March 4, 2014  

Stalin’s successor is teaching

Russian tanks roll on a street in Tskhinvali, Georgia, in 2008. (Photo: AFP / Viktor Drachev)

Americans should learn

By Douglas Macgregor

President Obama warns that if Russia intervenes with military power to crush the new Ukrainian government in Kiev there will be a cost. Yet it’s hard to know what the U.S. president can actually do that would impress Russian President Vladimir Putin.

America’s post-Cold War surplus of military power is gone. It was squandered on occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The preoccupation with “irregular warfare,” the self-defeating interventions, and conflicts with insurgents that have no armies, no air forces, no air defenses and no naval strength — these have left the U.S. unprepared for current and future crises.

Shrinking the Army in favor of light infantry-centric, counterinsurgency-focused units has turned what’s left of the Regular Army into a large constabulary force. The failure to consolidate Army combat power through reorganization, to extract more fighting power from its remaining numbers has destroyed support for new, survivable combat platforms the Army needs. Capability depends on organization, technology and leadership, not just numbers.

In the Navy, shrinking defense dollars are diverted into amphibious carriers and service-unique jet aircraft for the Marine Corps at a point in time when slow, diesel-powered mini-aircraft carriers with minimal self-protection cannot operate in anything other than an extremely permissive environment. The Department of the Navy cannot afford two independent air forces that operate variants of the same aircraft or that field different aircraft for overlapping missions.

The Air Force and Navy need strike weapons that are larger, faster, and have more penetrating power and lethality. Continental opponents like China or Russia would absorb the precision-guided missile strikes envisioned in Air-Sea Battle the way a sponge absorbs water.

And broadly, the way American military power is organized and commanded obstructs unity of effort and supports wasteful spending. The President and the Defense Secretary do not actually command the U.S. Armed Forces, they referee them. Because there is no national defense staff designed to assist the nation’s civilian leaders with the command and development of the armed forces, the American people depend on an ad hoc committee of service chiefs, combatant commanders, the Defense Secretary and the President for collective military leadership.

Putin understands unity of command. He has a national general staff and he commands the armed forces. He also knows that only ready, trained Army forces equipped with mobile armored firepower integrated with powerful air forces can initiate decisive offensive operations, punch through enemy resistance, encircle and destroy enemy forces. Secretary Hagel should know too, but he has deferred to the Army four-stars, men who treat the U.S. Army and its soldiers like an old tire, letting air out until money and people are provided to re-inflate it.

But there comes a time when you cannot re-inflate the old tire, when the old tire must be replaced with something new and better. It’s why Putin has subjected the Russian Army to sweeping reform and reorganization, eliminating its divisions and replacing them with large, mobile brigade groups commanded by generals — mobile armored formations designed for decisive operations in concert with Russian airpower.

Russia is not as strong as it once was. Russia’s armed forces number less than a million, down from 14 million in the 1980s, but like China, Russia is still a great continental power with massive air defenses and a powerful army.

Fortunately, unlike Stalin between 1929 and 1932, Putin cannot murder millions of Ukrainians with impunity. Public displays of Russian brutality might alert the American people to Russia’s true nature. Worse, it might wake up Germany and the rest of the Europeans from their long, comfortable sleep. These are the reasons why Putin is moving cautiously to secure control of Ukraine’s “Russified” East and Crimea,” before gradually pushing Russian military power West to Poland’s and NATO’s eastern border.

But it would help enormously if the U.S. Army could provide the United States and NATO with the capabilities they need, if there was an option to rapidly deploy integrated joint U.S. Army and aerospace forces to Central and Eastern Europe. It would be a game-changer if the American people had an army capable of providing the core of an allied force around which the armies of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Germany could assemble. Then the President could hold Moscow’s aims in Ukraine hostage to Western political demands.

Sadly, the option does not exist. Putin knows it.

Col. (ret) Doug Macgregor is a decorated combat veteran, a Ph.D and the author of five books on military strategy and reform. 


  1. […] Macgregor, Doug. “Stalin’s Successor Is Teaching.” Armed Forces Journal. March 4, 2014. http://armedforcesjournal.com/stalins-successor-is-teaching/ […]