Op-Ed: Toward an Army Story: It’s Not The “People” Part, It’s the “Land” Part

Mr. Nathan P. Freier

Not surprisingly, the Army has an image problem. It is not difficult to see why. While Army, Marine, and Special Operations Forces (SOF) were away campaigning in two unpopular wars with—to be very generous—only indeterminate and costly outcomes to show for their effort, Washington moved on decisively toward yet another conception of post-modern warfighting.

      This time they had a region (the Asia-Pacific) and, some believe, a ready-made foe (China) against which they could reshape and refocus the defense enterprise for the post-counterinsurgency era. The terrorist challenge was still acknowledged as threatening, but not in the same “drain the swamp” way that justified large numbers of general purpose ground forces over the last decade and a half. In short, the music stopped in the Pentagon, and the U.S. Army was left without a chair.
      Now, as the post-September 11, 2001 (9/11) wars wind down, two of the three legs in the ground force triad—the Marines and SOF—have very little trouble fitting into the new defense worldview. Both have defined themselves as ideal for small footprint engagement, crisis response, and threat management. The Army, on the other hand, remains on the outside looking in; wandering around in what has truly become the sleepiest corner in defense planning—land operations—and searching for that single silver bullet narrative that suddenly pulls them off of the Department of Defense (DoD) butcher block.
      Though ostensibly a joint Army, Marine, and SOF initiative, “strategic landpower,” will not work as that narrative. Two of the three “landpower” partners have better, more palatable, and more accessible stories to tell. And, they do. The Marines point to their traditional role in small-scale in extremis intervention and the utility of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force to new priorities in the Pacific Theater. Likewise, SOF has the advantage of both a pre-9/11 tradition of low-visibility worldwide engagement and a popular post-9/11 record of precision direct action. The Army, on the other hand, has to stay afloat with the millstone of Iraq and Afghanistan around its neck. For all of the Army’s distinguished and loyal service in both wars, no influential constituency in Washington wants any part of a repeat performance of either. In their view, the quickest route to “never again” is simply defining land war out of future defense calculations.
      Wishful thinking to be sure, but there it is, and the Army’s clinging to “strategic landpower” is not helping its case. The best Army response to DoD’s “hope-based” planning of no more big wars, cannot be some abstract parable about people residing on land in interminable conflict and the Army as the natural and necessary interface with and arbiter between them. It is an interesting academic exercise that, rightly or wrongly to even the most discriminating palate, it smells and tastes a lot like re-heated Iraq and Afghan stew; a dish most senior decisionmakers lost their appetite for a long time ago.
      To make matters worse, there is also an underappreciated conceit in the “strategic landpower” mantra, both in its human-based argument and that of “landpower” (with the Army as its flagship element) as the country’s decisive force. The human argument ignores the fact that military activity in any domain—land, air, sea, space, or cyberspace—if applied in the right combinations and in the right context, can have profound impacts on friendly and adversary choices and decisionmaking. In this regard, Soldiers and Marines with M4s are not the only ones capable of influencing human behavior. Humans also man and fight platforms. Their leaders perceive the implicit and explicit politico-military messages that emerge from the arrival, presence, and/or near-passage of the same manned platforms (and the formations they are collected under). Clearly, tactical leaders, generals, and presidents are sensitive to the vulnerabilities that emerge either from the loss of their platforms or attack by the platforms of adversaries. In short, air and sea power matter, too.
      Closely connected to the conceit embedded in the human-based argument is the Army’s “decisive” force position. First, if simply ending or correcting behavior is the strategic objective of either deterrent or lethal action, let’s recognize that a lot can be accomplished with air and sea forces as well. But, perhaps more to the point, if the most recent examples of decisiveness are Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is not likely to get many converts with this line of attack. My caution in both cases is to avoid being too quick to write any of the Services (but especially, the strength of their combined employment) out of the theology of decisiveness.
      While unlikely to save the absolute capacity that it wants, the Army can preserve the right capabilities it needs by defining its role at its clearest and most basic foundation. Doing so, however, requires that it largely abandon the theoretical arguments discussed above in exchange for a more practical, utilitarian defense.
      So, what is the best Army story? Here is my humble advice. Focus on the one broad mission that can only be undertaken by the Army—sustained land operations (of any kind). Period, full stop, end of discussion. Not sustained ground combat as purists might argue. That only accounts for a fraction of Army missions over time. The real Army story is just plain old sustained land operations. At the risk of doing violence to the current Army story, people are not what is most important; land is.
      The fundamental ability to exercise control over, secure, and/or operate with staying power on and from land is the Army’s best hope for a narrative that sticks. This means explaining how it alone can conduct sustained land operations, performing myriad missions under the most difficult conditions—including ground combat, while simultaneously underwriting, enabling, and supporting the efforts of countless others engaged in the same endeavor. At its foundation, this is the Army’s most important and unassailable contribution to joint operations. That is the narrative. It may not save numbers, but it might save capabilities.
      In addition to latent deterrence, Army forces (active, reserve, and guard) perform five basic functions in joint operations.1 These should frame all future decisions on capability and capacity. In the event of hostilities, Army forces conduct offensive and defensive operations from a ground-based posture to defeat lethal threats. In conflict, post-conflict, and post-disaster environments, the Army is instrumental in securing territory, populations, infrastructure, and important assets against harm or exploitation. Further, on an emergency basis after catastrophe or war has rendered civil functions ineffective, Army forces are often called on to provide basic public services on a contingency and time limited basis. Army forces also routinely enable the efforts of others (e.g., sister Services, U.S. Government agencies, and partner nations) whether or not they are simultaneously engaged in ground combat operations. Finally, the ability of the Army to do all of this makes it useful for partnership activities across a very wide swath of security-related competencies. If you want to preserve the right future Army capabilities, put all of these missions in some concrete and irrefutable context and ask senior decisionmakers which one they would like to tell the President they cannot do.
      Not a small or insignificant portfolio to be sure. To the extent these activities need to occur individually or in combination, in significant numbers, and over an extended period of time, the Army will be asked to shoulder much of the burden. After all, any joint military or civil-military operation of considerable duration, requiring some level of specialized and general purpose military mass on land—combat, support, or third-party enabling—will occur on the U.S. Army’s back. In the current budget debate, we can recognize and account for this reality or ignore it. Unfortunately, the fight for Army capabilities today is stuck somewhere between how many brigades are required to fight the next big land war and how much support capability should the Army retain to shoot down missiles, move supplies, and pump gas on behalf of the Air Force and Navy. Both sides are missing the foundational point.
      Future contingencies against states, groups, or chaos will require the massed or widely distributed employment of Army ground-based combat capabilities over extended periods of time. Others will call for Army forces to provide secure, full-service sanctuaries for effective prosecution of military operations led by the sister Services and allies. Finally, there are innumerable instances—including domestic and foreign disaster relief and peace operations—where Army forces will provide mass, depth, and expertise to comprehensive civil-military responses.
      The bottom line: if a future military demand is big, reliant on control over or operation from land, and expected to endure for some time, it is an Army problem. That is the narrative. Filling in the where and to what extent for planning is easy after that. The sooner the Army adopts that simple story and fills in the blanks, the easier it will be for others to see its relevance. The more it clings to parables about “humans,” the likelier it is to have even more trouble with its image.




        1. See Capstone Concept for Joint Operations, Version 3.0, Washington, DC: Department of Defense, January 15, 2009, pp. 14-21, available from; and Nathan Freier et al., Beyond the Last War: Balancing U.S. Ground Forces and Future Challenges Risk in USCENTCOM and USPACOM, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2013, p. 76, available from The description of these five basic missions comports roughly to the four “Basic Categories of Military Activity” outlined in the 2009 Capstone Concept for Joint Operations and the four tasks or task groups that help “determine the overall operational theme” of specific land operations, as described in Freier et al.


The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This opinion piece is cleared for public release; distribution is unlimited.

Organizations interested in reprinting this or other SSI and USAWC Press opinion pieces should contact the Editor for Production via e-mail at All organizations granted this right must include the following statement: “Reprinted with permission of the Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press, U.S. Army War College.”