What does the future hold for the US Army – and America?

Summary:  Today we see the official US Army’s view of the future, and a response by Douglas Macgregor (Colonel, US Army, retired).  Read and compare.  Much depends on whose view is more accurate.

General Ray Odierno


  1. The official view of the US Army’s future
  2. Doug Macgregor’s response
  3. About the author
  4. For more information

(1)  The official view of the US Army’s future

The U.S. Army in a time of transition – Building a flexible force“, By General Ray Odierno (chief of staff of the Army), Foreign Affairs, May/June 2012 — Opening:

After six months as chief of staff, I can see clearly that the coming decade will be a vital period of transition for the U.S. Army. The service will have to adjust to three major changes: declining budgets, due to the country’s worsened fiscal situation; a shift in emphasis to the Asia-Pacific region; and a broadening of focus from counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and training of partners to shaping the strategic environment, preventing the outbreak of dangerous regional conflicts, and improving the army’s readiness to respond in force to a range of complex contingencies worldwide.

(2)  Macgregor’s response

General Odierno’s article is a noble attempt to make everyone inside the beltway happy.  It gives evidence for an awareness of the Army’s financially constrained future, but no expressed understanding of the need for fundamental change to cope with it. Some of the statements invoke the memory of General Malin Craig, former Army Chief of Staff (CSA) from 1935-1939. Craig preceded Marshall who became CSA on 1 September 1939.

Craig was equally well intentioned and sought money for the Army, but Craig was unable to address the critical need for sweeping change inside the Army in terms of force design, mechanization and effective training, as well as education for future combat. As a former Cavalry officer, Craig proved incapable of dismantling the Army’s large and irrelevant horse cavalry and horse drawn artillery formations. Craig is shown in this photograph with Cuba’s Batista.

General Malin Craig

For some reason, in the current CSA’s remarks, there is an acute reluctance to mention warfighting, particularly in the Joint context and the core capabilities the Army must provide to that Joint fight. In fact, there is very little mention, if any, of real fighting. There is also no mention of making the capability to conduct major Joint combat operations priority number one.

Like the Navy, Air Force and Marines, the U.S. Army exists to raise, train, and equip modular/mission focused capability packages and C2 elements designed for commitment to the COCOMs {combatant commands; see Wikipedia} and plugged into Joint Force Headquarters which have the authority and the responsibility to fight and win the nation’s wars. That’s a very unpopular idea with all the services since it means fewer flag billets, but it’s vital. It takes a long time to build effective combat power, but surprisingly little time to squander and ruin it on self-defeating operations as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The notion of aligning forces regionally makes no sense. We need Joint rotational readiness, a system that links the services’ forces in ways that make it obvious to the national political leadership what we have that is ready to fight and reduces the expense of trying to keep everything ready all the time. It’s long overdue, but the ground force is resistant to it.

We don’t have enough ground forces to align them regionally as we did during the Cold War when we had armies in Europe and Asia. In addition, the unspoken assumption that a few cultural sensitivity classes will turn our combat forces into renaissance men is delusional. We are not going to cultivate peoples in the Third World in ways that have any strategic meaning with our conventional combat troops. We have a force that attempts to do this, it’s called Special Forces. They have limited success. It’s part of the larger nation building hangover that will persist until the neocons in and out of uniform are out of power.

As long as we maintain the fiction that what we’ve done for ten years was major combat when it was, in fact, an expensive, ill-conceived and poorly conducted colonial expedition against extraordinarily weak peoples, we won’t get very far. After becoming Army Chief of Staff, General Creighton Abrams did not confront this problem. He validated his credentials in WW II as a Tank Battalion commander under Patton.

Given Abrams’s combat experience in WW II, he could dismiss the squandering of blood and treasure in Vietnam against an adversary we dominated from the air, the sea and on land as a mistake and move on. The current flags in the Army and Marines are probably unable to do this without fearing they might diminish themselves in the process. The generals are wrong, of course. The American people are totally disinterested in the muddled and failed interventions of the last ten years. There is no appetite inside the US for more interventions in Syria, Iran or anywhere else. Americans are quite prepared to move forward and away from this miserable experience.

What is clear from these comments is that without fresh, decisive leadership from the White House and Office of the Secretary of Defense after January 2013, the Army and, indeed, all of the services will continue to wallow in bureaucratic paralysis. We will build more Littoral Combat Ships (see Wikipedia), more giant aircraft carriers and more expensive aircraft, as well as more M1 Tanks — until we are completely bankrupt.

Air Sea Battle (explanation here) is metaphor for the strategic confusion. If it took three years to defeat Imperial Japan, a nation with an economy of less than ten percent of our own (and we never had to fight the powerful Japanese Field Armies in China or Manchuria), what would lead anyone to conclude that China, the world’s second largest economy with the world’s largest population, would be an easier mark? More important, the possibility that competition between India, Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam and Russia will shape events in Asia for the balance of the century is ignored. So much for the strategic shift to the Pacific.

The truth that Turkey, not Iran, is the emerging regional superpower in the Middle East seems to escape mention in favor of “garrisoning” the Middle East in perpetuity. National narcissism persists as a potentially fatal disease in Washington, DC.

Today, our bloated defense budget and wasteful, inefficient force structure with its expensive and largely superfluous overseas garrisons are mortgaged to our national vanity. In this connection, it is once again useful to remember that the British left India not when it made sense to do so after WW I, but after WW II when they were financially and economically ruined and could no longer afford to stay. Presumably, the fiscal crisis bound to erupt over the next two years when debt starts to really matter (as we are seeing now in Europe:  “In Europe, a Marriage Shows Signs of Fraying“, New York Times) will compel us to do the same.

Meanwhile, the truth is we cannot afford the defense establishment in its current form any more than we can afford the Federal Government’s giant welfare state and its innumerable “free services” by increasing taxes on the 10% that already pays 73% of Federal income taxes while the 50%  that pays no Federal income tax uses these “free services.”  {including social security and medicare taxes, only 18% pay no federal tax; everybody local taxes.  See CNNReuters and USA Today}.

But before the politicians, left or right, confront this difficult dilemma they will cut defense spending.

But will anyone fundamentally realign and optimize our defense forces for a future that is radically different from the recent past? I am unconvinced either candidate for president is prepared professionally, politically or intellectually to execute this task and it’s a task we cannot afford to get wrong.

(3)  About the author

From his Wikipedia entry:

Douglas A. Macgregor PhD. (Colonel, US Army, retired) is widely recognized as one of the most influential military thinkers of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.

… Macgregor’s seminal work, Breaking the Phalanx: A New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century (1997) was the first book by an Active Duty military author since Brigadier General “Billy” Mitchell, U.S. Army Air Corps, to challenge the status quo and set forth detailed proposals for the radical reform and reorganization of U.S. Army ground forces. His follow-on work, Transformation under Fire: Revolutionizing How America Fights (2003) expands on the concepts and ideas for reform and includes a foreword by a former British four-star general, Sir Rupert Smith.

… Macgregor is now an Executive VP with Burke-Macgregor Group LLC.

… Macgregor’s newest book is Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting (2009). In it Macgregor explains how the failure to finish the battle with the Republican Guard in 1991 led to Iraq’s second major confrontation with the United States in 2003, resulting in two hollow military “victories” and the tragic blood-letting that continues today in Iraq.

(4)  For More Information

(a)  FM reference pages about our military

(b)  Other posts about the work of Douglas Macgregor

  1. Colonel Macgregor sums up the state of the Iraq War, 2 July 2008
  2. Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars, 7 April 2009
  3. Powerful and insightful new articles by Macgregor, 10 October 2009
  4. Macgregor sketches out the global geopolitical picture for us, 18 May 2010 — Includes links to many of his articles.
  5. Important new articles about reforming our military, a key to balancing the Federal budget, 29 April 2011
  6. Reconfiguring the US military for life after The Long War, 27 September 2011

(c)  Some articles by Macgregor

  1. Future Battle: The Merging Levels of War”, Parameters, Winter 1992-93
  2. Command and Control for Joint Strategic Action”, Joint Force Quarterly, Autumn/Winter 1998-1999
  3. Transforming Operational Architecture for the Information Age“, Martial Ecologies (for the Israeli Defense Force and the Jaffee Center, Tel Aviv University), 2000
  4. Transformation and the Illusion of Change”, National Security Studies Quarterly, Autumn 2000
  5. “A New Joint Operational Architecture: The Key to Transformation”, Strategic Review, Fall 2000 — Publication discontinued; website closed.
  6. The Joint Force – A Decade, No Progress”, Joint Force Quarterly, Winter 2000-2001
  7. The Macgregor Briefings: An Information Age Vision for the U.S. Army, Project for Defense Alternatives, 2001
  8. The Balkan Limits to Power and Principle”,  ORBIS, Winter 2001 — Free copy here.
  9. Resurrecting Transformation for the Post-Industrial Era: A New Structure for Post-industrial Warfare”, Defense Horizons, September 2001
  10. The Failure of Military Leadership in Iraq – Fire the Generals!“, Counterpunch, 26 May 2006
  11. Outside View: Iraq realities — Part 1“, UPI, 27 June 2008
  12. Outside View: Iraq realities — Part 2“, UPI, 30 June 2008
  13. Adapting to Reality in Warfare: Changing how the Army and Marines Organize to fight in the 21st Century“, 11 November 2008
  14. Iraq realities – Part 1“, UPI, 27 June 2008
  15. Iraq realities – Part 2“, UPI, 30 June 2008
  16. Fire the Generals!“, Counterpunch, 26 May 2006 — “The Failure of Military Leadership in Iraq”
  17. No General as Obama’s VP“, Defense News, 30 June 2008
  18. Refusing battle – The alternative to persistent warfare“, Armed Forces Journal , April 2009
  19. Illusions of Victory – There’s No Strategy To Win in Afghanistan“, Defense News, 28 September 2009
  20. Remember the Blitzkrieg before it’s too late“, Washington Times, 10 May 2010 — “Building a military to fight only the weak will cost us later”

2 thoughts on “What does the future hold for the US Army – and America?”

  1. “We need Joint rotational readiness,” Isn’t this what the reserves are for. A cheaper force that takes time to mobilize?

    Rotational readiness is a concept fraught with bureacratic danger. If a brigade is out of the high readiness rotation then does it need to be at full strength? A clever bean counter would say no and that really all units can be kept at a lower strength because they’ll be time to reinforce them before they start their high readiness training cycle. This is the system in use in Canada that results in a force with nine regular and 50 odd reserve infantry “battalions” being tapped out deploying a single battalion world wide. Canada has a particularly top heavy military and the danger is you could, like them, end up with units whose purpose is to keep command slots open.

    A smaller active force and a larger reserve would seem to the cheaper solution that doesn’t result in hollowed out low-readiness active units.

  2. I agree with MacGregor but clearly he’s not that influential since the general officer corps of all four services are doing the opposite of what he specifies. As a matter of fact, the Pentagon seems to be using the book on what we got wrong in Vietnam as our strategy guide.

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