To come out a winner--or at least less of a loser--in the impending defense budget battles, each military service needs a believable story about whom it's going to fight and where.
For the Navy and the Air Force — and, to some extent, the Marine Corps — that narrative is already taking shape. The Obama administration’s so-called pivot to Asia means air and naval power is going to be in high demand as the strategic guidance released by the Pentagon in January made clear.
But for the Army, the strategic guidance was less helpful. It essentially said: Large-scale nation-building is off the table. We’re not going to repeat Iraq anytime soon.
So what the Army will do instead is still up for debate.
Faced with uncertainty, the Army is fighting an uphill battle not only to win internal Pentagon budget fights but also to convince Congress of its strategy.
“The combination of declining budgets and the shift to the Asia-Pacific region clearly leaves the Army with less to do,” one congressional source told POLITICO.
To make its case inside the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, the Army knows it has to not only look into the crystal ball but also be mindful that lessons from the past can be equally persuasive.
POLITICO got a glimpse into the Army’s planning for the future at a recent gathering of three- and four-star generals at the National Defense University in Washington.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, seated at the head table, led the discussion. And as it went on, the brass spent considerable time discussing operations to counter weapons of mass destruction and seabasing, a term for operations that can be conducted without relying on infrastructure ashore.
While both could play a big role in the future, the first is mostly viewed as the realm of elite special operations forces, and seabasing has long been a favorite buzzword for the Marine Corps and the Navy.
To some, discussions like these give the impression that the Army is grasping for scenarios where it can be useful.
“In an era of a declining force, the Army needs to focus in on core missions that only the Army — not the Marines or U.S. Special Operations Command — can accomplish. Based on what I’ve heard, that is not what the Army is doing,” the congressional source said.
The group of senior Army officers also discussed at length how the Army would continue to engage with the world and build partnerships with foreign armies when many of its troops will be stationed at home.
This is one area where the Army is getting it right, said retired Lt. Gen. Dave Barno, now a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security.
“The Army is not just an emergency device behind glass, and you break the glass if you have a war,” he told POLITICO in an interview. “The Army really sees a role for itself, rightfully, in being out there and engaging with other militaries around the world.”
While the leadership summit at times sounded like the Army officers were reassuring themselves of the Army’s role in the future, there were also frank acknowledgments about the challenges the service is facing in making its case.
For example, the generals are aware that after 10 years of war and several thousand American lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress and the public have little appetite for large-scale ground operations anytime soon.
After more than two hours of discussion, the underlying theme emerged: If we don’t get this drawdown right, the consequences are grave — and familiar.
“We will never ever again have a Task Force Smith,” Odierno said, referring to the Army unit sent to fight North Korea at the beginning of the Korean War. Its rout by the North Koreans has long represented what can happen when the Army is ill-prepared for war.
“Korea was a war that nobody expected in a place that nobody anticipated in a way that was thought to be obsolete — and the Army wasn’t ready for it,” Barno said.
At the time, Barno said, the conventional wisdom inside the Pentagon was that boots on the ground would no longer be needed because nuclear weapons had made them obsolete.
The result was Task Force Smith, an Army unit with poor training, poor leadership and without the right equipment.
Last fall, when he appeared before the House Armed Services Committee, then-Vice Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli also invoked the memory of Task Force Smith. There’s a tendency after every war, he said, to believe large-scale ground forces won’t be needed again.
During the early 1990s, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gordon Sullivan, president of the Association of the U.S. Army, made “No More Task Force Smiths” almost a mantra as he navigated the post-Cold War drawdown.
“The institution failed to keep an eye on the future because it thought it was in a post-war period,” Sullivan said in an interview with POLITICO.
Now, the Army is being told no more large-scale counterinsurgency operations.
“As soon as you finish up a long-term engagement, you always hear the same thing: We’re not going to do that again,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a former commandant of the Army War College. “You heard it in 1954, 1972, 1989 and 1993. We’re saying it again now. It must be part of our cultural DNA.”
While the challenges are tough, Sullivan said, he’s confident the Army is thinking about today’s drawdown the right way.
Odierno’s “saying that what he keeps — he’s going to keep trained and ready. That’s step No. 1,” Sullivan said.
But Odierno’s job is made more difficult because he has to prepare the Army for the future while at the same time producing trained and ready forces for Afghanistan.
“No matter how much the leadership wants to be innovative and think about the future, they’re still in the middle of a big fight, and that’s not lost on anybody inside the Army,” Barno said.