The Magazine

The Army We Need

We can't fight The Long War with the forces we have.

Jun 4, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 36 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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In wartime Washington there is but one point of bipartisan agreement: The land forces of the United States are too small. Hillary Clinton may be trying to make her fellow Democrats forget her vote to go to war in Iraq, but she insists that "it is past time to increase the end-strength of the Army and Marines." Sen. Barack Obama agrees, and even the New York Times has editorialized that "larger ground forces are an absolute necessity for the sort of battles that America is likely to fight during the coming decades."

On the Republican side, the leading candidates are straining to one-up each other on the issue. Rudy Giuliani wants to enlarge the Army by about 70,000 from its current strength of 510,000 active-duty soldiers. Mitt Romney thinks 100,000 is a better number. John McCain is working with his advisers to formulate his answer, but he might well trump his rivals.

And with Donald Rumsfeld at last departed from the Pentagon, even President Bush has opened his mind. Announcing the Iraq "surge," the president allowed as how he was "inclined to believe that we need to increase the permanent size of both the United States Army and United States Marines."

As a political matter and as a strategic impulse, this is long overdue. But it is only a starting point. In the near term, given the stresses of dual surges in Iraq and Afghanistan and the deleterious effects of more than a decade of neglect, almost any plan to expand U.S. land forces will help. But the larger project of rebuilding the Marines and, especially, the U.S. Army to sustain the demands of a new era will require as much thought as money. And it's a job that will fall mostly to our next president; the Bush administration can only begin the process. To properly size and shape American land forces--so that the Marine Corps and the Army complement each other--we must answer five questions.

What is the Mission?

During the Cold War, the classic question for defense planners was, How much is enough? The unstated assumption was that the strategic goal was to contain Soviet aggression. Since the death of our superpower doppelgänger, the question for the Pentagon has been, What do you want us to do? The attacks of 9/11 confused the picture: There may be a bipartisan consensus on the need to expand U.S. land forces, but there is almost no agreement on how to employ them. Without a broader understanding of the missions for U.S. ground forces, Pentagon planners won't know how much is enough or even what kind of forces are needed.

This is a question we have been reluctant to face. The attitude of the Clinton administration during the Balkan conflicts was, essentially, We don't do land wars. Even though the Kosovo air campaign by itself did not stop the Serbs' ethnic cleansing--it took British prime minister Tony Blair's threat to deploy ground forces, along with pressure from the Russians, to induce Slobodan Milosevic's change of heart--the "no-contact war" in Kosovo perversely bolstered the position of airpower enthusiasts in the Pentagon. Rumsfeld's vision of "defense transformation" was a pumped-up version of no-contact war.

But the experiences of the Bush years ought to have driven these fantasies from our minds. The idea that we can simply fight the way we would prefer to fight--rapidly, decisively, and from a distance--is no longer tenable. Moreover, we can see multiple missions for land forces, each crucial to the success of American strategy.

The first mission is the defense of the American homeland. The attacks of September 11 brought a new focus to this traditional mission; the possibility of terrorist attack rightly remains a prime concern. But in fact there has long been a large role for U.S. ground forces at home. National forces have been employed in internal emergencies countless times: from enforcing desegregation to securing the streets of Los Angeles or Washington during riots. They have provided critical command and control capabilities and manpower during floods, forest fires, and storms; the front-line relief efforts following Hurricane Andrew in 1992 were a partnership between the state of Florida and the 10th Mountain Division from upstate New York. Hurricane Katrina, a larger, regional disaster, likewise precipitated a national military response by all the armed services. And there looms the sobering prospect of a still larger catastrophe, in the form of an attack on the United States employing weapons of mass destruction.