As the U.S. leaves two wars behind and adjusts its military to face an uncertain future, some question the need for the Army to maintain its current force mix — and in particular, those formations built around mobile protected firepower. Yet it is precisely these forces that will remain essential as the Army shrinks and its list of potential missions grows.
Under the new national defense strategy, the Army will prepare to shape the strategic environment, prevent the outbreak of dangerous regional conflicts, and respond in force to a range of complex contingencies worldwide — all while responsibly reducing its end strength. To minimize strategic risk, the Army must emerge from the coming transition years with a force that is more agile, versatile and resilient than ever, and which possesses lethality disproportionate to its size.
Most importantly, the future force must be able to exert control — on land — of people and resources. As Colin Gray writes: “From Carl von Clausewitz to Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie, USN, great strategic theorists have pointed to control as being the essence of the practical object in war, the purpose of strategic effect.” History, recent experience and future estimates demonstrate the importance of mobile protected firepower in achieving this control.
Lessons of Experience
As a term, “mobile protected firepower” describes forces with cross-country mobility, lethal firepower and effective armor protection. In today’s U.S. Army, it takes the form of the armored fighting vehicles and main battle tanks in brigade combat teams, but it has been for decades at the core of effective responses to widely varying missions.
At the low end of the spectrum, such forces have long been part of military engagement, security cooperation and deterrence efforts. During the Cold War, the seminal NSC 68 report recognized that atomic weapons were inadequate to deter Soviet aggression and that the U.S. would need the capacity to confront local challenges locally — as in Europe, where armored forces would for decades deter Soviet and Warsaw Pact invasion. In Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, U.S. commanders sent the V Armored Corps across the Sava River to give the Implementation Force the “biggest dog” in the neighborhood and keep the peace. And in South Korea today, U.S. Army mobile protected firepower underpins deterrence on the peninsula and elsewhere in the Pacific region.
Instances of mobile protected firepower’s use in crises and limited contingencies are similarly legion. During the Korean War, North Korean armored forces routed a poorly equipped U.S. infantry task force, leading to retreat and stalemate not resolved until more modern armored forces arrived to enable the breakout that exploited the Inchon landings. In Vietnam, as documented by Gen. Donn Starry’s “Armored Combat in Vietnam,” armored forces proved critical throughout the conflict. More recently, in the Second Battle of Fallujah, armored forces spearheaded the advance into the city, enabling maneuver, protecting infantry, suppressing and destroying a determined, prepared enemy. And in Baghdad’s Sadr City, mobile protected firepower was essential to overcoming complex obstacles, deadly improvised explosive devices and intense urban fighting; it made possible the rapid exploitation of intelligence to crush the enemy with fewer casualties and reduced collateral damage.
In Afghanistan, armored vehicles allowed ISAF forces to survive initial engagements by IEDs and rocket-propelled grenades, and to respond with precise, timely, direct fire that generated less collateral damage than artillery or airstrikes. By contrast, Israel allowed its combined arms skills and capabilities to atrophy, and was dealt setbacks in 2006 when challenged by Hezbollah’s asymmetric, integrated standoff fires and area-denial strategy.
Finally, mobile protected firepower has been a key to success in major operations and campaigns. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Israeli tanks’ penetration of Egyptian defenses and attack on surface-to-air missile sites allowed the Israeli Air Force to launch deep strikes. Nearly two decades later, Iraq used T-72 tanks to overwhelm Kuwaiti defenses in 1990. In the following year, Army-led combined arms maneuver, spearheaded by an armored corps and following 30 days of air operations, drove the world’s largest army from Kuwait in four days. In 2003, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq created a shock effect of tightly integrated joint-combined arms maneuver operations dependent on forces with mobile protected firepower. Such capabilities allowed commanders to routinely assume risk in the face of uncertainty, such as pressing the attack despite sandstorms and losing track of nearly 20 Iraqi brigades.
Why is mobile protected firepower so frequently used in such a wide variety of situations? Put succinctly, it provides the joint force commander an asymmetric advantage. It helps soldiers close with the enemy, sustain momentum and assure success. It provides precision firepower to destroy enemy forces, but is discriminate in its effects, limiting collateral damage. It allows the commander to press the advantage with limited risk during periods of ambiguity.
All of this leads to a force that projects credibility. Perceived overmatch over would-be opponents discourages competition while serving as an example to allies and partners. In short, it can reduce strategic and tactical risk, particularly in the early stages of an intervention.
Perhaps most importantly, mobile protected firepower allows forces to be flexible and adaptable. We can expect adversaries to confront overmatching Army brigade combat teams with unorthodox approaches instead of conventional force-on-force combat operations. As Rand’s David Johnson observed: “Light forces optimized for irregular warfare cannot scale up to the high-lethality standoff threats that hybrid and state adversaries will present. ... [A] more prudent approach is to base much of a force’s structure and future capabilities on heavy forces that can scale down to confront irregular adversaries as part of a balanced force that includes light infantry. ... Light infantry and medium armored ... forces cannot make a similar transition, even with a shift in training emphasis, because they do not have tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.”
Retaining our Advantage
The Army of 2020 will organize its major combat forces into armored, Stryker and infantry BCTs that provide varying levels of mobile protected firepower, deployability and flexibility. Each type of BCT makes important contributions to combined arms operations, yet the greater mobile protected firepower capability of the armored units will provide the greatest versatility and agility across the range of military operations.
As the Army shrinks and rebalances its forces, there are several potential avenues that, while seeming to save money or offer other benefits, would undercut the mobile protected firepower available to joint force commanders. For example, shifting armored BCTs into the Army National Guard to save money comes at the cost of the time required to train up and mobilize such forces. Similarly, eliminating some armored BCTs in favor of infantry units is deemed an acceptable risk in view of the money it would save. But these are false economies; a recent Rand analysis indicates that there is little cost difference in either case. Here, operational advantage should be our guide, a measure weighted in favor of armored forces.
Still others say that our advantages in communications, information and precision strike technologies are so pronounced that we need not maintain armored BCTs as well. Yet, in the last decade of conflict, precision strike, for example, has been challenged by collateral damage and the enemy’s ability to deceive, cover and conceal. While these technologies do excel at identifying and attacking targets, they are most effective when employed in combined arms operations enabled by mobile protected firepower.
The Army is changing. The future force will be smaller and regionally engaged; it must also be responsive and decisive, with a robust mix of capabilities and capacity sufficient to give pause to our adversaries, reassure our allies, and, when called upon, deliver the punch that defeats our enemies and exerts control to prevent chaos.
While the future is uncertain, the potential for armed conflict with those who can employ modern weapons is real. Engaging in combat operations without an advantage in mobile protected firepower makes the odds for the enemy far too even, as seen with Task Force Smith in Korea in 1950 and even Task Force Ranger in Somalia in 1993. Without the firepower, protection and shock effect of armored forces, combat operations are likely to be prolonged, resulting in far greater casualties and destruction.
Preserving the advantages conferred by mobile protected firepower is not just prudent, it is essential.