By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
There is an underreported story about the cuts in the defense budget under the Obama administration: It concerns the eclipse of the U.S. Army. For the first time since early American history, soldiers have become a devalued species within the military. This marks a clear break in the American narrative.
After the Civil War came the Indian Wars in which the Army, however cruelly and unjustly, consolidated the continent. The Philippine War at the turn of the 20th century saw the Army take the lead with a successful counterinsurgency campaign. Then came the Long European War, from 1914 to 1989, in which the Army in two world wars and a 40-year deployment in the geographical heart of Cold War Europe dominated the battlespace. Air-Land Battle was the Pentagon's operational concept that enshrined the Army as the pre-eminent armed service during those hallowed decades. Then there were the heavy ground engagements in Korea and Vietnam. Later on, land wars in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan kept the Army at the heart of both strategy and military budgets.
But now the focus of American military strategy has shifted to maritime Asia, the geographical center of the global economy and of the sea lines of communication that carry 90 percent of all commercial goods that travel from one continent to another. Asia, unlike Europe, is a predominantly naval environment, where the principal nodes of population are separated by seas. Here the Navy and Air Force take center stage in U.S. military strategy. The new operational concept touted by defense experts is Air-Sea Battle. Of course, the United States cannot abandon the Middle East, but snake-bitten by two land wars there that have gone badly, Pentagon planners intend to deal with the threat now posed by Iran with naval, air and cyber assets mainly. No matter what happens with Iran, outside of detachments of special operations forces that may occupy small bits of ground to assess bomb sites, Air-Sea Battle will predominate there, too. And no matter what the next administration decides to do about Syria, a significant contingent of ground troops is probably out of the question.
Whereas armies exist to take ground, navies and air forces project power on a daily basis in peacetime and are therefore on the whole the better friends of the diplomat seeking peace through strength, without the need to fight. The Army was of paramount importance during the Cold War when U.S. allies welcomed big, Burger King-style military bases in their midst; but fewer and fewer countries want such a permanent American troop presence anymore, a presence signified by vast concentrations of soldiers. (Former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland may be an exception because of a perceived Russian threat.) That is why the new Pentagon buzzwords are "places not bases" — austere locations where relatively small numbers of U.S. forces can rotate in and out without infringing on local sovereignty. The regular rotation of 2,500 Marines through Australian bases is symbolic of the new era.
Moreover, cutting the Army from 590,000 troops to somewhere below 500,000 entails less of a risk than cutting the Navy and Air Force by the same percentage. If you drastically reduce the number of naval and air platforms — and the highly trained sailors and airmen required to operate them — you can't just ramp back up in time of war; cutting-edge, high-tech ships and planes take many years to design, appropriate and build. But the Army is more easily scalable. Provided you retain a sufficient number of officers and well-trained non-commissioned officers, you can quickly add to the land force in an emergency.
The Army, like it or not, is becoming a contingency force, and that is nothing to belittle — because the United States has had a terrible record since the 1890s of predicting the next contingency. Nobody thought we'd ever be fighting in the jungles of the Philippines a few years before it happened. Nobody predicted World War I, or in the late-1920s predicted World War II and the Cold War. Nobody predicted Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan a few years before all those conflicts occurred. The implication — and this is an argument the Army should continue to make — is that we will be surprised yet again, especially with the specter of collapsing states, and the Army must remain robust and built to be scalable.
Indeed, navies and air forces cannot hold territory; only soldiers and Marines can do that. And we must assume that in future conflicts, no matter how much we try to avoid putting boots on the ground, there may be the need to hold significant territory. The Army (and the Marine Corps) is also necessary for training foreign militaries the world over. It is such mundane training missions, which never make the news, that invigorate U.S. diplomacy in many a country. The Army will have to maintain a counterinsurgency capability as well. Counterinsurgency is lately out of fashion given its troubles in Afghanistan, but counterinsurgency is as old as the history of war, given that civilian populations have often had to be won over and made to feel secure. The Army learned and forgot the lessons of counterinsurgency in the Philippines, so that it had to relearn them in Vietnam. What worked in Vietnam was also forgotten and had to be relearned in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be a crime if Army war colleges, given this sorry legacy, now dropped counterinsurgency from their curricula.
There has never been a time when the Army needs more fearless intellectual rigor than now, in order to think through its future role. Unfortunately, the Army appears to be in a defensive mode, making less of an outreach to the civilian national security community and the think tank world than the other services. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former Army chief, is a brilliant conceptualizer who, unfortunately for the Army, was promoted quickly to become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The new Army chief, Gen. Ray Odierno, while demonstrating a steep learning curve in Iraq, is simply not known by outsiders to be an intellect of Dempsey's caliber, nor reportedly are some of the people around him. The Army leaders today are warfighters, born of a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, where what the Army desperately needs today are people who think in terms of adapting Army training and doctrine to new circumstances both in the outer world and inside the Washington beltway.
I have heard Army officers try to argue that Asia is not a maritime theater but a land theater. That's true only in the event of a collapsed North Korea. Though the top 10 land forces outside those of the United States are in the Asia-Pacific region, those forces are not engaged much in the current territorial disputes, which are maritime. Thus, by making this argument, the Army is in a state of denial.
I feel badly for the Army: No service was so near the breaking point in Iraq because of the mistakes of the civilian political leadership than the Army. The Army entered Iraq to fight one kind of war and learned valiantly on the job how to fight another; in the course of which thousands of soldiers were killed and maimed, and families destroyed on the home front. When you add up all the multiple deployments during a decade of war, soldiers of this generation have been fighting in many cases longer (though under different circumstances) than soldiers of the Greatest Generation.
The Army (as well as the Marine Corps) certainly did achieve a moral victory of sorts in Iraq — by adapting well to a counterinsurgency strategy and, as a consequence, dramatically reducing terrorist and sectarian violence. But victory, rather than reward the victors, merely sets the stage for those best able to adapt to the new reality.