December 18, 2013  

From fuzzy to focus: Questions to ask about strategic land power

By Peter W. Singer

In recent months, various parties have looked at America’s ground forces and their potential roles, utility, and — perhaps most importantly — narrative in the “post-Iraq” and soon “post-Afghanistan” era. These range from the Strategic Landpower Task Force, created by the Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command to “study the role of forces that operate on the land” (and many think to complement and counterpoint the Navy and Marine Corps AirSea Battle concept) to a major Time magazine article entitled “The War Within the U.S. Army,” which looks at how “A force built to fight the Cold War is now battling changes to its size, shape and mission in the age of the drone.”

These projects have great merit, especially in how they identify the issues, which go deeper than how many personnel to trim in the next fiscal year. But while they consistently and correctly say the ground forces are “at a crossroads,” they stop short of the next necessary step: describing the forces’ desired focuses, which so far remain loosely identified or even opaque. Moreover, those actually laid out are, in general, not specific to land power. For instance, the DoD documents have emphasized a narrative of the ground forces’ key role in what is called “winning the contest of wills,” in the 21st century’s war in the “human domain.” These are certainly worthy goals, but they apply to every era, realm, type, and locale of warfare; whether with a stone or a drone, war is always a contest of wills between humans. The agenda for land power’s exploration is therefore so wide as to ensure agreement, but may be so non-specific that it prevents advancement.

If we are to wrestle with the important issues that lie before us, and ensure the viability and utility of land power in U.S. strategy through the 21st century, we must begin to identify and explore a more actionable agenda. Here are a set of questions, by no means comprehensive, around which we may center our exploration via studies, exercises, gaming, debate and discussion.

1. What constitutes land power in the 21st century, and what does not? Much as air power did in the last century, how does the opening of new domains, like cyber, as a realm of operation shape it today?

2. The domain in which land forces operate is fundamentally shifting in its very makeup and contours, as the global population becomes almost 60 percent urban. How must American and allied land forces adjust in their organization, training, equipment, doctrine, etc. for their ever more likely deployments into cities, an operational environment which land forces have historically avoided, all the more so as it is one in which they traditionally perform poorly?

3. The emerging strategic environment is characterized by stakeholders and disruptive forces that range from rising states to super-empowered small groups and individuals. What does this mean for 21st-century American land forces and their training and organization? Should they be regionally aligned, and if so, how to do so in a deeper manner than the present veneer? What “rebalance” if any in this alignment is needed? Or should they be tailored for the most challenging, if not most likely, scenarios, settings, or adversaries, in the hope of then being applicable to lesser challenges?

4. Partnership capacity building is viewed as an inherent good in American strategy and land forces will play a key, if not dominant, role in this effort for the foreseeable future, and even more so in Asia. Yet, our recent and historic track record is at best mixed in its effectiveness, too often overly tactical, often not sticking, and ultimately not well aligned in final outcomes with strategic interests. How can this be improved?

5. Land component forces have seen the greatest variation in their force size expansion and cuts in the last few decades. They have been cut deeper, then grown larger, and now again being cut deeper again than air, sea, and cyber forces. This historic pattern reflects the more central role of personnel vs. large-scale systems in land forces. How should this dynamic shape not merely the size of the force, as often is the focus, but the skill sets we chose to retain vs. let go, especially within the officer corps?

6. Are there capabilities and skill sets that may be integral to future uses of land power, but we are veering away from due to institutional/cultural/bureaucratic aversions? For example, coastal defense was a core role of the U.S. Army in the 1800s and later, in the first half of the 1900s, of the Marine Corps. Perhaps this is a capacity we or our partners should explore building, especially in Asia, rather than amphibious landing teams or other offensive forces. And yet, this doesn’t meld well with American land power thinking for the last several decades, which has focused on seizing the initiative, operating with agility, and other more offensive-minded frameworks. Air and missile defense is a similar potential role that is not emphasized in our present thinking and yet may be a greater need in the future for both our own forces as well as partner capacity building.

7. How does the new strategic environment and the scope of foreseeable contingencies redefine the requisite capabilities and capacities of land forces, especially for existing major systems and planned programs? This is where the rubber literally hits the road in determining the difference between concept and change. If you buy exactly the same things as you planned to beforehand, it then clearly was a mechanism for justifying the status quo.

8. We cannot be certain where or when we might deploy U.S. land forces in the future, but it is all but certain that any significant deployment would be as part of a coalition, both for domestic and global political reasons, as well as to expand available forces of a smaller U.S. land component. What does this mean for the strategic use of land power in the 21st century? How can we achieve deeper interoperability in land power, such as of the sort that has become possible between the U.S. and NATO allied air forces? This is not just a political issues. On the land, we have far more mixed capabilities among partners than as has been the case with NATO air operations. More directly put, not all Allies are equal. How best should land component planning balance the strategic advantages of including different allies and partners with the operational challenges of mixed capabilities?

9. Does the existing model of forward deployment of land forces still match the new strategic environment and potential uses of land power? This is not just a question of financial costs of foreign bases vs. CONUS training and basing locales. How do new potential adversary capabilities in anti-access and area-denial/long range strike change what should and shouldn’t be forward deployed? Does (and if so where does) the existing model create critical points of failure that might be exploited by a foe in the future? Are we more agile or more unwieldy, or even leading with our chin?

10. What are the actual elements of American land power and what missing pieces should be more included in our conceptualization? Any external actor looking at the U.S. operations in the Balkans, Iraq or Afghanistan would note that half our land force was private contractors (some American, but a large part 3rd country nationals). Any future use of land power would likely be the same because of the dependencies we have unintentionally introduced into our modern deployment and sustainment system. And yet beyond some cursory language on the “total force,” contractors are not integrated into land forces prior planning and legal/operational structure the way for instance the modern partnership of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet is into air transport operations.

11. For the last several decades, U.S. land forces have operated on an assumption of having superior technology to their foes, often a generation or more ahead. What does the looming shift in this dynamic (where military forces increasingly must “spin in” new technologies from the civilian side vs. spinning it out for civilians to later adapt) mean for American land units?

12. Success in land warfare, if not all forms of warfare, has traditionally not come from simply superior technology or numbers of personnel. It has come from ideas and doctrines. This holds even more so in strategic surprises, where a previously powerful land power was shockingly defeated and humbled. What lessons can the U.S. land forces learn from this, both in looking backwards, as well as toward the future operating environment and tools at our and our enemy’s disposal?

It is important to reinforce that these are questions, and that is the spirit that one would hope would guide U.S. explorations. They are not intended to justify land forces in the 21st century, but rather give it an agenda for exploration that would better shape that narrative. To put it another way: if you lead with the answers, you wind up at the same “crossroads” where you began.

P.W. Singer is director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution and author of the forthcoming book Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know. He is not an alumni of, nor has ever received funding from Net Assessment. Follow him on Twitter: @peterwsinger.