27 October 2020

The Missions of the U.S. Military

The U.S. military has multiple missions, but for the most part, they are buried in jargon and euphemism. Much of this is done for the purpose of justifying force levels that don't really make sense with modern priorities.

Very little of the expense or focus is on defending the United States against invasion, either by land from Mexico or Canada, or by air and sea. Neither Mexico nor Canada has the capacity or inclination to do so, and the U.S. National Guard alone is probably up to the task of discouraging or defeating such an attempt. Russia could conceivably invade Alaska and likes to challenge U.S. airspace there, but has shown no strong impetus to seize Alaska. Neither Russia nor China nor any other country in the world that is not a strong U.S. ally has the military capacity to launch an amphibious or airborne assault on the U.S. with a significant number of ground troops. The U.S. Coast Guard is sufficient to keep pirates and smugglers in check.

The U.S. Department of Defense has a number of primary missions:

* Defending our allies (especially Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia) from China and North Korea. This is primarily a U.S. Navy mission. The U.S. Army supports this mission from South Korean bases. The U.S. Marine Corps supports this mission from U.S. bases in Japan. The U.S. Air Force also supports this mission. All of these nations have advanced militaries of their own to assist in this effort, and the Philippines isn't entirely adverse to entering a Chinese rather than an American sphere of influence.

* The U.S. Army is charged with assisting our NATO allies in defending themselves against Russian aggression, although it declined to do so in the case of Russian seizure of territory in the Ukraine. The U.S. Air Force also supports this mission. Other NATO members have very advanced militaries of their own to assist in this effort. A Russian led invasion of Finland, Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova, or Romania by Russian forces seems unlikely. Would NATO really step up to bat to defend Estonia, Lithuania or Latvia or Belarus? (None of which seems likely.) Also, Russia is considerably less formidable militarily than the Soviet Union was. It has barely more than half of the economic resources of the Soviet Union, has half the available conscripts, has seen a serious economic setback in the post-Soviet era, has had to devote resources to internal military conflicts, and has cut itself off from many of its key defense contractors by entering into military conflict with the Ukraine.

* The U.S. military might ally itself with Israel in defending Israel against attacks from its enemies but has not done so in multiple previous invasions. Israel has its own advanced military to assist in this effort.

* The U.S. Army had led regime change, peace keeping, and counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Somalia, and various places in the African Sahel, sometimes with Marine Corps involvement as well. The U.S. Air Force also supports this mission. The U.S. Navy provides air bases and missile launching stations in support of ground operations by U.S. forces and our allies in the Middle East and North Africa.

* Defending the oil trade in the Persian Gulf from Iran. This is primarily a U.S. Navy mission. The U.S. Air Force has resources that could support this mission but is rarely tasked to do so.

* Preventing other countries (especially Russia and China) or pirates from interfering with civilian traffic (mostly freight) in international waters. This is primarily a U.S. Navy mission. The U.S. Air Force has resources that could support this mission but is rarely tasked to do so.

* The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are charged with evacuating Americans and our allies from war zones and disaster areas, and sometimes with providing additional disaster or humanitarian aid. The U.S. Air Force also has resources that could support this mission but is rarely tasked to do so.

* The U.S. military, while it has a long history of intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean has done so overtly only a few times in recent history, mostly briefly and sporadically, in Grenada and Panama. The U.S. Air Force has also supported this mission. This mission is not very central to U.S. foreign policy and military priorities.

It is fair to say that acquiring new U.S. territory through conquest is not a significant objective of the U.S. military.

Many of the places that are vulnerable to ground wars of conquest are places that the U.S. does not have a strong national interest in defending. Would the U.S. really care if there was another Iran-Iraq war? Would the U.S. intervene in a ground war invasion of Kashmir? Would the U.S. defend one Arab monarchy against another? The U.S. has shone no interest in intervening militarily in areas that are already under a de facto Russian or Chinese sphere of influence.

There is no likely scenario in which U.S. ground troops would have any sustained non-permissive presence in the territory of a non-allied nation in East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, North Asia, or Central Asia.

There is no likely scenario in which U.S. troops conduct an amphibious invasion of a military near peer enemy nation. The only countries where an amphibious invasion of an enemy nation is plausible are countries that are decidedly inferior to the U.S. militarily.

While quite a few countries have "near peer" military capabilities, all but a handful of them are strong allies of the United States.


Guy said...

Hi Andrew,

Agree 100% with your analysis. There might be an imbalance between the cost of the US military and the value of the missions you describe. Even though talk of hyperpower died out after 9/11 there is probably some positive global value in having a (more or less) benign, (more or less) competent global hegemon that could and and in some cases will (more or less) intervene in regional and subregional conflicts. Modeling such a beast and coming up with credible numbers would be a job for the Seshat folks I guess. Cheers,

andrew said...

I have considered a fairly closely related concept at https://washparkprophet.blogspot.com/2014/08/the-case-for-atrocity-prevention-on.html

This post also has a companion post to follow looking at the technical drivers of changes in force structure. Some of the key points in this post and my thinking generally:
* We need fewer bomb dropping aircraft to achieve the same military capabilities because guided munitions are nearly maximally accurate.
* Missiles are almost always superior to slug throwers whose slugs are big enough to be called "shells" such as howitzers, naval main guns, and tanks, so we should stop making big slug throwers.
* Surface combatants are like going into battle in an RV. Submarines and aircraft are superior for most naval roles than surface combatants.
* The number of premium aircraft and exquisitely trained dog fighting resources we have far exceeds reasonable demand for them and armed drones can do the job better in many, if not most cases.
* For threats more serious than small arms and shrapnel, active defenses (bullet or missile or laser v. missile or bullet) and mobility, and not armor, are the correct responses and we should adapt.
* Army and Marine requirements for off road capabilities are grossly overstated.
* We underinvest in transports and need more kinds of medium fast, medium heavy transports.
* Drones pervasively transform all things military in almost every task at almost every scale and need to be considered both in terms of integrating them into our forces, and defending against opposition drones.
* We need to be better at identifying targets (e.g. forward observers).
* We need to have better foreign language/culture resources.
* Multi-purpose is overrated when you have big budgets.
* Homeland defense should not just be reserve troops for regular military forces, it has different needs that call for different equipment and force structures.
* We need cheaper solutions to some problems.
* We need better ways to escort commercial ships and aircraft.
* We need to get rid of systems for missions that aren't in our portfolio.
* We need to recognize that most major conflicts are fought with allies, not alone.
* Soft power matters.
* Military scenarios need to give more weight to economic influences of foreign affairs that usually restrain conflict.
* We need to consider diplomatic alternatives to very costly military missions (e.g. Taiwan is increasingly ambivalent about independence from China; lots of resources are spent preparing to blow up a handful of nation's enemy submarines that perhaps could be decommissioned diplomatically).