Army patrol Baghdad 2007

FORT BELVOIR: The intellectual ice is beginning to break. You could see it at the Fort Belvoir Officers’ Club on Tuesday afternoon, where the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) hosted a three-day, tri-service conference on “Strategic Landpower.

The US Army is wrestling with how to stay relevant once large-scale counterinsurgency in Afghanistan comes to an end. The Marines are going back to their roots — amphibious warfare — and they’ve got a piece of the hot concept called AirSea Battle. The Navy has little to worry about with the Pacific pivot highlighting the importance of the service’s global reach — and they’re central to AirSea Battle. The Air Force is still trying to figure out its real future but AirSea Battle gives the USAF a major role.

But the Army. Ah, the Army. After months, if not years, of debating opaque and often vague ideas such as “the human domain,” “prevent-shape-win,” “regionally aligned forces,” and “Strategic Landpower” itself, it now looks as if someone’s come up with a coherent case — and, even more important, they’re beginning to win over key civilians as well.

“The problem you have is, what’s the elevator speech for the senators on the appropriations committee?” said Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., chairman of the Stimson Center board and a veteran national security official. (While most comments were not for attribution, all the individuals in this article gave me permission to quote them by name). “Very few people understand what you do,” he told the conferees. “We need to be able to tell senators, journalists, presidents, civilians, why are we doing this, why is this important, why does this deserve a defense dollar in a tight environment.”

While this week’s conference was co-sponsored by the Marine Corps (cautiously) and by Special Operations Command (enthusiastically), it’s the conventional “Big Army” that has the most at stake. While the entire military is taking budget cuts, now painfully compounded by sequestration, only the Army faces an existential crisis. With the nation swearing off large-scale counterinsurgency “forever” (for the second time since Vietnam) and no hostile conventional army on the horizon, what does America need large ground forces for?

Within the Army itself, that question turns into a debate over the service’s core competency, indeed its very identity. The rapidly shrinking service wants to somehow both preserve its hard-won people skills — language, culture, uprooting underground networks, winning over tribal leaders and local militias — and rebuild its ability to wage big-gun blitzkrieg. But which should approach should it focus on after we pull out of Afghanistan in 2014?

The obvious answer — “do both” — is a hard case to make in tight budgetary times. It’s not impossible. A small but smart cadre within the Army has been arguing that touchy-feely human factors and hard-charging combat ops are synergistic, not separate. Instead of being parallel efforts, they must converge into a single 21st century way of war. In this analysis, the two sets of capabilities are not in competition; they are not separate-but-equal (or unequal); they are not even merely complementary; they are yin and yang, soft speech and big stick, each utterly essential to the other.

Why so? Tactically, enemies with sophisticated weapons and social media savvy are increasingly able to hide among the globe’s ever-growing population. Rooting them out will take both serious firepower and a fine-tuned sense of whom not to shoot, lest you turn passive bystanders into active enemies. Conversely, if you play your human factors right, or at least better than the enemy, you may turn some locals into active allies.

Strategically, peacetime engagement around the world may not always prevent war, but it can give us better intelligence and local contacts if war breaks out. Training friendly militaries can make them more capable of helping us when and if the shooting starts — and those foreign forces want to work with and learn from us in the first place because they know that we’re very good at shooting.

Now it looks as if that argument is getting traction not only in the Army but in the civilian policy elite as well. “I’m not persuaded that understanding the human [factor] is going to make land forces more capable of preventing conflicts,” said Kori Schake, a senior official in George W. Bush’s National Security Council who’s now at the Hoover Institution, “but you guys actually have persuaded me that a better understanding of this will actually make our combat force more effective and more resilient.”

“This is about growing a generation of leaders who understand this inherently,” Schake said as the conference came to a close. “It doesn’t say ‘you have to be good at this instead of your main combat functions.’ It says ‘as you do your main combat functions, you think about it in this context.'”

“[Understanding] human behavior is not just influencing it to prevent conflict, it’s influencing it appropriately in conflict,” agreed Maj. Gen Bill Hix, chief of staff of the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), which has playing a leading role in developing the Strategic Landpower concept.

Just as people skills still matter when it’s time to kill people, the big guns still speak volumes in peacetime, even if they’re never fired.

“Lethality is a key component of credibility in engagement,” Hix said. “People have to smell, touch, fear that capability.” He recalled being told by one foreign defense official that “we don’t invite you to our country because we necessarily like you, [but] we’d rather be on your side.”

The yin-and-yang of human factors and high explosive is crucial to the argument, both intellectually and politically. Foreign engagement missions are enough to justify SOCOM’s 18,000 operators — indeed, SOCOM is overwhelmed and wants the big Army to help out — but Congress won’t fund hundreds of thousands of conventional soldiers to do engagement missions alone. Conversely, if the Army’s mission is purely to “kill people and break things,” many policymakers would argue that’s done more safely and effectively from the air, not by putting thousands of young Americans on the ground.

If combat power and human factors are not inseparable, then you might as well rely on small SOCOM teams for engagement, rely on drones, cruise missiles, and stealthy strike aircraft for lethal action, and slash the regular Army to the bone. Indeed, just last week the Army Vice-Chief of Staff, Gen. John Campbell, told me that “there’s talk about bringing the Army down to levels that are pre-World War II.”

That’s why the Strategic Landpower project is putting together a case that you need substantial, combat-ready, people-savvy forces on the ground, able to conduct operations and gather intelligence amongst the local population, instead of trying to do it all from 50,000 feet in the air.

“This to me is a great starting point for a warning and an exhortation,” said Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, commandant of the Army War College, speaking of the Strategic Landpower white paper signed by the chiefs of the Army, SOCOM, and the Marine Corps. “It’s an exhortation to capture the incredible progress made over the last decade… It’s a warning, at a moment in time when budget decisions may imbalance the joint force, [that] if we spend several years financing the lure of strike, the ground capability would wither.”


Edited 8:10 am on Thursday, 29 August to attribute and expand the quotations from Major Generals Hix and Cucolo.


  • Don Bacon

    what does America need large ground forces for?
    The simple answer is that it doesn’t.

    Regarding conventional operations, the Army has been equipping and training to fight in the Fulda Gap for generations, but there is zero chance for a land war in Europe, and neither in Asia and Africa.

    The “counterinsurgency” idea was always bogus on its face. Overthrowing a government and then fighting the resistance to a US military occupation involves fighting against a resistance, not against “insurgents.” Were the French freedom fighters in WWII insurgents against the Vichy government? Hell no, they were a resistance.

    So a huge land Army equipped with self-propelled howitzers and heavy tanks is an expensive, worthless anachronism, and there has proven to be nothing good about overthrowing governments and fighting the resistance, AKA “counterinsurgency.” It only recruits terrorists which lessen US security.

    We need to get back to the Constitution which envisioned a full-time navy but not a full-time army.

    The US Constitution.
    Article I, Section 8 – Powers of Congress
    -To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;
    -To provide and maintain a Navy;

    • Stephen

      Many points I’d disagree with (respectfully). But one is particularly problematic because it keeps getting repeated here and elsewhere – the idea that we aren’t fighting “insurgents”. Much of the tribal Taliban may be “resistance” fighters (not what I’d call them), but many of the people we fight/fought over there were brought in from other countries; Islamic radicals imported after being trained elsewhere. In Vietnam, much of the war (fought in the south) was against infiltrators from the north. So no, the French weren’t insurgents, but the OSS and the SAS were. Either way, the systems for fighting resistance fighters is the same as insurgents – win hearts and minds, build infrastructure, and protect the local people from the enemy. We need to do a better job on that score. The Nazis fought the French partisans the same way they fought our commandos.

      • Don Bacon

        FM 3-24, COIN, involves procedures to counter an insurgency against a host nation (HN in the manual), “a government that derives its just powers from the people and responds to their desires while looking out for their welfare is accepted as legitimate.”

        This is a far cry from the US going into a country, establishing a mostly powerless puppet government, and then fighting the resistance to this activity — and calling it a counterinsurgency.

        So the resistance by the citizens of a country to a foreign military occupation is not an insurgency, and the occupying force’s effort to defeat that resistance is not a counterinsurgency.

        Anyhow, there was a shift in U.S. war strategy in Afghanistan after McChrystal got bounced, away from classic counterinsurgency (protecting the population, providing basic services, promoting good government) and toward the traditional business of killing and capturing bad guys.

        It just doesn’t work, and can’t work, and it puts too much stress on those forced to implement a wrong doctrine. Too_much_stress. Which is one reason that 30% of Iraq and Afghan vets have contemplated suicide. For active forces, according to the Pentagon’s July suicide report — active-duty suicide numbers for CY 2012: 185 (169 have been confirmed as suicides and 16 remain under investigation). Pitiful and wrong. During July, among active-duty soldiers, there were 19 potential suicides:

        But who considers the troops, at the Fort Belvoir Officers’ Club on a Tuesday afternoon? You know.

        • Stephen

          Ok, we are clear now. You have a problem with US foreign policy, not so much the definition of where the insurgents come from (which you avoided in your reply). I used taught counterinsurgency at Ft. Bragg (though this was back in the 1980’s), so I know a little about the concept. Since we disagree on whether people are being liberated or occupied, we won’t get far. My experience is that little girls being shot in the face by the Taliban and the insurgents from other countries for the simple act of going to school would define the terms closer to me.

          • Don Bacon

            Okay, the insurgents, initially, came from the United States. And if you don’t want to talk foreign policy, only where insurgents come from, you are avoiding the issue that puts troops in an unforgivable bind where they can’t accomplish anything, by design, except to help their rotating commanding officers put their combat time in and get promoted.

            Iraqis weren’t liberated from anything. Prior to the folly of Operation Iraqi Freedom they enjoyed a much higher standard of living as well as comity between different religious sects. Now, Iraq is a dangerous mess on the verge of civil war. Petraeus continually said the situation was fragile and reversible, and he was correct.

            Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, is no better. They didn’t like the foreign occupation of the British and the Russians, and the Americans have favored no better. Again it’s a waste of good people and a lot of money.

            The U.S. should’ve learned all this in the Vietnam tragedy, but no. Your claims that it’s not natives but foreigners who resist brutal U.S. military occupations is a bogus cop-out . What would you do if the China military occupied your hometown, hide under the bed?

          • Don Bacon

            And women’s lib is a sorry reason for a twelve-year unsuccessful expensive exercise in a mostly illiterate country on the other side of the planet.

    • M&S

      A JLTV costs about 423,000 dollars.

      An F-16 costs about 32 million to 50 million depending on block and customer. A carrier battle group costs about 10 billion and that’s likely not including the missiles for the VLS and the aircraft for the air wing.

      Get the picture?

      I can drop a Jumper (Israeli Netfires That Works) JLTV off at a remote outpost and, with a Grey Eagle or similar overhead for 24hrs, be able to shoot threats moving up before they can start hosing down our people or the village we’re attached to defend. Probably MILES AND HOURS before.

      OTOH, when there are more than a few of you, you’re no longer ‘special’, you’re just another Infantry Division.

      The difference is that it takes months and years to put together a viable motorized force, whether tracked or not. But once it’s ready to go, it can turn special warfare operators into autonomous units able to self-defend rather than rely on the dubious allegiance of CIA sponsored local warlord allies of the moment.

      One Jumper equipped unit can fire up the enemy from 15-25 miles away.

      One Jumper unit doesn’t have to weight 11-17 hours for tacair to do a reset and come back.

      One Jumper unit doesn’t have to sell our soul to the devil next door and pray that the lease’ll hold so that that tacair can have a place to land in case of emergencies and get gas pass from tankers all the time. That includes A-UAVs and UCAVs, if they ever get here.

      I have -enormous- doubts as to the ability of 19-22 year olds to play the pacification game like SOF can. But even SOF are little more than elite killers who get to break the rules so that targets are liquidated when they are in the middle of high collaterals zones (not always successfully if Admiral McRaven’s goat fest was anything to go by).

      Once again, Sun Tzu said it best:

      Know yourself: 25% +

      Know your ground: 50% +

      Know your enemy: 75%

      Keep your enemy from stepping onto the battlefield: 100%

      The notion that the USAr -can do- central Asia without another huge commitment of billions of dollars buying friends and influencing people is inherent to keeping the enemy from stepping onto the battlefield by making another 9/11 and thinking we won’t come get them.

      Because _we will_. And that’s something else that the Chief Morons In Charge seem to forget: You don’t decide if there is gonna be another battle.

      Your enemy does.

      We cannot afford to be bled white chasing ghosts. If our military cannot roll up Pakistan like a cheap oriental rug to shake out the next UBL in two months instead of 10 years _it is broken_. Both at SpecOps and at Conventional levels.

      But that doesn’t mean that we need to continue to carry over Abrams and GCV type weapons systems. Derp.

      Because from every SEP TUSK II photo I can find, NONE have an APS mounted. Despite TACOM having cleared the AMAP-ADS as being ‘capable to all requirements’ (including the 2,000m/sec defeat of kinetics).

      And as soon as you mount that APS, the game changes in terms of active knockdown vs. passive absorption of threat fires.

      Not from idiots with RPG. But from sophisticated topattack weapons ranging from ATGW firing posts (Metis/Kornet) to brilliant artillery (BONUS).

      At which point it’s necessary to say a few more things about ‘Howitzers and Tanks’:

      1. XM-1111 or similar OTH guided rounds give any 105 or 120 tank the ability to engage targets out to 6-8km without even being able to see them. If you don’t see’em, they can’t LOS shoot you because you have the inherent ability (MALI or a manned jet) to knock down their UAVs and they cannot respond in kind. Which means any 15-20 ton M8 Buford or the like can now do the same mission as the Abrams, even through bad weather, simply by allying it to an MQ-9 Lynx or RQ-4 TESAR to provide targeting.

      2. A NEMO or AMOS, 120mm, auto loading, mortar system will do just as good a job leveling a house as an Abrams in the MOUT mission. However, because that round leaves the barrel at 2,500fps instead of 5,000fps, it can be mounted on a 10 ton M113 instead of a 50 ton M1A2. And it will outrange the 8km M256 by at least 4km if not 7km more. Put a cargo round behind that range foot print and add MRSI atop it, and you have a weapons system which can, at need, stop a company level force of tanks _with APS_ (dispenses multiple SFW out the back, all coming down to detonate their EFP from high above the engine deck and either saturatively depleting the APS magazine or detonating before it can engage), all on it’s own. OR it can do the wombat huntin’ mission without worrying about whether it can see the troops it’s supporting because GPS lets a unitary round hit within a 4m circle.

      3. A Jumper, as mentioned, takes this capability out to 30-40km or more and can be allied to a FOG tether to keep it’s LINK safe while firing off the back of a mine-protected Jeep or another M113 type light-track.

      Between these three systems we _have the technology_ to make a single brigade do the work of a two divisions in a system of detachable company elements that can be tailored for the available lift to get them into a fight and the necessary level of mean to defeat the enemy we find there.

      The 9th LID aka ‘High Tech Test Bed’ experimented with the precursors to most of these and Big Track Army didn’t want to hear about it. Now, there is no choice. Because if you want to continue to WIN WARS by NOT FIGHTING THEM you need to be pretty damn blatant about the kinds of ‘expeditionary’ capability you retain to deal with future wanksters like UBL. Sans the 30 day delay while you get supporting units into the theater to deal with them.

      This is the kind of hard-kill, eminently ‘kinetic’ capability that I _do_ trust a 19-22 year old X-Boxer to be able to handle. All’s we have to do is teach him to move and displace between engagement sequences so that there is some semblance of a maneuver plan keeping him safe from predictability.

      Send the heavy dinotanks to the reserves. Buy new tech, light, OTH capable, tech that we can throw out there with the best of whatever is on the plate and defeat them before they can bring us to battle.

      It is inherently robust (enemy must pay for smart vehicles, brilliant munitions, targeting UAVs and all the networking to make them work, none of which is ‘invisible’ to us but which is innately hard for them to jam/spoof/hardkill…) and it gives the Marines and the Army the separation of powers as relevance to mission that they need. Army does inland as Central Asia and Africa.

      USMC gets to play Tarawa with anyone who wants to.

      My bet is that Army wins on the fight-a-war-to-be-recognized level.

      And all the naysayers about ‘what the Army does’ can keep right on bleating neap. Because the modern Army will be the one that others are afraid of getting pissed off, lest it come root them out of their holes and hooches with or without permission of surrounding countries.

    • Jeff

      I think an army would be good for a last resort for invasion on homeland.

  • BJA

    I really like the way Sydney framed this post. At the end of the day, the Army is like any other institution fighting for its bureaucratic survival. Consequently, relevant mission sets, wise spending, and effective sales pitches to lawmakers will keep the force in the future fight.

    • Ed

      Like the Fire Dept. and Police Force. I cringe when they ask for more tax dollars, but have I been ever so grateful they are there in a crisis. At least our military is a bureaucratic institution still controlled by a civilian authority (disagree all you like but, unlike some other recent example in Egypt. Not sure what’s going on there, but that’s off topic.)

  • BIllMorgan

    No War has ever been won without “Boots on the Ground”..Think the Air Force or Navy would ever do the dirty work??Only the Army, Marines, Seals and the Air Force Special ops teams. ever finally win any wars we’ve been involved in and sometimes even “Boots on the Ground” fail to Vietnam, Africa, Middle East and Afghanistan

    • Mark Samuels

      Every serve on a river patrol boat, ever hear of SEALS, get real, I saw as much, if not more combat than many of the boots on the grounds types in Nam.

    • another opinion

      Libya? Yes, conflict can be solved without boots on the ground

      • Been There; Done That

        It’s pure naivete to say that there were “no boots on the ground” in Libya! Seriously, understand that your ignorance does not a fact make. We don’t need an Army as large as the one we have, true. However, the ineptitude of our civilian leaders and their tragic unwillingness to lead or make tough decisions that endanger their re-election does not bode well for a real, conditions-based or strategic reduction in force.

  • Ed

    Would you rather spend a lot of money to avoid a fight (and keep status quo), or a lot of money to win one?
    A stationary well trained up to date military is incredibly expensive and inefficient…… until you have a crisis, then you hope it’s adequate and really start spending money to build up. If you have time. (I.E. WWII) Simple answers to complex questions are too broad. Dropping ordinance on a building is relatively simple now days, making sure you “get just the bad guy” is incredibly hard/dangerous even with a physical presence.
    I hope there is “zero chance” for any war in Europe, Asia and Africa (or even the Americas) but that sentiment has been proven wishful thinking so many times that I cannot embrace it.
    This is a philosophical disagreement. And may have some semantic facets as well.
    Start with a point of agreement “We want to avoid future wars” and work from there.
    If we can’t make “them” ‘like or Like’ U.S., then we have to be prepared for “them” to ‘dislike’ U.S.
    I’m wondering, do you see the cold war Military of the West a tremendous success or a tremendous waste? I think it was both, but if WWIII had gone “hot”, I wonder what, or even if, our philosophical conversation today, would be? Possibly we at least have the internet as a wonderful spin-off technology to peaceably discuss it?

  • Marcheal Gideon

    You always need a army.

  • Jim Toomey

    Why does America need a large ground force?
    How about the Russians and the Chinese? How about securing whatever limited and temporary gains are made by air power and sea power by having land forces that can actually occupy terrain in peacekeeping operations, peace enforcement operations, or good old state-onstate conflict in possible hot spots ranging from Iran to Somalia?
    Don, this isn’t the 1780s…we don’t have the luxury of time and protective oceans to turn civilian farmers or part-time soliders into professional soliders. We also don’t have the same industiral base we had even in the dark days of the Great Depression than can quickly convert from Chevys to Shermans. Your philosopy that presupposes reserves grabbing their muskets and assembling in the town square is the greatest anchronism of all….