The conventional wisdom holds that the future of American conflict will be dominated by drones, SEALs and a massive combined naval/air team in the Pacific. This scenario envisions little purpose for land power outside the limited but potent capabilities inherent in Special Operations. But there is an alternative view that believes the conventional wisdom to be utopian and unwilling to consider the most likely conflicts to occur in the future.
Today's U.S. Army understands that it is America's “insurance policy.” For every type of operation that falls between the boutique capabilities inherent in Special Operations — to which the Army provides more forces than any other service — and the very high-end capabilities (nuclear and conventional) of the Navy and Air Force, the Army is the general-purpose force that provides the greatest flexibility to respond. People live on land, and land power therefore remains the most adaptable, flexible force in a country's arsenal. (For the purposes of this essay, land power will apply to the U.S. Marine Corps, as well as the Army).
Regrettably, the Army seems to be struggling to express a coherent narrative about its future. The Army has long been known to be strategically inarticulate, unable to effectively express its role in the larger defense establishment since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But this tendency is especially unfortunate at the current moment, as the Army is still the force most likely to be called on in future U.S. military conflicts. If the Army is unable to clearly articulate why it will need resources — people, money, equipment — for the United States' most likely contingencies, it risks having these resources diverted to deal with far less likely situations. And that would leave the Pentagon dangerously ill-prepared to face the very real threats that America faces in the coming decades.
The Army's identity crisis contrasts with the Air Force and the Navy, which have hitched their future to a very clear — if misguided — narrative known as Air-Sea Battle, introduced by the Pentagon in 2009. Operationally, Air-Sea Battle provides a means of coordination between the two forces as a way of ensuring military access to coastal waters (and, by implication, land territory) for the United States and its allies — which is, to put it plainly, allowing it the ability to violate the territorial sovereignty of other countries more or less at will. While the Air-Sea Battle concept envisions conflict with China as its raison d'etre (though its proponents also say that it could also be applied in the Arctic or for humanitarian disasters), the Army looks at the world more rationally and, frankly, with a bit more frugality.
The Army correctly discerns, but will politely not say, that the Pentagon's “pivot to Asia” borders on strategic silliness. That American commerce, and therefore diplomacy, is shifting to Asia is clear. But it remains difficult to see a military confrontation in the region that would not immediately involve China — and therefore possibly shut down world trade as we understand it. While history shows us that we cannot count on catastrophic consequences preventing the outbreak of war, to plan for military action in China is to plan on the collapse of the world economy. It's possible, but unlikely.
The Army instead looks to more plausible spheres of competition. One can quickly divide them into two “baskets” — threats posed by underdeveloped and essentially non-governed spaces, and threats posed by collapsing states.
Here's the good news. The Army (as well as the Marine Corps) has rehearsed for both these contingencies. The dramatic eight years of the Iraq war have taught these services a great deal about how to deal with a collapsed state. (Hopefully, they've also learned a few lessons about how to not collapse them, if at all possible.) And the continuing conflict in Afghanistan has ingrained painful lessons about operating in essentially ungoverned spaces. These two environments are inherently different and pose almost completely different challenges, but the Army has demonstrated its ability to learn and adapt, if not always as quickly as one might hope. Just last week, Foreign Policy reported the formation of a “strategic land-power cell” between the Army and Special Operations Command. The new cell is an example of the Army's dedication to adopting new ways to integrate Special Operations with the larger land-power forces. Army strategists are also beginning to think about responding to the challenges posed by weapons of mass destruction in less-than-stable areas.
Non-governed spaces will present three distinct challenges — problems of peoples, problems of resources and problems of sanctuary. The problem of peoples is quite simple: Non-governed spaces lack policing mechanisms to protect vulnerable populations from myriad threats. Regardless of whether one believes in a full-throated version of responsibility to protect or simply thinks that preventing genocide is in the interest of the United States, it is not difficult to see theater scenarios where Special Forces won't be sufficient to stop such a massacre. As we learned in Bosnia and Kosovo, protecting vulnerable populations requires land power, and often brigades' worth of it. A few weeks ago, the “Libya model” — supporting local forces with Western air power — was all the rage, but recent events in Libya may have demonstrated the drawbacks of this light-footprint approach.
Problems of resource access can be expected to rise to the surface as more and more trace minerals become essential to high-end technologies. A far more likely contingency than a shooting war with China in the South China Sea is a proxy war between factions competing for control of a weak, resource-rich nation-state. It's easy to imagine such a conflict breaking out in Africa or South America in the near future. Admittedly, one would hope that such a mission would be handled through Special Operations, but it is again easy to see a requirement that exceeds Special Operations' capabilities and requires a land-power solution.
Finally, there are problems of sanctuary. Al Qaida and similar extremist groups will continue to use non-governed spaces as bases for training and recruitment. While Special Forces and pilotless drones will continue to be the tools of choice for combating these groups, it is not difficult to picture a contingency that requires a force that is larger, is logistically self-sustaining, and can stay for an extended period of time. This will require land power. It will not likely involve large formations on the scale of Iraq or Afghanistan again, but it could easily involve land power in relatively small ways (say 10,000 to 20,000 troops) in many places simultaneously.
Collapsing states — the second “basket” — also create environments in which land power may be required. Candidates for collapse include Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea and potentially a host of others. While the United States could have several interests in a state that has collapsed due to invasion, civil war, or simple entropy, the most pressing of these would be the need to secure weapons of mass destruction. In the most challenging of these scenarios — the collapse of the North Korean regime — there could be upwards of 100 nuclear sites (for weapons, refining, research, reactors, weaponization, stored fuel rods, etc.), in addition to chemical and biological sites. The need to secure these sites will overwhelm available assets in theater, plus available Special Forces, in short order. Without overstating the scope of the problem, it is quite easy to see a force of tens of thousands being required in the North Korean “worst case” for at least a short period until these sites can be dismantled and materials transported to secured central locations. Syria also has chemical weapon sites that it may be prudent to guard in the aftermath of the Assad regime's collapse, particularly given some of the extremist factions rumored to be in, or accompanying, the Free Syrian Army. Nor can we ignore Pakistan — a nuclear-armed state that would require huge amounts of land power, should vital interests require intervention.
Even beyond this scenario, in the case of a collapsing state, the Army's services may still be required for securing populations and rooting out extremist safe havens — just as they are in non-governed spaces. While official defense guidance tells the Army not to plan for such contingencies, the likelihood is that there will be operations that are either big, but not prolonged, or small and quite prolonged.
The fact is that there are fewer big bad guys to fight these days. The few existing extremist groups and rogue states hardly challenge the armed power of the United States, let alone its allies, and only the Cold War-hangover state of North Korea presents a true conventional challenge. Other states may emerge as minor threats, but warning signs should be plentiful. China will continue to improve its military capability — perhaps more quickly in response to the provocation of Air-Sea Battle — but the increasing interdependence between the United States and its Asian “frenemy” makes actual military conflict incredibly unlikely as the economic stakes become ever higher.
While no one is calling for the United States to abandon the naval assets that guard its commerce or the air and space supremacy that enables so much else, the most likely future involves the Navy more or less peaceably patrolling the seas, while the Air Force continues to shift toward a computer-enabled space and satellite force that also operates remotely piloted vehicles and cargo aircraft.
But it is difficult to envision a future contingency that moves beyond a Special Operations scope, in which large quantities of trained and ready land power are not required.
Practically speaking, what are the relative odds of a full-scale U.S.-China conflict compared with a North Korean regime collapse? For that reason alone, America should continue to invest in general-purpose land power. Like the other services, the Army and Marine Corps should ensure that they do not sacrifice focus on more likely missions in order to ready themselves for high-end conflict — though also like their sister services, land forces must also devote time and resources to prepare for existential threats.
But when there is a crisis, there is no more useful tool than several thousand young Americans who are trained, organized and equipped to resolve problems among the population in unsafe and ambiguous environments.
One silver lining of America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that its land forces now understand ambiguity very, very well.
Ollivant is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is a retired Army officer who spent two years in Iraq in uniform and a year in Afghanistan as a civilian, and served as director for Iraq at the National Security Council in both George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's administrations.