The Future of U.S. Ground Forces



Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to appear before you today, and to share my views on the future of U.S. Ground Forces. As we begin a new administration, we are sobered by the security challenges that have emerged in recent years: the attacks of 9/11; the deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq and Afghanistan; the erosion of barriers to nuclear proliferation; and the rapid rise of China and resurgence of Russia. Not surprisingly, there is considerable interest in what this portends for the U.S. military in general and our ground forces in particular.

Of course, any detailed discussion of how our ground forces might best be organized, structured, trained and equipped to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing security environment should be informed by a sound national security strategy. Anything less would be putting the cart before the horse. The Obama administration has a strategy review under way. This review stands to be the most important review since the Cold War’s end.

My testimony is focused primarily on the Army, given the dominant position it holds in providing ground forces for our country.1

The National Security Challenges Facing the Army

The three challenges confronting the U.S. military today—the war against Islamist terrorist elements, the prospect of nuclear-armed rogue states, and the potential rise of China as a military rival—differ greatly from those confronted during the Cold War era. Nor do they resemble the threats planned for in the immediate post-Cold War era, when minor powers like Iran, Iraq and North Korea which lacked weapons of mass destruction and were assumed to present challenges not all that different from Iraq during the First Gulf War. Nevertheless, this assumption led the U.S. military to focus its attention on waging two such conflicts in overlapping time frames from 1991 until the 9/11 attacks. 2

For the Army, these new challenges all suggest the onset of an era of persistent, irregular conflict. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq show no signs of ending soon. The same can be said regarding the war against Islamist terrorist groups operating around the globe. Moreover, the rising youth bulge in Africa, the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and in parts of Latin America only promises to increase the strain on governments in these regions, increasing the prospect for further instability and even state failure. As unprecedented numbers of young people in these parts of the world come of age, they will find themselves competing in a global economy in which they are hampered by a lack of education and burdened by corrupt and incompetent governments. The communications revolution will enable radical groups to influence large numbers of these young adults, and attempt to recruit them. Even if radical elements succeed in winning.

Over only 1 percent of the young as they rise to adulthood, they will have recruited millions to their cause. For much of history, large numbers of people were required to cause disruption and destruction. Yet as groups like Aum Shinrikyo,3 al Qaeda, and Hezbollah have shown, thanks to the advent and spread of highly destructive technologies even small groups can create widespread disorder.

It does not end there. Should minor powers hostile to the United States, such as Iran, acquire nuclear weapons, they will likely feel emboldened to take greater risks in backing groups pursuing ambiguous forms of aggression. In Iran’s case, this could lead to greater support for radical groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Mahdi Army, as well as others. If the United States is unable to convince China to abandon its attempts to exclude the U.S. military from East Asia and to threaten America’s access to the global commons, the competition could spill over into irregular proxy wars in developing nations. China could pursue this path both in an attempt to tie the United States down in costly, protracted conflicts, and to position itself to secure access to important or scarce raw materials.

1 My testimony is essentially a summary of my monograph on the Army. See Andrew F. Krepinevich, An Army at the Crossroads (Washington, DC: CSBA, 2008).

2 The two major regional conflict (MRC) posture was succeeded by the two major theater war (MTW) and major combat operations (MCO) postures, which essentially represented variations on the same theme: regional wars against minor powers in the Persian Gulf and Northeast Asia. The U.S. force posture did not begin to change significantly until after the 9/11 attacks and the onset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

3 On March 20, 1995, members of a Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, released sarin nerve gas in a coordinated attack on five trains in the Tokyo subway system. Although the attack was botched, 12 commuters were killed and 54 seriously injured, while nearly 1,000 more people suffered some ill effects. Kyle B. Olson, “Aum Shinrikyo: Once and Future Threat?” Centers for Disease Control, accessed at, on March 21. 2009.

A FullSpectrum Force

Given the advent of an era of persistent irregular conflict, with its emphasis on manpower-intensive operations on land, the Army is destined to play a central role in U.S. defense strategy. The Service will need to build on its hard-won expertise in conducting these kinds of operations, whether they go by the name of stability operations; foreign internal defense; internal defense and development; stability, security, transition and reconstruction operations; counterinsurgency; or irregular warfare.4 At the same time, the Army must also hedge against a resurrection of rivals who look to challenge its dominance in more traditional, or conventional, forms of warfare.

These disparate missions argue for an Army that can operate effectively across the entire conflict spectrum. However, because the range of missions is so broad, and the skill sets required sufficiently different, attempting to field forces that can move quickly and seamlessly from irregular warfare to conventional warfare seems destined to produce an Army that is barely a “jack-of-all-trades,” and clearly a master of none. This approach becomes all the more problematic when one considers the ongoing erosion of quality in the officer and Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) corps, and in the Service’s recruiting standards.5 Yet this is what the Army is attempting to accomplish through its “full-spectrum” force.

The Army has understandably felt compelled to pursue the “full-spectrum” approach owing to the need to cover a range of missions within the limitations on its size imposed by fiscal constraints and its all-volunteer character. Yet even if this approach were viable, the Army remains too small for larger irregular warfare contingencies, let alone those that occur simultaneously.

Fortunately, the authors of the U.S. defense strategy have wisely chosen to address the gap between the scale of the challenges confronting the nation and the forces available to address them by focusing on building up the military capabilities of threatened states, and of America’s allies and partners. The Army must give greater attention to supporting this strategy, especially with regard to stability operations, as the best means of addressing the challenge of preparing to conduct operations at high levels of effectiveness across the conflict spectrum.

The Army has specialized forces. It will need more.

The Service has for decades fielded forces specialized for airborne operations and air assault operations. Of course, the Army also has its Special Forces, expert in a range of irregular warfare operations. It has forces specially designed for high-end warfare, and plans to continue in this vein with the Future Combat Systems Brigade Combat Teams (FCS BCTs), which the Army properly recognized are “optimized” for conventional warfare. These kinds of forces are designed to surge on short notice to address conventional contingencies. While it was once argued that such “general-purpose” forces could readily shift gears to handle contingencies at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, the evidence of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq suggests the contrary. Moreover, the Army’s new doctrine confirms the triumph of real-world experience over wishful thinking. Thus what the Army lacks are forces designed to surge in the event of a major contingency at the lower end of the conflict spectrum, as well as forces designed to prevent such a contingency from arising in the first place.

The Army needs to field two surge forces, one for conventional operations, the other for irregular warfare. Should either form of conflict prove protracted, the other wing of the force could, over the course of the initial twelve- to fifteen-month surge, undergo training and the appropriate force structure modifications to enable it to “swing” in behind the surge force to sustain operations.

This approach might be termed the “Dual-Surge” Army, comprising two wings, one oriented (but not uniquely specialized in) operations along the lower end of the conflict spectrum, while the other wing would be oriented on operations along the high end of the conflict spectrum. Structured in this manner, the Army could rightfully claim to be a truly capable “Full-Spectrum” Force.

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4 While the U.S. armed forces appear to have little need to segment conventional warfare into discrete types, the same cannot be said of warfare at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. In addition to the various “flavors” of this form of warfare mentioned above, one might add peacekeeeping and peace enforcement operations, operations other than war (OOTW), among others.

5 Bill Sasser, “Strained by War, US Army Promotes Unqualified Soldiers,” July 30, 2008, accessed at, on August 29, 2008.
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