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Let's face it: American landpower is in crisis. As blogfather Andrew Exum pointed out in a January column, without a dominant adversary or geographical template (the Soviet Union, Central Europe) landpower's case is getting harder to make. The counterinsurgency era provided a breather, but not necessarily a solution. It was common not too long to ago to see a flood of books and articles making the case that the Army had innovated towards a form of war (counterinsurgency) that would dominate the future of conflict. However, as Exum observes, this ignored the fact that Army/Marine counterinsurgency in Iraq was a contingent innovation designed to help the US through a war that many COIN thinkers regarded as a mistake. In 2012, the American defense landscape has moved away from large-scale stability operations and privileged air-sea battle, foreign internal defense, and unconventional warfare scenarios. None of these seem, at first glance, to be particularly promising for the big battalions.
Some predict that the "man on the scene with the gun" will be replaced by the culturally sensitive special operative, cyberwarrior, or Predator pilot. Afghanistan in 2001-2002 and Libya last year is often trotted out to support this thesis. Certainly US airpower and Gulf Cooperation Council unconventional warfare units saved the Libyan rebels from defeat and gave them the support and organization necessary to win. But holes in the narrative emerge when we consider that the decisive weight was Libyan ground forces. Similarly, the success of the "Afghan Model" in 2002 should be properly credited to the Northern Alliance's Afghans. Moreover, relying on airpower and special operations forces as the US main effort also had costs. The fact that the US cannot diplomatically operate in a Libya whose citizens and government are ostensibly pro-American or even properly investigate the Benghazi consulate attacks speaks volumes about the problems of confusing reliance on ground proxies with actual political control. Granted, these costs are small compared to large-scale ground engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they still complicate the now-trendy vision of indirect warfare.
Douglas Ollivant has also soundly observed that we cannot assume that special operations forces will be a salve for every security challenge we face. Some scenarios will simply be too big for SOF to handle alone. Even in the US does not seek to reconstruct collapsing states, securing weapons of mass destruction and leadership targets in the aftermath of an implosion of Syria, North Korea, Libya, or any number of other states would be demanding tasks that special operations would have difficulty handling by themselves. Some sanctuary-raiding missions would require larger ground forces. Others may simply lend themselves better to general purpose forces. Recent African success waging combined land-amphibious operations in Somalia suggests that land forces executing amphibious raiding in Africa could inflict substantial damage on pirates and other foes. In other situations we may not be able to rely on proxies to do the job for us, either because of a principal-agent mismatch or lack of capability. Finally, SOF and airpower in recent conflicts also depend implicitly on the enemy lacking the ability to threaten the bases and supply networks that sustain them with ground power, commando forces, or long-range weapons. Should Afghanistan’s government lose substantial amounts of territory or collapse outright after US withdrawal, the basing arrangements upon which we base our proxy warfighting would be threatened.
Still, the question remains: how to rebrand landpower? The Army War College's Antulio Echevarria II has a great piece at the Strategic Studies Institute taking on the challenge. In the past, Echevarria has written about how the United States lacks a "way of war" but instead had developed a "way of battle" oriented around destroying enemy armies. Destroying armies is necessary but not sufficient for decisive victory. In a new compilation of case studies on the subject of hybrid warfare edited by Williamson Murray and Peter Mansoor, there are copious examples of strategic misfortunes induced by conflation of Napoleonic victory with actual defeat of the enemy. Eliminating the bulk of French forces in 1871 forced the Prussians to contend with makeshift armies and partisans. The US' inability to manage the challenge of fighting insurgents, partisans, and main force units simultaneously played a strong role in its defeat in Vietnam. And in Korea today the US and South Korea will contend with North Korean main forces, special operations groups, and paramilitary networks in any ground scenario.
We've argued for a while as to what to call these conflicts, from Fourth Generation Warfare to various forms of "complex" irregular war. But the bottom line is that future conflicts will involve the need to gain control over populations, whether the opponent is a positional force, guerrillas, or both. Echevarria offers a way out of the morass:
Some will want to argue that Landpower's raison d'être is to defeat an opponent's ground forces. However, if more than 2 centuries of military operations are any guide, America's political leaders will see that as only “mission half accomplished.” The Indian wars, the Philippine insurrection, the Banana wars, World Wars I and II, the interventions in Asia and Latin America, the Balkans, the Middle East, and many other areas suggest that Landpower is generally employed not only to defeat an opponent's ground forces, and the quicker the better, but also to establish and maintain control over people and places thereafter. This is what Landpower brings to the table that Airpower and Seapower cannot. The idea is, again, to extend the reach of policy.
Echevarria is not saying the role of landpower should be to build states. The conflation of defeating one's opponents with governing them has been one of the most destructive trends in recent national security policy. Echevarria addresses this head-on. In contrast to the stereotypical idea of an American way of war based around unlimited political objectives, Echevarria argues that Presidents have often sought to only use as much force as appropriate. Even in eras of total war, we have always considered conserving our own resources. The Soviet Union bore the brunt of fighting Germany in World War II, and US did not completely completely mobilize its resources for the task. Even during the Cold War, the US never adopted a "garrison state" mode akin to the Soviet total warfare state.
Adopting a holistic definition of landpower allows the Army and Marines to market themselves for a range of missions while still building a core set of skills oriented around offense, defense, and stability and support operations. This would certainly preserve all of the experiential gains of the last ten years in fighting insurgents, guerrillas, and illicit networks, but not limit the military to believing that one strategy should guide response. Indeed, it would also emphasize the productive use of land forces in situations short of war for shaping operations and rapid response. Finally, this conception of landpower would be a good basis for integrating landpower with cyberpower and special operations warfare. The Landpower Group currently examining the future of the concept is fruitfully looking at that intersection, as well as landpower’s adaptation to other emerging security challenges.
To return to Echevarria's original point, an new conception of the American way of war would emphasize not only the armies of the opponents but the social and political contexts that generate them. It would privilege Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini but also leave room for John Arquilla. However, such a conception would require forces built around around combat. In the last ten years American soldiers have hunted down the enemy and engaged in the close fight in some of the most physically demanding regions of the Earth. And historically there is nothing soft about small war, whether chasing down Pancho Villa overland in Mexico or fighting dug-in al-Qaeda units on the mountains during Operation Anaconda. To recognize this is not to denigrate the importance of cultural knowledge or persuasion, but it is to point out that everything else rests on the ability to threaten or violently coerce. Combat could occur anywhere, as daring attacks against American rear areas and supply columns have proved over the last ten years. As William F. Owen observed, expansive political objectives must be purchased by operations that grant control. Otherwise, the enemy always has the ability to spoil the plan.
This vision of landpower would not necessarily be a call for large land forces on the model of 1917-1991. Rather, it would be a use of landpower familiar to policymakers throughout most of American history: boots on the ground to give America a say in what happens in unstable regions of interest to American national security, protect American diplomats and commercial interests from the predations of states and sub-state groups, and attack non-state organizations that threaten American lives. If framed that way, landpower could remain a competitive advantage even if scaled down.