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The Bigger Picture

April 24, 2011 | First Lieutenant Jonathan Bratten

    One of the things that our Professor of Military Science always tells cadets to encourage them to stay in the program is that at least when they graduate they will have jobs.  With the economy looking like a racehorse reluctant to leave the stable, this is always a good recruiting and retention point.  And then Sec. Gates gave his West Point speech back in February that made people who had decided to go Guard/Reserve happier with their career choice.  For those who are not familiar with the speech, I have added a link to it here: http://www.dennismansfield.com/business/2011/02/sec-robert-gates-address-to-west-point-today-february-25th-2011.html    The most oft-quoted line from this speech is: "But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should “have his head examined,” as General MacArthur so delicately put it."  Taken separately from the rest of the speech, this sentence does have a panic-inducing quality to it, especially for a soon-to-be 2LT.    However, while Sec. Gates does speak of reducing the size and bulkiness of the Army, he also talks of reducing the beaurocracy in the Army, making promotion merit-based, and encouraging more professional development.  All of these things speak to a more competative and professional officer corps, which appeals to me. 

     Sec. Gates other panic-inducing statement was, "Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, the Army also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements – whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere."  Sec. Gates' speech is part of a much larger conversation about the role of the Army in the 21st century.  Those of you who have been in the Army much longer than I can probably attest to the number of times that you have seen the Army restructured, whether it was after the fall of the Soviet Union or during OIF.  But if I may, from my newbie position, I would like to offer some hope to those future officers/soldiers out there who are banging their heads against the computer screen and thinking that they should have just gotten a job with Apple.  Succinctly put, no matter what anyone says, there is always going to be a need for ground troops.  To illustrate my point, let me borrow some of Tom Barnett's ideas.  With all due respect to our comrades in arms, the Air Force and Navy do not  have the capability to fight a war to the conclusion.  Don't get me wrong, air superiority and CAS is awesome and provides a serious combat multiplier.  But our fighter pilots have not faced a serious air-to-air threat since Vietnam.  As Tom Barnett says, the last fighter pilot to shoot down an enemy jet in air-to-air combat is now a brigadier general.  Similarly, our Navy does not have an equal in the world.  The Air Force and the Navy are so good that no one wants to engage them.  Which means that all future combat geared towards victory is going to have to be fought with a ground contingent.

     Looking at the situation in Libya, it is clear that even with awesome air superiority, NATO cannot totally defeat the Libyan forces.  The only way to do that is with boots on the ground.  But as Sec. Gates noted, the Army is stretched thin from two wars and from being in persistent conflict for a decade.  Kids who were eight on 9/11 are now in the military.  The conflict runs the risk of becoming generational, for both sides.  The Air Force and Navy, as Sec. Gates said, are a more attractive outlet for the government to provide funding to.  They fight the kind of wars America loves to see: overwhelming and precise firepower, without having to get involved in a messy ground war.  But this does not win wars.  Limited strategic bombing in Korea and Vietnam was not enough to win the war.  Even in Persian Gulf I, where allied aircraft ran wild all over Saddam's installations and military, a ground invasion was needed.  Air and sea power are essential America's military superiority but alone they cannot bring victory.  As our recent conflcts in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, ground troops, especially infantry, in large numbers are essential.   The Army needs more trigger pullers.  They need better weapons, more efficient gear, stronger body armor, and vehicle systems specific to the environment (MRAPS=good for Iraq, not so great in Afghanistan).  And if, as Sec. Gates says, more and more missions will be the odd mix of warfighting and humanitarian aid, then would it not be of greater benefit to give more money to the branch that will be providing the ground forces for that mission?  I offer this, then, as my conclusion to what has probably been a very rambling discussion of one of the most complex questions in our day: If our Air Force and Navy can outfight the next best two of their counterparts in the world (which I believe they can), then why not expand funding for the Army and Marines? 

 

    As I noted, I am not by any means qualified to discuss this topic authoritatively.  I would love to hear what all of you have to say on this topic, as I know there are many readers/authors on this site who are a wealth of information.


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