The U.S. Army has always struggled with what the elder George Bush once called “the vision thing.” Now that struggle is boiling over.

At the latest of a series of conferences on the future of the Army, junior officers openly debated with top generals over how to sell the service to the Congress, the country, and its own war-weary soldiers wondering whether to get out. Should the Army seek the clarity of a new crusade to replace counterinsurgency in the Middle East? Or should the service present itself as the nation’s jack of all trades, humbly ready to take on any mission?

“There is intellectual tension,” said the conference’s host, Army Training and Doctrine Command chief Gen. Robert Cone, “and it would be unhealthy if there wasn’t.”

It’s a critical time for the Army. Budgets are dropping, the Army is shrinking more than any other service, and ground forces withdrawing from Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Europe. The administration’s new strategic guidance explicitly states that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations” but instead “will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” The Air Force and Navy have responded with a well-publicized vision, “AirSea Battle,” aimed in all but name at China, but what does the Army have to offer?

“We’re looking with a bit of envy at AirSea Battle,” said one junior officer, Maj. David Williams, in a frank presentation to a panel of generals – all outranking him by at least three paygrades – on January 12th. And, Maj. Williams went on, many officers are “nostalgic” for AirSea Battle’s inspiration, the Army’s “AirLand Battle” concept published in 1982 to defeat the Soviet Union in Central Europe. Both visions offer the clarity of “a specific threat, a specific location, a simple narrative” to present “to the American Congress and the American people,” Williams went on. By contrast, “if you take the national security priorities recently released…there’s a bunch of things out there,” he said. “We need to pick one, [and] the most important thing is focusing on the hybrid threats.”

Hybrid is the buzzword for adversaries combining the tactics of guerrillas with the firepower of a state. Israel’s humiliation by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 is the prime example of a hybrid war, but there are aspects of the phenomenon in America’s own experience from Korea and Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. One of the most influential advocates of the theory, RAND scholar and Army veteran David Johnson, argued at the conference that the U.S. could learn from the Israelis, who after 2006 focused on the hybrid threat – with significant success, as shown by their improved performance against Hamas in Gaza in 2008 – while remaining flexible enough to “build up” to a major state-on-state conflict or “build down” to irregular warfare.

From a public relations perspective, hybrid war gives the Army a scenario sufficiently scary and sufficiently probable to justify its budget. For internal audience, the attraction is a single, unifying mission that allows the Army to simultaneously draw on its decade of experience in counterinsurgency and revitalize its skills for larger-scale combat. One outspoken officer at the conference, Col. Wayne Grigsby of the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, advised the generals to drop the current doctrine’s array of tasks in favor of a single Army “core competency” in “joint combined arms fire and maneuver” – i.e. fighting – while deemphasizing counterinsurgency-focused functions such as “wide area security.”

But the top brass weren’t so sure. “Decisionmakers don’t want large-scale land campaigns today for a variety of reasons,” said Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner, the Army’s chief of intelligence (G-2). “They’re going to come looking for you because you can offer them solutions they don’t otherwise have, [and] no decision maker wants to have just a single option.” Instead, Zahner said, the Army’s pitch to policymakers bent on budget cuts should be pragmatic: “Listen folks, you may not want us, but we’re the guys who are going to give us a whole range of new options when Plan A doesn’t come out the way you anticipated.”

“The reality,” agreed Gen. Cone, “is you have all these Title X responsibilities the Army has to do, many of them not exactly glorious.” (Title X refers to the huge cluster of laws that regulate the armed services). “There are missions that only the Army can do,” he told reporters after the conference. Current Army doctrine gives prominent place to “stability and reconstruction” abroad and “civil support” at home – everything from hurricane relief to riot control. As an institution, the Army encompasses not just combat brigades but the Corps of Engineers and the world’s leading research institute on infectious disease.

“We really are involved in so many activities on behalf of the nation,” agreed Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, Cone’s subordinate and the conference’s chief organizer. “The Army is the most versatile of the military capabilities that we provide our national leadership. It’s the largest kit bag.” Walker and the other generals argued that the service’s very breadth of functions, rather than any single focus, is its best selling point in a complex and confusing world. “It’s not AirLand Battle where we had a clear enemy,” Walker said. “It’s very messy. So we need to be really careful if we make a decision about establishing that simple idea.”

The problem with “we’ll do whatever you want” as a mission statement, though, is it lacks the clarity of a good sales pitch – not to the external audiences of policymakers who have to be convinced to fund the Army, not to the internal audiences of career soldiers who have to be convinced to stay in the Army. Nor does it say which of the Army’s many missions should get priority in training time, manpower, or equipment in an era of shrinking budgets.

Finding a focus is not a new problem for the Army. The Air Force has the glamour of flight, the Navy the romance of the sea, the Marines the gung-ho of a small elite; but, as the largest, most diverse, and, frankly, most bureaucratic of the armed services, the Army has always struggled to define itself. The service has always oscillated between emphasizing its breadth of mundane roles – Indian-fighting, law enforcement, and civil engineering on the 19th century frontier; peacekeeping and disaster response in the 1990s – and concentrating on rarer but higher-stakes major wars.

Now, with the country starting its traditional post-war cutbacks before the war in Afghanistan is actually over, the Army is under intense pressure to figure itself out.

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