermore, the armies of many of the Pacific countries are the largest component of their respective militaries and also share close ties with their civilian governments, which often include former army officers in leading policymaking positions.

Thus, the peer-to-peer interaction between U.S. Army leaders and their counterparts in the Asian armies could produce beneficial means to collection information as well as impart defense and deterrence messages to foreign countries.

This U.S. Army can therefore contribute well to the planned engagement dimensions of the Asian Pivot — the cultivating of political and military relationships with foreign governments.

All branches of the U.S. military have Foreign Area Officers (FAOs) to work as regional political-military specialists in embassies and service headquarters all over the world. These FAOs work as defense attaches, security assistance officers, and military political planners.

While the FAO program draws officers from all branches of the U.S military, the Army has the largest and oldest program. Having FAO officers in foreign countries provides cultural immersion that in turn produces regional specialists who can better understand the cultural nuances, strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of host nations.

This practical experience provides political and military advantages that may enhance political-military exchanges between the U.S government and foreign governments as well as producing better military strategy and standard operating procedures regarding those countries when military action is taken.

Working with Partners and Calibrating the Level of Support

The U.S. Army can be forwarded positioned in partner countries, but this is a double-edged sword.

Deploying is either than withdrawing.  Determining duration needs to be part of any support for counterinsurgency partnerships.

Forward positioned units and deterrence is the fact that these units can respond to any terrorist activity that may occur in Asia. The Army already has substantial experience in asymmetrical warfare and supporting counterinsurgency operations.

One of the lessons from the war on terror that the U.S Army has learned in engaging with foreign populations is the idea of winning their hearts and minds.

In the war on terror, this hearts and minds policy was used as a counterinsurgency tactic in order to engage with civilians through cross cultural understanding and thus create amiable relationships between the Iraqi/Afghan people and U.S. soldiers.

An effect of this approach was to help the local populace to recover and grow from the war effort and ultimately turns away from the influence of terrorism and anti-American propaganda. Such an approach can be applied to the Asia-Pacific region when appropriate.

In addition, forward positioned equipment and small elements of soldiers also helps build relations in key regions, thereby resulting in an effective deterrence strategy in the Pacific region.

The USARPAC leadership understands the difficulties of having a large footprint in a host nation and thus aims to place forward-positioned equipment to facilitate rapid deployment of U.S. Army units into areas of interest rather than keep them indefinitely in the host nation.

The Role of Special Forces

However, it could be more beneficial to maintain smaller detachments of U.S. Army troops within the region that would mirror and mimic the U.S. Special Forces mentality of self-sufficiency and small operational upkeep, which would result in a small U.S. military footprint and maintain subtlety within a nation.

Deploying fewer U.S. troops in a foreign county also presents less logistical difficulties, with fewer people and less equipment to support.

U.S. Army Special Forces units commonly operate with a light footprint. They integrate into local units, training and guiding them as opposed to resorting to direct action. The adoption of Special Forces tactics in the forward deployment of U.S Army forces in the Pacific may allow the United States to integrate its military into the existing host nation’s infrastructure, thus removing the need for the U.S. military to create its own support systems.

A smaller detachment of U.S soldiers can more adequately rely on the host nation supply lines, thus eliminating some logistical costs and issues that would plague a larger fighting force. A beneficial byproduct of such a system is that the absence of a more developed U.S. infrastructure in a foreign nation reduces the U.S presence, resulting in a more cordial, and productive, U.S-host nation relationship.

Deployed units, of short or longer duration, provide opportunities for the U.S and foreign militaries to conduct joint training exercises which provide a good means to keep bilateral communication lines open. Many foreign militaries desire to cross-train with the U.S. armed forces and this can help the Pentagon establish forward operating places.

Furthermore, joint training exercises can be used as a symbol of mutual goodwill and to promote military camaraderie, which can also help improve relations between the United States and foreign countries.

These cross-training exercises not only share U.S training methods with host nations but sheds light on their regional capabilities and tactics, techniques, and procedures, which can aid U.S. policy makers in making well-informed defense decisions.

Most importantly, joint training exercises can also help develop the militaries of host nations, thereby allowing them to produce more effective defense and deterrence strategies of their own. It is advantageous for the United States to empower these countries so that they can better counter any threats without their needing to receive more extensive and direct military support.

But again, the challenge will be to calibrate forces to be deployed, in terms of size and duration of operations.

There is little desire by Pacific nations for large numbers of deployed U.S. Army forces in the region.

Engagement yes; sitzkreig no.

A key lesson learned by the younger generation of US Army officers, which seems at odds with some of the older leadership is how to adapt the Army to evolving conditions.

In a  discussion with a very distinguished Army major with tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, this officer was asked about the connection between his combat experience and the Army’s amazing thought process which would replace a Bradley fighting vehicle with a vehicle heavier than an MRAP!

And in answering the question, the importance of re-setting Army thinking to work in the joint arena which the Pacific clearly is was discussed as well.

“It makes no sense at all.  We need to be smaller and more lethal, not heavier.  This makes no sense.  At one point, we were considering a light tank for operations; this would make more sense.  Our experience with air support show how important joint operations can be for the Army force on the ground.  But to ensure all weather support, we need capabilities on the ground as well.”

Most interestingly when asked what key difference he saw between his generation and the older one of officers, he took little time in answering.

“For the older generation, the deep cultural divisions of the various Army branches are an essential reality.  In part, this has been built on expecting land wars of a more traditional or classical sort.

For my generation, our experience is that the enemy is dispersed and diffuse.  We work together to deal with this reality, and look to work as a team with the various assets available.  When you are a distributed force, you need to be more integrated and grab whatever asset is available.  Rather than assembling a highly structure  and complexly organized force, our experience is forging capability to deal with a dispersed and diffuse enemy.  If we leverage this difference, the Army could look very differently than it has been historically.”

In short, there is significantly greater discontinuity in the next decade for the US Army than continuity, and they are clearly not the priority force for meeting the needs for the decade ahead. 

The nation needs to determine the role of the US Army in the decade ahead; not the Army leadership bending the force structure to maintain its position from the past decade.

As one commentator on the evolving role of the US Army noted with regard to its potential role in the Pacific:

The chief Army contributions to the Asia-Pacific that the Army itself undervalues: Air and Missile Defense, Signals and Communications, Engineers, Surface Deployment and Distribution, and (if they developed the capability) intermediate-range ground-based offensive fires.

The Army has almost all of these capabilities resident in theater.

They simply need to increase capacity and develop novel means of using them.

For a more comprehensive look at the evolution of US forces in the evolving Pacific strategy see Robbin Laird, Ed Timperlake and Richard Weitz, Rebuilding Amercan Military Power in the Pacific:: A 21st Century Strategy.

See also the following: