28 October 2020

The Army's Future In East Asia And Larger Related Trends

An op-ed on military affairs in a military oriented specialty journal argues that for the near future, China is a bigger concern than Russia, militarily, and discusses what this shift in mission and technological change mean this will look like. 

Overall, I think the authors, David Barno and Nora Bensahel, on the right track, so I restate a substantial chunk of their analysis below (italics in the original, bold emphasis mine, paragraph breaks inserted to suit the blog format's reading needs):

During the Cold War, the U.S. Army formed the bulk of NATO forces postured to deter or defeat a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. It also provided most of the forces that served in Korea, Vietnam, the 1991 Gulf War, and more recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army has grown accustomed to being what’s called the supported service, where the other services help enable its land operations. 
Yet the explicit prioritization of China over Russia means that this relationship is about to flip. 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. . . .
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. 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. The fact that the Army’s primary combat mission is now a secondary national security priority will pose enormous challenges for the service, including almost certain cuts to Army force structure and end strength, and present an uncomfortable degree of risk in the European theater.

The Shift from Maneuver to Fires

Finally, the Army is being disrupted by the changing relationship between fires and maneuver, as both weapons technology and the importance of long-range precision fires in future conflicts rapidly advance. Traditionally, the Army has devoted a sizable part of its end strength to maneuver units — primarily the infantry, armor, and cavalry formations that assault the enemy and seize and hold terrain — and relied on fires from artillery and rockets to support those maneuver forces. But the advent of precision long-range fires is inverting this traditional relationship. 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.

The bottom line is that the Army's main missions in East Asia are launching relatively long range precision missile strikes from land based launchers, and operating land based missile defense systems.

* The authors don't spell out the point, but this isn't just because Russia is a declining power, while China is a rising one. It is also, and to a greater extent, a question of our objectives. 

What the Army and Marines can do, that the Air Force and Navy cannot, is hold territory on land. In Europe, Central Asia (i.e. Afghanistan), and the Middle East (and before that in Vietnam and Korea), holding territory was a key objective of military action. 

But, the U.S. and its allies have no desire to hold or control territory on land in China. It isn't that American troops couldn't hold territory on some intrinsically irrelevant islands in off of China's coast. It couldInstead, the current effort is to deny China monopoly control over maritime territory needed for international shipping, and to a lesser extent to legally exclude foreign military vessels, for fishing, and to exploit underwater mineral resources. The largely barren and undeveloped islands interspersed within those seas are relevant only as a quirk of somewhat obsolete diplomatic and international law rules.

The shift in the Army's role does recapitulate a few key points I've been making, more or less loudly, and more or less repeatedly, which I'll restate here:

* Slug throwers with slugs big enough to be called "shells" have been technologically surpassed across the board by missiles and "smart bombs". Missiles are now more accurate, have longer ranges, come in more sizes to suit particular needs, and perform better in lethality to relative to the combined weight and bulk of the munitions and their delivery systems, right down to systems carried by infantry in light vehicles. Missiles cost more per round than shells, but the hottest conflicts anywhere in the world by any military force in modern times delver few rounds in anger, higher accuracy compensates for some of the discrepancy, and much of the cost disadvantage of missiles involves intellectual property royalties for guidance system patents that are well on their way to expiring and dramatically lowering the per unit price of missiles.

* Active defenses (like surface to air missiles (SAMs), Patriot missile defense systems, a land adapted version of the Navy's Close In Weapons System, and directed energy weapons, i.e. high voltage lasers, to take down incoming missiles, shells, and drones) now predominate over static armor. The Marine Corps is getting out of utilizing tanks entirely, which is a wise move. There is almost no bunker that a suitable missile or bunker buster bomb that can be delivered by aircraft can't defeat.

* Institutionally it makes less sense than it ever has to maintain a separate Army and Air Force. Donald Trump's creation of the "Space Force" was a step backward. The Army and Air Force are more interdependent than they have ever been and making a top level bureaucratic segregation of our military resources on this obsolete basis didn't make sense in the 1970s in Vietnam, and makes even less sense now.

The necessity case for 1,000 mile range Army missiles is pretty silly, when the Air Force has that problem well in hand already. If the Army and Air Force were integrated:

* we wouldn't have forced engaged in duplicative procurement efforts to develop long range precision strike capabilities, 

* we would be using rugged short takeoff and landing fixed wing aircraft rather than utility helicopters in many roles where helicopters are the vehicle of choice despite having inferior capabilities for the mission because Army generals can control them rather than asking another military service for backup;

* the Air Force wouldn't have spent the last 30-40 years underinvesting in close air support and Army transport missions, and overinvesting in bombers and air to air combat missions to the same extent that it has; and

* integration of Army forward observers calling in strikes and Air Force resources delivering them would been more seamless and would have happened sooner.

An aside:

The U.S. military has immense fraud, waste and abuse, as the largest bureaucracy at any level of the United States government that is larger and far more complex than any private U.S. corporation. But the big dollars of defense funds misspent come from unclear or unwise priorities at a strategic level (most military procurement simply seeks to replace what is worn out or outdated on a one to one basis with new versions of basically the same things, without really revisiting why and whether we need them) and technological bad decisions, that require thoughtful and hard choices at the top to address, not diligence in rooting out corruption and mid-level incompetence at the Pentagon and in defense contractors. We need more of some things, but much less of others than we are buying.

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