Traditionally, the core purpose of the U.S. Army has been to fight and win the United States' wars. Since World War II, this has meant planning for overseas operations to defend friendly countries against invasion, seize and hold territory, and overthrow despotic regimes. But the protracted counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, like the one in Vietnam a generation earlier, marked a departure from the army's preferred way of war. Today, with U.S. forces out of Iraq and leaving Afghanistan, an intense debate is under way about what kind of army the United States needs.
The answer, according to most analysts, is a smaller and lighter one. The Obama administration's "pivot" toward Asia, a region traditionally dominated by air and naval forces, suggests a lesser role for the army in carrying out U.S. strategy. So does the distaste among politicians for another large-scale counterinsurgency, as do the sizable budget cuts that are now hitting the Defense Department. As the U.S. military's most labor-intensive force, the army is most affected by the rapid rise in personnel costs, which have shot up by nearly 50 percent over the past decade. Given these strategic and budgetary headwinds, the conventional wisdom holds that the army will bear the brunt of the defense cuts -- and that it will decline precipitously in relevance.
The conventional wisdom, however, will prevail only if the army fails to adapt to its changing circumstances. Since the 1990s, the United States' rivals have dramatically increased their capacity to deny Washington the ability to project military power into critical regions. To date, the air force and the navy have led the U.S. response. But the army should also contribute to this effort, most critically with land-based missile forces that can defend U.S. allies and hinder adversaries from projecting power themselves. The army should thus shift its focus away from traditional ground expeditionary forces -- mechanized armor, infantry, and short-range artillery -- and toward land-based missile systems stationed in critical regions. By doing so, it can retain its relevance in U.S. defense strategy.