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The Army's Strategic Role

An Online Debate | April 02-April 15, 2009

Participants:

Dr. Steven Metz, SSI
Mr. Nathan P. Freier, CSIS/PKSOI

In this first debate, Steven Metz and Nathan Freier discuss the future strategic role of the U.S. Army.

Jump to:
Final Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Seeding the Debate (Metz)

We welcome thoughtful reader input.

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Final Response

Dr. Steven Metz Photograph

Monday, April 20, 2009
Dr. Steven Metz

I did not mean to suggest that national interests--whether American or in general--are determined solely by geography. I simply meant that geography plays a central role in the strategic calculus--something that the United States forgot during our decades of surplus strategic power.

The strategic calculus implies that the expected benefits of an action (promotion of the national interests, increased security, increased influence and prestige, etc.) must outweigh the expected costs and risks of a given action (or inaction).

The U.S. certainly has interests in far away places like, say, Pakistan and Nigeria. Should order tragically collapse in places like that (and I intend this only as an illustrative point, not a prediction), some sort of American action would be justified. But the extent of U.S. interests in those places would not warrant long term, large scale involvement designed to rebuild their shattered political, economic, and social systems. There are more efficient way of addressing the threat of far away militias, paramilitaries, terrorists in and criminal gangs than trying to engineer good government where it has never existed. For a long time the United States did not need an efficient strategy. Now we do. We must relearn the strategic calculus.

I agree with Nate's contention that we need the capability for "immediate and temporary intervention in failing societies." Is that not what the Marine Corps does?
 

Jump to:
Final Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Seeding the Debate (Metz)


Follow-up Response

Mr. Nathan P. Freier Photograph

Monday, April 20, 2009
Mr. Nathan P. Freier

My use of the words "immediate and temporary" do not by themselves imply small, insignificant, or -- under the worst conditions -- short. The scale and strategic value of plausible and significant "disorder" challenges I have in mind indicate that putting a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) ashore alone -- as Steve suggests -- is akin to "fiddling while Rome burns."

A simple thought experiment is in order. Roll out a world map. Identify the states on it whose stable functioning is uniquely important to the United States. Label this list "strategic states." They are "strategic" precisely because their current or prospective instability, weakness, or incapacitation threatens core U.S. interests.

Strategic states generally fall into five categories. They include: nuclear states; states possessing important strategic resources, economic capacity, or dominant geographic leverage; large states in close proximity to the U.S. or a key partner; hub states where disorder might trigger contagious regional instability; and finally, allies or strategic partners. There are levels of degree and nuance associated with all of them. Not all petroleum states, for example, are "strategic." Nonetheless, these general categories should suffice for now.

Now, with the initial list of "strategic states," identify those that are either currently experiencing crippling instability or are, for a variety of reasons, vulnerable to succumbing to it. Some states are clearly more vulnerable than others. Those that are both vulnerable and important remain on the list. The most stable and secure fall off. Be cautious on the last point. Naturally, gauging the stability of "strategic states" is a judgment call.

I suggest even conservative use of the logic above nets for strategists an inescapable set of plausible worst-case scenarios. Many would require rapid, comprehensive employment of significant U.S. land forces. The principal landpower mission would be stopping and reversing hemorrhaging human insecurity in advance of irreparable harm. In many cases, pursuit of minimum essential strategic and operational objectives like this requires resources and capabilities far in excess of those available to the entire Marine Corps.

In designing future land forces, let's first be realistic about the worst-case future demand signal. I suggest it is likely to be response to a fatally broken strategic state. Then let's be realistic about what can be achieved. Here, I argue for pursuit of limited objectives that will still require significant land forces to achieve unpalatable but nonetheless manageable strategic and operational outcomes.
 

Jump to:
Final Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Seeding the Debate (Metz)


Follow-up Response

Mr. Nathan P. Freier Photograph

Wednesday, April 08, 2009
Mr. Nathan P. Freier

Steve and I are both conservative about intervention. Steve argues that large land forces are less relevant solely because future regime change, occupation, and reconstruction are risk- and cost-prohibitive. I accept his risk and cost calculations on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the future of regime change. However, I arrive at a much different conclusion on the subjects of force size and capability. Here's where we differ.

Neither regime change nor classical COIN are my points of departure on landpower force planning. Both are low-probability events. Both also imply the existence of some order -- albeit unfavorable. In my view, the U.S. is far more threatened by sudden failure of order altogether. The contingency events likeliest to compromise core interests are neither military attack nor classical insurgent success. Instead, our most complex threats will be highly unconventional, often culminating in rapid dissolution of functioning order in a key region.

Land forces enjoy comparative advantages here. Today, they are the only policy instruments capable of delivering lethal force and enabling employment of essential non-military resources and aid simultaneously. Building on these advantages will be critical.

The bulk of land forces should optimize for expeditionary intervention in environments exhibiting four qualities. First, core U.S. interests should be in jeopardy. I think Steve and I agree here. Yet, Steve implies that core interests are a matter of geography alone -- specifically North America. I see core interests as both geographical and functional. They are areas of concern inextricably linked to the physical security, prosperity, and general welfare of the U.S., its population, and its principal foreign partners. Sudden loss of sovereign control over a nuclear arsenal; catastrophic interruption of the world's oil supply; violent dissolution of strategic states; and pandemic or social dislocation in the Americas all rank high in an expanding universe of unconventional threats. All could easily require substantial landpower employment in response.

As for the second quality, land force optimization should focus on conflict environments that are non-permissive and violent. In short, satisfactory outcomes will still rely on the threat or use of force. Land forces remain "warfighting" institutions but must reorient on a less ordered and more complex "warfighting" future. Third, land forces should optimize for environment's where purposeful threats exhibit some organization and sophistication. These threats range from remnants of a fallen state's armed forces, to militias and paramilitaries, and finally, to terrorists and criminal gangs. Some combination of all of these will be common. All will operate according to varying rule-sets. And, finally, each will pursue widely divergent interests or objectives. Thus, organization and sophistication does not imply order. Finally, fourth and perhaps most important, U.S. landpower should assume future employment in an environment where foreign partners or third parties have suffered substantial loss of sovereign control over local outcomes. Thus, the U.S. will respond initially largely in the absence of a capable local ally.

Prudent force planning requires that strategists account for the most likely and most dangerous contingencies. Conditions outlined above clearly fall into the latter and may increasingly fall into the former. Meeting complex contingency challenges like this requires robust land forces. I, like Steve, favor pursuit of limited strategic and operational objectives in the future. These do not commonly include forceful extension of legitimate government; comprehensive regime replacement; or revolutionary political transformation. Rather, most involve immediate and temporary intervention in failing societies where managing and not eliminating their worst risks and implications is the principal objective. Achieving even this minimalist pursuit, however, is a man- and resource-intensive undertaking. While always inherently a joint and interagency endeavor, missions like this will nonetheless rely on landpower as the principal military instrument.

Jump to:
Final Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Seeding the Debate (Metz)


Follow-up Response

Dr. Steven Metz Photograph

Monday, April 06, 2009
Dr. Steven Metz

While Nate's position and mine are not diametric, there are some crucial distinctions. The structure, focus, and size of America's military depends on what the Nation intends to do with it. This, in turn, must reflect the core logic of strategy which we, unfortunately, lost sight of after the trauma of September 11.

The core logic of strategy holds that the expected benefits of an action should outweigh the expected costs and risks. When the United States had a surfiet of power and money, we could deviate from this. But in coming decades, we must once again follow it.

Nate notes many of the security challenges and threats likely to characterize the future security environment such as terrorists, insurgents, political extremists, toxic populists, and hostile state or state-like competitors employing "hybrid war" or "war without warfighting." While I accept the list, the question is whether the expected benefits of confronting such challenges by intervention, occupation, and re-engineering a problematic political and economic system justify the massive political, economic, and human costs of doing so. I believe that outside America's core security region (North America), the answer will almost always be "no."

I fear that we have adopted the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as models of the future without considering whether the security American gained by removing Saddam Hussein and the Taliban the way we did was worth the political, economic, and blood costs. Hostile regime, failed states and ungoverned territory are less of a threat to American security and power than costly attempts to fix them.

There are ways to deal with non-state opponents other than intervention, occupation, and social re-engineering. If there are terrorist sanctuaries in a foreign state, we could undertake spoiling raids and containment. If there is a humanitarian disaster, we could participate in a short term multinational coalition effort to address it. If a nuclear state fails, we could undertake limited military operations to gain control of existing nuclear weapons and destroy the capability to produce more. If a friendly state faces insurgency, we could provide limited advice and assistance.

All of these things require effective landpower, but not necessarily a huge Army capable of large scale, protracted stabilization operations or counterinsurgency. To me, arguments in favor of that type of Army are more an idea in search of a mission than a reflection of what future American political leaders are likely to do.

Jump to:
Final Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Seeding the Debate (Metz)


Follow-up Response

Mr. Nathan P. Freier Photograph

Friday, April 03, 2009
Mr. Nathan P. Freier

The forthcoming QDR will provide an important venue for debating the future role of land forces. Steve Metz correctly identifies mass use of landpower to "drain the [terrorist] swamp" as too risk-laden and costly. Clearly, there are better ways to manage the stateless terrorist challenge. Yet, he -- like much of the national security elite -- still implicitly accepts that the War on Terror (WoT) itself is the nation's most compelling, defense-relevant national security demand. Those holding this view naturally believe that the relative value of all DoD capabilities -- landpower included -- should be judged first against their contribution to the WoT as we currently define it.

I hold a much different view. The current WoT (and its implied commitment to remake broken states) cannot remain the dominant justification for maintaining robust and expeditionary land forces. There are far more compelling reasons for doing so. Let's stipulate to the fact that the U.S. faces a smoldering "war" against Muslim extremists for some time to come. But, let's not overvalue the WoT strategically nor over-estimate the cost of prosecuting it. Since 9/11, a WoT of some description is a persistent surcharge for singular great power. Yet, it by no means captures the entirety of the nation's unconventional challenge set.

Like Steve, I too believe that most defense-relevant, future challenges will not conform to the conventions of traditional warfighting. And, I challenge the widely-held notion that counterterrorism (CT) and classical counterinsurgency (COIN) present U.S. senior leaders with their most vexing unconventional demands. I think Steve would agree that current trends in DoD hazard over-optimization for direct action CT and COIN. Both are important but insufficient lenses for judging the value of landpower and scoping its structure and missions. Unfortunately, our agreement ends there.

Unlike Steve, I do believe that strong U.S. land forces remain centerpiece capabilities in a world increasingly defined by complex, unconventional threats that are land- and people-centric. To use a contemporary financial analogy, the U.S. faces a range of "systemic risks" worldwide. Many have the potential to trigger contagious instability. Most occur at the intersection of war of some description and low politics. And, they emerge from or free-ride on vulnerable populations sitting astride the most important U.S. interests. All can result in uncontrolled human insecurity, extreme political and economic hazard, and even direct existential threats to the United States and its population.

These new-age unconventional threats manifest themselves by hostile design. These are "threats of purpose" like terrorists, insurgents, political extremists, toxic populists, and hostile state or state-like competitors employing "hybrid war" or "war without warfighting." Purposeful challengers like these erode U.S. influence, often without offering a legitimate casus belli or exposing themselves to obvious U.S. military advantages. Their most effective tool may be direct or proxy subversion and destabilization of key U.S. partners.

Dangerous unconventional challenges also materialize in the absence of hostile purpose. These are "threats of context" like pervasive criminality; political, economic, and security failures; and natural or human disaster. These promise to trigger uncontrolled human insecurity. USG responses to both "purposeful" and "contextual" threats, under the worst circumstances and combinations, would require substantial U.S. landpower involvement.

Steve is right. From both a strategy and resource perspective, prudent adjustments to the contemporary defense status quo are essential. I think we both agree that the U.S. should pursue more limited strategic and operational objectives in future interventions. A more conservative, temperate, and realistic approach is clearly in order.

Nonetheless, dangerous unconventional threats of "purpose" and "context" will continue to draw U.S. land forces into less traditional, manpower-intensive contingencies. These will often involve substantial combat action and the simultaneous and temporary provision of essential public goods. Thus, the terms conservative, temperate, and realistic are not code for infrequent, unsubstantial, or inconsequential. In a failed "strategic state" of equal or greater size to Iraq, for example, even pursuit of minimalist objectives would still demand significant land force investments. And, there may be very little choice about intervention.

In its new unconventional operating space, landpower performs two roles. It delivers lethal and non-lethal military effects, and it enables short-term delivery of essential non-military resources to governments and populations at risk. For the foreseeable future, landpower will be the nation's principal first responder in foreign contingencies where 1) core interests are at grave risk; 2) the indigenous order has been seriously undermined or incapacitated by instability and conflict; 3) violence or the threat of violence remains high; and finally, 4) restoration and maintenance of a new more stable order is only possible through whole-of-government responses that rely on force for success.

The United States will refrain from future interventions predicated on deliberate regime change. Yet, landpower will still be the USG's instrument of choice for restoring minimum essential security conditions and containing uncontrolled instability when, in the future, key regimes fail or suffer under mortal duress. A quick survey of the world offers a range of plausible scenarios. In many, the price of inaction is unacceptable.

Jump to:
Final Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Seeding the Debate (Metz)


Seeding the Debate

Dr. Steven Metz Photograph

Thursday, April 02, 2009
Dr. Steven Metz

Whither the Army? Debate rages within the service itself and in the broader strategic community. This is often portrayed as a choice between optimizing for counterinsurgency or conventional warfighting. The verbal battles between John Nagl and Gian Gentile illustrate this. Some thinkers such as Thomas Donnelly and Frederick Kagan contend that the U.S. Army must dominate both domains, and thus advocate a significant increase in the size of the force.

But there are signs that the future U.S. Army may not be committed to either large scale, protracted counterinsurgency/stabilization operations or large scale conventional warfighting. It may instead drop to a subsidiary role American strategy. To understand this, we must dissect the assumptions of American strategy and examine the broad changes underway in the global security environment.

First, the assumptions. Over the past five years the Army (along with the other Services, the Joint community, and other agencies of the government) undertook a massive effort to become more effective at irregular conflict, particularly counterinsurgency and stabilization. This was based on the belief that instability and violence fueled extremism which was sometimes turned against the United States. Hence American strategy was to "drain the swamp" by helping build effective, responsive governments and prosperous economies. This might require Army involvement in counterinsurgency and stabilization to give partner regimes the breathing space to undertake reform. Preferably this would be in an advisory and support role but, if necessary, could be in a direct one.

The great flaw with this idea is its massive inefficiency--the costs of any gains to American security far outweigh the benefits. It is as if one elects to protect their family against disease by sanitizing the city dump where bacteria may grow. The world is full of "swamps." By all measures, they are growing, not shrinking. The economic and human costs of stabilizing them and making them prosperous are astronomical. In the last few decades of the 20th century and the first of the 21st century, the United States could afford an expensive and inefficient "drain the swamps" strategy. But as we grapple with an aging population, exploding health care costs, decaying infrastructure, and mounting educational challenges, the American people will no longer tolerate such inefficiency. This suggests that future military operations will not emulate Iraq and Afghanistan (which is the basis of current plans and programs).

Moreover, the "drain the swamp" approach assumes that the regimes which the United States will support conceptualize the problem the same way we do. They share our belief that their nations need deep political and economic reform, and are willing to undertake it. Reality does not support this. In the restive parts of the world which spawn violent extremism, the elite--those people with the ability to alter the system which gave rise to extremism--gain great benefits from the system they dominate. To ask them to undertake deep reform is to request that they commit political and economic suicide. Recognizing this, they often do just enough to keep American assistance flowing, but not enough to truly transform their nations. There is little reason to think this will ever change. Our current strategy, with its basis in flawed assumptions, allows such regimes to play the United States.

Finally, current American strategy assumes that proficiency at counterinsurgency and stabilization will deter outbreaks of internal violence. There is little to support this article of faith. Deterrence requires both capability and credibility. Few potential insurgents believe the United States will intervene to stop them in any significant way. If anything, the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan has made the risk of American intervention even less likely for the world's insurgents.

What of the changes underway in the global security environment? The traditional application of landpower was based the existence of an identifiable enemy which had to control territory in order to mobilize power, extract resources, and launch operations. Security was geographic. There was a place on the map that the enemy controlled. If the United States (or our allies) could control that place, the enemy would be weakened or destroyed and U.S. security augmented. Now this is changing.

As strategic theorists and futurists constantly remind us, we are entering an era where most enemies will be difficult or impossible to identify. Even more importantly, they will not be geographically rooted in the sense that past enemies were. Certainly they must exist somewhere, but they will be able to mobilize resources and launch operations from any number of places, perhaps even anywhere. If the United States controls one area where they are based, they will simply flow to another. America will then find that it cannot control everywhere simultaneously.

This has profound importance for the Army. Throughout human history, the primary purpose of armies has been to seize and control terrain. But if seizing and controlling a given piece of terrain no longer assures the defeat of the enemy, then traditional landpower declines in strategic salience. Certainly the United States will still need the capability for expeditionary operations limited in scope and time. Whether it will need landpower in the same way as in the past--whether the Army will remain the co-equal of the Air Force and Navy--may be in question.

Jump to:
Final Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Follow-up Response (Metz)
Follow-up Response (Freier)
Seeding the Debate (Metz)


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