Real Roles, Missions Debate


Apr 7, 2008

This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on April 7, 2008.

Congress has directed the Pentagon to undertake another review of "roles and missions" among the military services.

Past reviews have generally devolved into rather sterile debates over second-order issues of force management and efficiency, such as whether the Army should operate a fleet of tactical airlift aircraft. But one issue of strategic importance will face this and future administrations: how should the United States organize its forces to counter terrorist groups abroad?

The answer will bear not only on the effectiveness of the nation"s fight against terrorism but also on the credibility of U.S. defense commitments globally.

More than six years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has yet to strike a durable balance in allocating resources among efforts to defeat terrorist groups and more familiar military missions against threats by state adversaries.

At the heart of this issue lies the question of how best to shape and size the overall force. Since 1950, when President Truman decided to fight to preserve the independence of South Korea, the United States has made it a policy to field sufficient military forces to deter — and defeat — large-scale aggression in two distinct parts of the globe more or less simultaneously.

This policy has been sustained to this day for good reasons: Because the nation has important interests and security commitments in multiple regions, and because adversaries such as North Korea, Iran and, potentially, China, pose threats to those interests, a "two war" posture has been essential to the credibility of U.S.-led alliances and, in turn, America"s overall national security strategy.

Were the nation to fall short of this capability, we would risk inviting challenges to our interests, to the security of our allies, and to peace and stability in the Persian Gulf, East Asia, and elsewhere.

Some are now urging the defense secretary and the president to adopt a different basis for sizing U.S. forces. They argue U.S. military operations against al Qaeda since Sept. 11 have not been as effective as they might be, partly because the forces that have borne the brunt of the effort are not well-suited to many dimensions of the fight against terrorist and insurgent groups.

These observers call for the creation of units specially configured for long-term advisory assistance missions in the dozens of countries around the world that play unwilling hosts to radical Islamist terrorists and insurgents. There is much to recommend this approach: We have seen it work in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Where we part ways with the advocates of large-scale "indirect operations" is when some insist that, to be able to conduct a substantial advisory assistance effort, the nation must reduce its forces to the point that a "two-war" posture is no longer viable.

Under this logic, U.S. forces would be configured for deterring and prevailing in one significant conflict while conducting a large-scale, steady-state effort against terrorist groups in multiple regions.

At first blush the logic is compelling: Prior to Sept. 11, we had a force that could prevail in two wars; since then, major new requirements have been added in the form of a global campaign against terrorist groups; therefore, something has to "give." On closer inspection, however, the choices facing us are not that stark.

The key lies in moving to a somewhat greater degree of role specialization among the military services.

Advisory efforts to help friendly governments counter terrorist and insurgent groups have heretofore been conducted primarily by U.S. special forces, supplemented by contributions from the larger general purpose forces. While some of these operations have included air and naval forces, the bulk of the effort has been focused on the effectiveness of partner nations" ground forces.

Efforts are ongoing to grow the special forces, but there are limits to how fast and how far these elite units can be expanded. To conduct a sustained, multiregional counterterrorist campaign at the appropriate level of effort, the general purpose forces will have to make a substantial commitment to this mission. Most of these people will come from the Army and Marine Corps.

At the same time, future power projection missions are taking on more of an air and maritime complexion. The three most plausible future wars for which U.S. forces should prepare involve conflicts with North Korea, Iran, and China (in defense of Taiwan).

The central roles for U.S. forces include interdicting enemy naval forces, gaining air superiority, defeating attacks by ballistic missiles and, perhaps, seeking to coerce adversary leaders through targeted bombing and/or embargoes. These tasks place heavy demands on the Air Force and the Navy.

Renewed conflict on the Korean Peninsula might well call for large-scale, combined-force ground operations, though our South Korean allies can be counted on to provide the bulk of the ground forces.

All this means the United States can and should move beyond a "one size fits all" approach to sizing military forces toward a construct that shapes each service for the types of operations it is actually expected to conduct in the future. Specifically

  • The Army should be directed to designate a substantial number of its brigade combat teams (perhaps one-third or more of the active duty force) as advisory assistance units. The Marines likewise should take steps to re-focus some of their units. The remaining units of both services should be optimized for combat operations and sized to prevail in one major conflict against an enemy state.
  • The Air Force and Navy should focus on power projection as their primary role and be sized and equipped to prevail in two major conflicts. They should also be directed to provide certain assets (e.g., intelligence collection and analysis, airlift, helicopter units, maritime patrol, base operating support, medical teams) to support advisory assistance missions.

Reducing the level of ground forces prepared for large-scale combat operations would entail some risk, but we judge it to be reasonable, given the types of security problems we confront. Certainly, designating units that will have advisory assistance as their primary focus will enable a much more effective long-term campaign against terrorist groups.

In short, the nation can afford to maintain a "two war" posture and at the same time prosecute a more effective long-term campaign against terrorist groups. The Army and Marine Corps should be directed to play leading roles in the fight against terrorism and be prepared to combat a single state threat elsewhere. The Navy and the Air Force should be sized and outfitted primarily to defeat state threats in two distinct areas of the world.

Andrew Hoehn and David Ochmanek work for the Rand Corp. and are authors of "A New Division of Labor: Meeting America's Security Challenges Beyond Iraq" (Rand, 2007). Both have held the position of deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy.

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