What’s the Poor US Army to do when the Main Adversary is the PRC?

Further to this post,

Western Pacific, or, US Navy vs US Army for Funding, US Army vs US Marines for Missions

all the US services are scrambling to re-purpose themselves to retain maximum relevance in a strategic world truly being turned on its head. The authors of this piece at War on the Rocks suggest for one thing that, since the US Army will essentially have a supporting role vs China, it should put a major focus–through the reserves and National Guard–on various homeland missions:

The Headwinds Looming for the U.S. Army

The rise of China and the primacy of the Indo-Pacific as the U.S. military’s most important theater of operations upend the Army’s longstanding role in American defense. For the first time in decades, land will not be the most critical domain of warfare, and it may not even be the decisive one. In a future war with China, the air and sea domains, together with space and cyber, will define the shape of the conflict. As a force organized, trained, and equipped for land warfare, the U.S. Army clearly will be at a huge disadvantage in both the strategic arguments and budget fights to come. Its budget, end strength, and force structure will all face significant cuts, which could easily exceed the cuts of the sequestration era. In order to adapt successfully to these tectonic shifts, the Army will have to grapple with becoming a supporting service, the shift from maneuver to fires, the growing mission of homeland defense, and rebalancing active and reserve forces.

Taking on a Supporting Role

Though the 2018 National Defense Strategy stressed great-power competition with both China and Russia, the Department of Defense is now explicitly prioritizing China over Russia. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has clearly stated that his goal is “to focus the department on China,” since he sees China as “the pacing threat” that the U.S. military must prepare for. And even though a potential Biden administration would voice much stronger support for NATO and U.S. allies in Europe, China will nevertheless remain the U.S. military’s most dangerous threat. The reasons why are simple and sobering: Only a rising China has the immense economic power, the cutting-edge technological prowess, and increasingly, the advanced military capabilities that could match (or even exceed) those of the U.S. armed forces — and potentially defeat them [see this post: “Does US Lose Non-Nuclear War with China? Part 2“].

The Army will be a supporting service in any potential conflict with China, tasked with enabling the other services in a conflict that would span the vast air and maritime domain of the Western Pacific [emphasis added].

That will be a seismic shift for the Army, since it will no longer conduct the primary combat operations against the nation’s greatest strategic threat. It will fundamentally upend the central warfighting roles and missions the Army has traditionally played against the most dangerous U.S. adversaries for over 75 years. Its ground combat forces will remain essential for deterrence (and, if necessary, fighting) on the Korean peninsula, but otherwise its role in the Western Pacific against China will remain limited. Yet despite this shift, the Army is planning to conduct littoral operations throughout the region that in many ways duplicate missions the Marines have traditionally performed, and updated in their most recent doctrine and Commandant’s Planning Guidance. Instead of competing with the Marines for a major role in the littorals, the Army should instead focus on providing critical enablers to the rest of the joint force in the Pacific [emphasis added]. These include capabilities like land-based air and missile defense, theater-wide logistics and engineering, electronic warfare, and potentially, long-range precision fires. The service’s new Multi-Domain Task Forces, with their integrated cyber, space, fires, and electronic warfare functions, may also provide other innovative capabilities to the Pacific fight that could be more useful than maneuver forces.

The Army’s traditional ground combat capabilities will still be required in Europe. Russia remains the most capable and dangerous potential U.S. adversary in the land domain, and U.S. Army forces will still be required to defend Europe from Russian aggression and buttress NATO’s defense. But those missions, which were the main U.S. strategic priority for many decades, are now a lower national priority than deterring and possibly fighting Chinese aggression in the Pacific [emphasis added–and in fact, were they willing to spend the Euros (and pounds), the Euros could pretty well look after themselves; Trump very much has a point there, see this post: “Euro NATO Willing to try to Deal with a Growling Bear as US faces the Dragon Ascendent?“]

…Traditional artillery used to support maneuver troops generally has a range between 15 and 25 miles. Today, land-based precision rockets and missiles are being developed with potential ranges of over 1,000 miles.

This unprecedented technological leap-ahead is completely altering the roles of fires and maneuver. For the first time, land forces will be able to strike adversaries at strategic ranges without having to utilize nuclear weapons — and that means that they might be able to deliver strategic effects. In the near future, the Army may be able to use precision long-range fires to shatter adversary units, command and control networks, and vulnerable logistics and supply routes. The Army’s main contribution to a future war in the Pacific could soon involve using these new and powerful weapons to strike a wide range of naval and island targets, without utilizing its maneuver forces at all [emphasis added–but the Marines are going for that role too, along with the US Navy and AirForce].

This means that the Army is now overinvested in brigade combat teams. These major maneuver forces will not play a significant role in any conflict with the nation’s primary strategic threat, and so will need to be cut as force structure and end strength decline…The Army should try to reinvest some of the resources freed by these cuts to procure more new long-range fires and further enabling capabilities for the Pacific.

The Growing Mission of Homeland Defense

The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that the United States is better prepared to defend its vital interests overseas than to protect its citizens from attacks at home. Yet for all of the human suffering that the pandemic has caused, basic necessities like food, water, and power remain widely available. But a massive cyber attack against the United States could far too easily disrupt the supply chains that make these essentials available…Any future conflict with a major foreign power will almost certainly spill over into the homeland, with potentially devastating consequences.

…Throughout the nation’s history, the Army has been the principal military service that has provided for the protection of the United States and its citizens at home…

Active Army forces will only have a limited role to play in this vital mission. In a conflict that occurs mainly at home, or an overseas campaign that engages relatively few Army forces, the active Army could help provide logistics, communications, and engineering support for civil authorities within the homeland. But the Army’s reserve component, and especially the Army National Guard, will be far more critical for this mission. The National Guard operates day-to-day under the command of state governors, and is the first military entity on-call to respond to civil disruptions that exceed the capacity of local authorities. During the pandemic, both National Guard and the Army Reserve forces have supported local authorities in missions like food distribution, and providing capabilities like medical augmentation units and mortuary affairs to hard-hit areas. In a major homeland calamity, the reserve component would take on even broader missions, such as providing humanitarian assistance, restoring power and water, and preventing civil disorder. Regardless of the budgetary constraints to come, the rising vulnerability of the homeland means that the Army will have to increasingly prioritize capabilities that can respond to catastrophic domestic events.

…the coming era of fiscal austerity combined with the growing threats to the homeland may well require inverting that traditional relationship. Reserve forces are a wise strategic investment during lean budgetary times, because they preserve both combat and support force structure at far less cost, and provide vital capabilities for both domestic and overseas scenarios. Future wartime demands may find these forces pulled in both directions, but they nevertheless remain a cost-effective investment across a huge range of missions. As the budget axe falls, the Army should not simply make equal cuts to active, reserve, and Guard end strength and force structure in order to share the bureaucratic pain equally. Instead, it should consider preserving some more reserve capabilities above active capabilities, in order to strengthen the total force’s ability to defend the homeland effectively while also husbanding critical war-fighting capabilities in the most economical way possible [emphasis added]

Navigating the Army’s New Strategic Environment

Taken together, these changes will challenge the Army’s traditional identity as the service that delivers war-winning outcomes on land for the nation. It is going to get smaller, and become a supporting service in the nation’s primary theater of potential conflict. Its missions will also expand to include a greater role in homeland security, and the importance and relevance of its reserve component may eclipse that of its active forces in some domains of future conflict [emphasis added]. Navigating the Army through these tremendous challenges will require imagination, resilience, and resolve at every level of command, especially as resources decline. Army senior leaders will need to challenge some of the assumptions that have long guided the force, and overcome deeply ingrained orthodoxies about the relative priorities of warfighting versus support, fires versus maneuver, and active versus reserves. Doing so successfully will help assure that the Army can remain a relevant and vital component of the nation’s military power as it transforms in the years and decades to come.

Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

Now that is truly bold, revolution in army affairs, thinking. Chances of its success…? Would that we had such bold thinking and mission re-evaluation in Canada. Have a look at this earlier post (my thoughts at the end):

COVID-19 Facing the Canadian Government and Military with Major Decisions on Force Structures, Employment and Equipment–how Radical a Re-Shape?

And this post deals with the possibility, in view of COVID-19 and natural disasters, that the Canadian Army may end up with a much greater focus on domestic activities (my thoughts at the end again):


Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

11 thoughts on “What’s the Poor US Army to do when the Main Adversary is the PRC?”

  1. Cuckoo land. Let the Marines try it:

    ‘ ‘Land Forces Are Hard To Kill’: Army Chief Unveils Pacific Strategy
    A new strategy paper from Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville says forward-deployed Army forces will survive inside Chinese missile strikes and fatally disrupt the PLA’s plans.

    The future Army will fight as a tough, intractable “inside force” — a term usually associated with Marines — forward-deployed in adversaries’ backyards, says a new strategy paper from the service’s Chief of Staff. This approach, Gen. James McConville writes, has already shown promise in joint wargames.

    In pop culture terms, the Army’s casting itself as Bruce Willis’s iconic action hero/survivor John McClane, in a new production you might call Die Hard In the Pacific.

    Released today [March 23], “Army Multi-Domain Transformation” calls for long-range, land-based missiles on West Pacific islands to threaten targets deep within China’s “Anti-Access/Area Denial” defenses. (The approach could work in Eastern Europe as well, but the document only mentions the Pacific by name). Rather than deploy from the US in response to an attack – a deployment that enemy missiles, submarines, sabotage, and cyber warfare can disrupt – these forces will be pre-deployed in peacetime or rapidly deployed in crisis, setting up inside the areas the enemy hope to deny access to. Once on the ground, these nimble, logistically lightweight units will avoid destruction by using cover, concealment, camouflage, decoys and frequent relocation.

    “The Army will provide [joint] combatant commanders with land forces that are persistent, cost effective, and survivable,” the paper says. “Technologically connected and geographically dispersed Army forces deployed across the land – whether archipelagic [i.e. islands] or continental – present a key operational problem for adversary sensing and targeting. Put simply, land forces are hard to kill.”..’

    Mark Collins


  2. A friend acquainted with defense matter notes:

    “For sure, land forces are hard to kill. But where are these land forces going to be? South Korea, some in Japan/Okinawa, where else? The Philippines, which can’t make up its mind whose side it’s on. Vietnam? Guam? Australia?

    China can probably disrupt them enough by attacking their communications and harassing supply lines. They can probably find enough of the small caches to target them.

    Purely inter-service competition.”

    Meanwhile back at the Marine Corps.

    Mark Collins


  3. US Army really setting things up for inter-service funding fight as defence budgets likely to flat-line:

    ‘Army, Calling Itself an ‘All-Domain’ Force, Prioritizes Long-Range Strike

    The Army’s new vision dubs it an “All-Domain” Army and envisions “expanding … into the maritime, air, space, and cyber domains” while seizing new roles in long-range strike and suppressing enemy air defense.

    A new white paper released March 16 declares that, while part of the Joint force, the Army holds a pre-eminent role in combat by virtue of its size, and surmises that the other services should adopt its methodologies.

    Titled, “Army Multi-Domain Transformation: Ready to Win in Competition and Conflict,” and released by Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville, the paper envisions a “bold transformation” of Army organizations, weapons, and strategy, to “provide the Joint Force with the range, speed, and convergence of cutting-edge technologies that will be needed to provide future decision dominance and overmatch required to win the next fight.”

    The paper asserts a multi-domain Army “will set the conditions for the Joint Force to fight and win integrated campaigns necessary to defeat state actors.”

    Speaking in a Brookings Institution webinar March 25, McConville expanded on the vision laid out in the paper. He said the Army has a “need to penetrate” enemy airspace, and must therefore have its own long-range precision fires, such as hypersonic missiles, to deter attack and respond when needed. In his vision, such missiles would make the Army the key instrument for negating “what some of our competitors have done with anti-access/area denial” by means of air and missile defenses.

    The concept turns on its head the conventional air-land arrangement, where air power clears the way for ground maneuver; McConville said land-based hypersonic missiles could enable the Army to “certainly suppress air defense, which could open up a gap if we needed to put aerial maneuver into place.”..’

    Mark Collins


  4. Further to this earlier post,

    “Who will be Willing to Host US Intermediate-Range Missiles in the Western Pacific?”

    Who will be Willing to Host US Intermediate-Range Missiles in the Western Pacific?

    this is indeed the question:

    ‘ ‘$64K Question’: Where In Pacific Do Army Missiles Go?
    “Today, there is probably not one of our regional partners in the first island chain that would be willing to base Army — or any other service – long-range strike missiles in their country,” retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr says.

    The Army hasn’t yet figured out which countries would actually host the new long-range missiles it’s developing, an Army strategist acknowledged today. Experts point out that just hosting US weapons with the potential to threaten China may be a risky move for any nation in the region.

    While not an immediate crisis for the service, since prototype missiles don’t enter service until 2023, it’s still a distinct problem for the Army’s new strategy of operating as an “inside force,” one able to deter China from forward positions in the so-called First Island Chain. That line runs from Southeast Asia through the Philippines to Japan and Korea.

    The closest US territory to China is in the Second Island Chain, specifically Guam, Saipan, and the other Mariana Islands — almost 2,000 miles from the Chinese mainland. While exact ranges are highly classified, of the multiple long-range missiles the Army is exploring, it’s probable that only the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) could hit China from Guam…’ Read on.

    Mark Collins


  5. Note this from a retired Indian Navy commodore:

    Mark Collins


  6. An extended island-hopping campaign with the army following on the Marines? Really? Note final para quoted:

    ‘Soldiers aren’t fighting Marines for a job in the Indo-Pacific, chief says

    The Army’s interests in the Indo-Pacific region have some wondering whether soldiers are wading into Marine territory, but the Army’s top officer dismissed those concerns Tuesday [March 30], saying the two services would bring complimentary capabilities to a fight in that part of the world.

    The Marine Corps is overhauling its force so it can quickly move expeditionary units between islands in the South and East China seas and within range of Chinese forces. The recipe calls for a lighter and more mobile Corps than what existed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Army is going through similar changes to prepare for any possible confrontation with a great power.

    Both services are developing long-range fires and anti-ship missiles, but Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville believes the differences lie in mobility.

    “The systems we’re developing are more along the lines of a campaign rather than a quick expeditionary-type,” McConville said during a Center for Strategic and International Studies discussion Tuesday.

    “I don’t see us as in competition with the Marine Corps,” he added. “They have roles and missions that are extremely important, as does the United States Army.”

    The Corps is ditching its tanks and cutting down on the number of tube artillery batteries it owns. In return, Marines are creating a new littoral regiment, building more mobile rocket batteries and putting ship-killer missiles on Joint Light Tactical Vehicles.

    Similarly, long-range fires is the Army’s top modernization priority, and the service is expecting some of those investments to start coming to the force in 2023, including the first hypersonic weapon, precision strike missiles and a prototype mid-range missile.

    Army Pacific commander Gen. Paul LaCamera, who was also present during the CSIS discussion, said the difference also lies in the “mass” that the Army can bring to war.

    If the Marines are “there first and we come in behind them, that allows them to continue to move on,” LaCamera said. “It’s really based on, ‘how do we work well within the concept of design that the commander of INDOPACOM” is using during a war…’

    Mark Collins


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