The failure of the budget Supercommittee this week means the uniformed services are gearing up for a possible sequestration of another $500 billion in defense funds beginning in 2013. And though Sen. McCain and others have promised to kill any additional cuts beyond what’s already been agreed to, it’s clear to the top brass that future budget outlays will be a lot smaller. As the Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, put it, the reality will be “doing less with less.” Accepting potential limits like this isn’t easy for a ‘can do’ culture.
Historically the Army has borne the brunt of American peace dividends. At present it accounts for some 32 percent of the defense budget, and has seen its personnel costs balloon 91 percent since 2002. [The Navy and Marines account for 27 percent and the Air Force 22 percent. The remainder of the budget is taken up by intelligence and joint force activities. For a neat visual chart of US budget priorities see here.] When the accountants look for places to cut, the personnel column makes a fat target. And if you’re a cynic the problem for the Army gets even worse when you add in the calculus of domestic politics. Unlike the Navy and Air Force, the Army (and Marines) are not platform-centric forces (try as they might to appear so). The standard unit of force delivery is not a ship or a plane but the soldier or marine. Cutting even a few ships and planes can arguably (emphasis on arguably) cause a significant loss of combat effectiveness to a platform-centric service. But cutting a soldier, or even tens of thousands, is not likely to meaningfully affect the Army’s capabilities. That is, so long as its future missions will not require hundreds of thousands of troops.
Which brings us to “Doctrine 2015.” In October the Army released Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-0, Unified Land Operations. ADP 3-0, is the vanguard publication of Doctrine 2015. In great part it is the Army’s effort to re-imagine its future. [Click here to see the a chart of publications in the Doctrine 2015 project.] Why 2015? By 2015 U.S. combat forces will have been out of Iraq for two years, and (in theory) out of Afghanistan for one. When almost everybody’s home for New Year’s 2015, it will feel sort of like an awkward holiday morning: the whole family’s back under the same roof for the first time in years and no one quite knows what to do after breakfast. “Doctrine 2015” is about figuring out the ‘what now’ moment on that awkward morning when the whole family’s home and milling about for something to do. It’s about the problem of the transition from war to “peace.”
In the context of the budget battle, 2015 scares the Army. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared flat-out that any successor would have to be crazy to even think about putting a “big American land army” into Asia or the Middle East. Not just wrong, but ought to “have his head examined” crazy. Cutting out Asia and the Middle East is a big swath of global real-estate for the Army to cede to its sister services. Gates’ particular cache on the Hill makes this wink and nod to current Secretary Leon Panetta and the Hill all the more significant. If Gates is saying the need for heavy brigades and an occupation-size force is ebbing, then what’s the future Army for?
Gates genuflects at the holy grail of the heavy force saying the examples of Sadr City and Fallujah show the need for big guns will remain. But in actuality those cases reinforce the relative unimportance of heavy units. As Gates knows, the need for big-armored, big-gunned units is likely to be the exception rather than the rule.
Losing its heavy unit focus is like waking up the morning of January 1, 2015 and heading out to play mini-golf instead of football. The Army fears becoming a militarized police force, or worse, being split into two distinct “specialist” armies – one for fighting heavy conventional wars, one for policing and everything else (e.g. disaster relief) the Army does. Making sure this doesn’t happen is in large part what Doctrine 2015 is about.
Matthew Schmidt is an Assistant Professor at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies who was recently named #22 in Fast Company’s “top 100 Most Creative People” in Business. Dr. Schmidt’s work focuses on military operational planning, professional military culture and innovation. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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