Friday, July 12, 2002

The Future Army

I want the United States Army of 2025 to be able to march on an enemy capital and impose peace on our terms.

The Army's post-Cold War identity crisis seems to have hindered this goal. During the Cold War, the Army's very clear and very difficult role was to halt the Red Army in West Germany and stop the North Koreans from marching to Seoul. The collapse of the Soviet Union has left the residual mission of keeping the North Koreans at bay but the confrontation lacks the urgency of Fulda Gap due to the smaller stakes and because increasingly South Korea is capable of defending itself even without our help. The Gulf War of 1991 was like the last hurrah for the warfighting mission. Its very success, routing a large foe in 100 hours with amazingly few casualties, undermined its value as a war winner.

Clearly, for way too many observers, the Army was over-prepared for likely threats. The Army was called on to intervene in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo where major ground threats did not exist. Actual fighting was done with airpower and missiles, with the Air Force and Navy arguing over who did that mission better. The Army dealt with the less glamorous mission of suppressing disorder. Simply resisting employment as peacekeepers and the siren song of embracing such missions to remain "relevant" were full time jobs. The Marines at least had the warrior mystique of the Corps to sustain it despite occasional questions about why we have a "second army." With heavy armor viewed as a relic, and war apparently unlikely, the Army set forth to build medium brigades that could be airlifted into a conflict zone to quickly put under-armor forces on the scene to back up the painfully light yet strategically mobile paratroopers or light infantry. Heavy armor, if we even need it anymore, could be provided quickly in small numbers by prepositioning; and in larger numbers more slowly by sea. The Marines, of course, saw turf encroachment on their own specialty--placing small numbers of troops on the ground with more firepower than Army light infantry. Even Army paratroopers seemed to threaten the amphibious warfare mission. As the Army moved toward an expeditionary role as the Army shrugged off the old Cold War role in West Germany, the Army planned to abandon heavy armor completely in about 30 years as it develops and builds a "future combat system" that combines low weight with lethality and survivability.

Much of what the Army and Marines do or are planning to do make perfect sense if done in appropriate doses and if the services see themselves as complementing one another rather than competing with one another. The Army does war. The Marines do battle. For brush fires that will likely not need more than a brigade of troops, the Marines should take the lead. Organizing the Marine Corps to place a brigade quickly on the scene to smother a small threat will keep the Army in the barracks. The initial stages of a war can be handled by Army light forces augmented by prepositioned equipment for the early stages and airlifted medium b rigades that hold the line until heavy armor can be shipped in to the theater. The Army can beef up the Marines with medium brigades or heavy armor if it turns out the battle the Marines are fighting is the first battle of a war rather than just a small scale incident. On the other hand, the Marines will have the numbers and skill to supplement the Army in a war that requires extra infantry or which drags on larger or longer than we hope. Both ground forces can contribute and even the Army's medium brigades, if limited in number for their bridging role, are no threat to the Marine Corps' missions.

The problem comes from the Army's determination to make the medium brigades (the Interim Brigade Combat Teams) the model for the future Army as a whole. The light armored vehicles are current-technology stand-ins for the future combat system that will equip the Army of the future, the Objective Force. As envisioned, the future combat system will not see the light of day. We simply cannot build a vehicle light enough to be airlifted in significant numbers yet as lethal and survivable as the Abrams main battle tank of today. Even if, with some magical breakthrough, we are able to do this, won't this same technology make tanks three times as heavy even more powerful than the Abrams and light future combat system? To work, such a magical future combat system would have to fight only 1990s-era armies.

If we insist on making all our armor light enough to be flown in to a distant theater, we will be creating an Army able to resist what we feared Iraq would do right after conquering Kuwait--march south immediately on Saudi Arabia. In practice, sacrificing power for speed will simply place vulnerable vehicles in combat outnumbered and on the defensive. Given the emphasis on overcoming distance, when we have to choose between maintaining the upper weight limits and providing firepower and protection for the vehicle, protection will suffer first. I guess all I'm saying is that speed of deployment was a unique need of 1990 (and one we did not have to meet) and the entire Army should not adapt to this scenario. A full spectrum military needs Army Rangers and paratroopers able to deploy quickly under fire, a Marine Corps capable of reaching a battle area quickly with its superior firepower and forcing entry, Army heavy brigades that can crush a conventional enemy, Army medium brigades that can bridge the gap between early arriving Marines/Army light infantry and heavy armor, and Marine and Army riflemen for dismounted combat such as urban warfare. Navy and Air Force support are of course crucial, and quite honestly, nobody out there can challenge us at sea or in the air. Such a threat is decades away at worst.

For the near term, ground threats are significant enough to keep the Army and Marines busy. Each has a role unique to its own capabilities despite some overlap in capabilities. With a real war underway and the likelihood of conventional war against Iraq soon, the Army at least does not need to search for reasons to exist. Winning wars is reason enough. As this sinks in, I imagine the chimeral future combat system will dissolve and instead we will get a new main battle tank to carry the burden of war, supplemented by a light fighting vehicle for speed of deployment and the occasional operation other than war. Go Army!

[NOTE: This is from the former Defense Issues category from my original blog]