October 17, 2011

Hard Choices for Ground Forces

By Nora Bensahel, Travis Sharp, David W. Barno, and USA (Ret.)

Given today's fiscal constraints, together with a shift of emphasis to the Indo-Pacific Rim, the United States should make plans to reduce the Army and Marine Corps to roughly pre-9/11 levels. We believe that cutting below these levels would jeopardize the ability of the United States to prevail against determined adversaries in unexpected ground-force contingencies without potentially incurring heavy casualties.

The United States is already reducing the number of ground forces committed to its current conflicts. No more than a few thousand troops will remain in Iraq after 2011, and U.S. troops will start drawing down substantially in Afghanistan in 2012. Whatever one thinks of these decisions, the United States will soon no longer face a massive demand to deploy tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of ground forces in these operations overseas. The continuing counterterrorism strikes and the recent Libya campaign actually reinforce this point, as they demonstrate policymakers' renewed preference for using air and naval power and special operations forces when possible, while avoiding the risks inherent in committing conventional ground forces.

Demands for American power and military presence will increasingly emanate from the Indo-Pacific Rim. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton notes in the new issue of Foreign Policy magazine, the Indo-Pacific region of the 21st century will displace the Europe of the 20th as the center of gravity of U.S. economic, political and security interests. The western Pacific and Indian Oceans present a maritime theater in the military sense, increasing the importance of U.S. naval and air power to exert influence across this vast region. Outside of possible conflict in North Korea, the utility of maintaining current high levels of ground forces for a strategy that increasingly focuses on the Indo-Pacific is unclear. In fact, a principal question facing Army and Marine Corps planners today is: What is the role and relevance of ground forces in a U.S. strategy that will be increasingly focused on Asia?

To be sure, the U.S. record over the last six decades of predicting conflicts demanding large ground commitments is abysmal. The greater Middle East and Central Asia remain volatile and important regions. The United States must still field a versatile military, including a well-trained and equipped ground force that is prepared to deal with unexpected contingencies. Ground forces should also be designed to be able to regenerate quickly in the face of a crisis or sustained demand, an unquestioned lesson from the past decade. If the U.S. reduces its active-duty ground forces, it must be able to rapidly ramp them up when required.

Among other things, this will require investing in a quality, well-trained reserve component. The National Guard and Reserve have provided a remarkable range of combat and support capabilities for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now include substantial numbers of combat-experienced officers and sergeants. Put simply, the United States can shape its future military with a higher degree of confidence in the combat capabilities of the Guard and Reserve.

Recent experience suggests that ground forces can be regenerated relatively quickly, even during a sustained and bloody conflict. During the past decade, the Army and Marine Corps combined expanded by nearly 60,000 troops in the span of about two years. New ships or next-generation aircraft, on the other hand, may take more than a decade to generate, so cutting those programs entails greater risks. Even as budgets decline, the U.S. military should continue investing in research and development for advanced technologies. While no panacea, such technologies hold the promise of delivering some capabilities which could profoundly affect the way the U.S. military operates in the future. The Internet, stealth and unmanned aerial systems are all current examples.

Nothing in this new reality detracts from the astonishing record of valor, sacrifice and battlefield adaptation demonstrated by the U.S. military in a decade of hard fighting. Foremost among the services, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have forged this remarkable record and paid the price in blood. But the next decade will likely require greater naval and air capabilities instead of large numbers of standing ground forces that can conduct extended operations.

Hard choices must be made. Given the current fiscal environment, the United States should maintain fewer active-duty ground forces as U.S. strategic interests increasingly shift toward the maritime Indo-Pacific region.