The global security environment has changed since it was decided in the mid-2000s to base the U.S. Army primarily in the continental United States. It is no longer clear that the U.S. has the ability to deploy sufficient land power quickly enough to prevail against emerging threats. This shortcoming undermines conventional deterrence — and may help explain the increasingly aggressive actions of Russia in Europe since 2008.
If the U.S. doesn’t have sufficient forward-deployed land forces – and for many scenarios, it doesn’t – it needs to be able to get them there, and quickly. But it can’t, at least not in large numbers, because the military lacks the strategic airlift and sealift that would carry Army forces from their stateside bases to the world’s hot spots.
With an increasingly dangerous world and unpredictable global challenges, this major capability gap poses a serious risk to our nation, our allies, and our coalition partners. It demands urgent attention.
Danger of Looking Weak
A smaller forward-deployed force posture increases the possibility that a potential adversary may misread our military capabilities and underestimate our national resolve. A prime example is recent comments by the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom, who called for dismantling NATO and the European Union. He also flatly declared that Russia now can fight and win a conventional war in Europe.
Even a fully resourced and trained force has limited deterrent value if an adversary believes it can achieve its strategic objective before U.S. land forces arrive. This is why Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, stresses “speed of assembly” as critical to deterrence in Europe.
Prepositioning equipment, such as an armored brigade’s worth of tanks and other heavy combat equipment, can shorten crisis response times, and regular rotations of combat forces into Europe for exercises with allies can provide visible evidence of commitment and the ability to quickly mobilize. That still might not be enough.
Today, the U.S. Army in Europe consists of only two brigade combat teams and a total of 30,000 soldiers, and depends on rotational forces from the U.S. to provide even a modest level of reassurance and deterrence. Add in the U.S. military’s heavy focus on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations over the past 15 years, and we have a U.S. land force in Europe optimized more for a low-tech irregular threat than for a recently modernized military like that of Russia.
As for our ability to move our forces into position around the world, the news is getting worse, not better. Most of the Defense Department’s surge capability that made the 1991 Desert Storm troop movement so effective will retire by 2030. Aging ships, planes, railcars, and infrastructure — chronically underfunded for the past decade – further degrade our power-projection capabilities.
This will affect not only deployment of our high-profile Brigade Combat Teams, which account for only 20 percent of the Army’s initial sealift requirements, but also the flow of critical enabling forces and initial sustainment stocks upon which the joint force depends. These kinds of strategic mobility issues don’t garner the attention of high-visibility programs such as the F-35 fighter or Ohio-class nuclear submarines or even a new pistol. But they are vitally important, and their resolution is overdue.
A clear-eyed assessment of our current situation leads to several conclusions:
- U.S. force posture requires a relook. The Army’s increasingly U.S.-based posture is misaligned with challenges in strategic mobility and deployability, not only for Brigade Combat Teams, but for the theater support capabilities that consume 80 percent of our strategic sealift capacity.
- The security environment in Europe, its value as a stationing location for potential contingencies in the Middle East, and deployment timelines argue for a return to permanent stationing of an Armored Brigade Combat Team in Europe and the conversion of a headquarters to oversee the rotational deployment of a combat aviation brigade.
- Investments in strategic mobility should not be viewed as transportation to move Army equipment, but rather as investments that extend joint capability and national influence.
- Rapid access to a trained and ready Reserve Component is essential. Enough investment must be put into the readiness of those forces to make them viable for rotations and even the early stages of a crisis response.
Here’s what ought to happen next:
- The House and Senate armed service committees should convene immediate closed hearings to ask defense leaders whether they can execute their current war plans today and into the future, given current and projected threats and our limitations in strategic deployment platforms.
- The Defense Department should work promptly within the new administration to revise strategic and budgetary guidance so the services can adjust their structure, readiness, and modernization plans accordingly.
- The defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should report to Congress within 12 months on a strategic mobility sufficiency analysis and associated risk mitigation plan from 2020 through 2040.
- The U.S. Army should reinvigorate its power projection program to increase its capability to rapidly project decisive land power in support of combatant commander requirements.
Working with Congress, the Defense Department can use this difficult situation to better posture our military to be capable of rapidly projecting and sustaining decisive land power in support of the Joint Force and its allies. A forthcoming Institute of Land Warfare Special Report published by the Association of the U.S. Army will help frame this issue with additional detail and analysis and will be the subject of discussion at several AUSA forums in 2017.
But resources are limited, and there is no consensus on the most critical priority actions. Any prescribed remedies will be painful to implement. The only outcome more painful would be to ignore them.