Stop Allowing the Army To Copy the Marines’ Missions

After 9/11, the U.S. Army, taking the lead among the military services in fighting counterinsurgency conflicts against guerrillas in Iraq and Afghanistan, did well in the inter-service wars in the Pentagon over budgets. As in the post-Vietnam era, as the Obama administration has withdrawn from these counterinsurgencies without winning them, the White House and the Pentagon, in their strategic assessments, have proclaimed “never again” will the United States get enmeshed in quagmires fighting guerillas on the ground. However, they said this same thing after the conflict in Vietnam, but after given time to forget about the horrors of counterinsurgency war there, they leapt into the bogs of Iraq and Afghanistan. And because after the Vietnam War, the Army had changed its focus to fighting Soviet heavy armored divisions in Europe, the United States made many of the same errors in Iraq and Afghanistan that it had committed fighting light guerilla forces during Vietnam.

Now, for bureaucratic reasons – to preserve its budget and troop levels in the face of the Obama administration’s “pivot toward Asia” – the Army is now trying to reinvent itself as a sort of Marine Corps II. The niggling fact is that a huge land war in East Asia is unlikely, except possibly in Korea. Any conflicts, like the Pacific theater during World War II, will likely be near or over water, something in which the Army is not well versed. In fact, taking advantage of the administration’s pivot to defend their budgets during the long counterinsurgency wars, the Navy, Marines, and Air Force developed the Asia-centric “air-sea” battle strategy.

But the Army is not going down in the budgetary wars without a fight. Trying to forget its recent recurrent nightmare with large counterinsurgencies, which it never liked to fight anyway, it is turning away from this mission again, this time toward making its forces more expeditionary and maritime capable (for example, operating Army helicopters off ships) – like the Marine Corps. The Army wants to transform its forces to fight small conflicts and respond to natural disasters. Yet during the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, if anything, the Army’s forces became less expeditionary.

The problem is that the nation already has a Marine Corps charged with these missions and that the Army has far fewer capabilities for doing them and less experience in doing so. To overcome the long distances to transport its forces from US bases on the west coast to East Asia, the Army wants to keep more troops in the theater to be ready for small contingencies by hopping them from training exercise to training exercise in friendly countries. Because the Marine Corps already has expeditionary forces based on amphibious ships doing such missions, not only does this option incur needless added expenses but also could increase anti-Americanism by housing US forces in foreign lands for extended time periods.

Competition in the private sector leads to lower prices and better products, whereas competition among agencies of government – with no real commercial market to determine winners and losers – usually just leads to expensive redundancy for which taxpayers have to foot the bill.

Thus, Congress and the president should not permit the Army to restructure itself toward more expeditionary and maritime missions. Instead, they should cut the Army budget and make a greater reduction in future troop strength below the planned goal of 490,000 personnel by 2017 (the force strength is currently 540,000). Primarily, the Army should plan to conduct one land war using heavy equipment (tanks, fighting vehicles, and artillery) as a hedge against a future conventional threat from a great power. However, if the United States ran a more restrained foreign policy, being across oceans from the world’s centers of conflict and possessing the world’s most potent nuclear arsenal, it should only rarely require the use of these forces to defend itself. Given this great intrinsic US security position provided by large ocean moats, the Navy and Air Force should be the nation’s first and main line of defense.

However, the Army should also retain substantial Special Forces, which could conduct raids against terrorists and could teach the rest of its force counterinsurgency tactics – for the hopefully rare scenario in which politicians and generals again blunder into a major fight against guerrillas overseas. Finally, a small force of paratroopers and heliborne infantry should be retained for specialized missions.

Instead of allowing the Army to become a second Marine Corps in Asia to retain excessive budget and force levels, the Army should keep only its existing missions and accept reduced funding and quantities of troops.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.