Part of Future of Warfare

Ground Forces

The U.S. ground forces are at a critical juncture. With the end of major combat operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is transitioning out of over a decade of large-scale ground combat operations. U.S. ground forces remain engaged around the globe in smaller-scale training and advising missions, but will need to be ready to execute a wide variety of contingencies at the President’s direction.

But which contingencies should they prepare for? From a resurgent Russia to a collapsing Iraq to a rising China, the evolving security environment presents a myriad array of possible challenges. Any number of these could involve the commitment of U.S. ground troops, potentially in large numbers, and for operations that could be far different from the counterinsurgency wars the U.S. military has fought for the past decade-plus.

At the same time, the scope and character of possible ground operations has evolved far beyond easy characterizations between counterinsurgency vs. conventional operations, irregular vs. regular. Non-state actors possess increasingly capable advanced weapons, such as precision-guided anti-tank weapons (ATGMs); guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles (GRAMM); man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS); and low-cost commercially-available drones. These will allow them to contest U.S. forces for control of terrain. States have also adapted their tactics and approaches on the ground, relying on proxies, deniable operations, propaganda, and cyber attacks to achieve their strategic objectives without deploying overt military forces.

The battlespace itself in which U.S. forces find themselves is also evolving. The rapid diffusion of information technology connects and empowers civilian populations, upending traditional relationships between people and authority. Ubiquitous smartphones means that every citizen can be a global reporter, a node of an ad hoc network, the leader of a spontaneous flash mob, or the symbol for a cause. In future ground operations, U.S. forces are likely to find themselves in an environment where the location and disposition of U.S. troops is known to anyone interested and where every action – and inaction – of U.S. servicemembers is broadcast in real-time.

How will U.S. military leaders balance competing demands for readiness, training, modernization, and force structure to prepare for these possible contingencies, and all within a severely constrained budget? Paul Scharre examines these and other issues in his report, “Uncertain Ground: Emerging Challenges in Land Warfare,” and concludes with recommendations for the U.S. military to prepare for these challenges.

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Research Team

  • Paul Scharre

    Senior Fellow and Director, Technology and National Security Program