Prepare yourselves, people. I’m about to get very nerdily self-indulgent.
That’s because this is the second entry in my “What Should it Look Like?” series where I, a self-professed democratic socialist defense analyst, put my mind to pondering how the U.S. military should look under a more just and equitable system (and also maybe to satisfy some of my niche interests just a little, as a treat). If you missed the first part, you should go back and read that now or otherwise you’re probably going to be very confused and lacking a lot of context when reading this.
If you have read the first part already or are now caught up, I’m not wasting a lot of space on an intro in these essays. I want to cut straight to the action, because I got a lot I want to say – more than I’m really going to be able to fit here. We’re getting into actually looking at each of the services or components of the military and looking on how they would change to carry out the strategy we discussed in our first entry in the series. Our first victim? The big green machine itself: the United States Army.
Everything Old is New Again
While throughout contemporary times the Army has strove to represent itself to the world as a highly responsive and dynamic force with a focus on fast moving and overwhelming shock assaults to engage and defeat enemies on the battlefield, for most of its history up until now it has served as constabulary or occupation force – both at home and abroad. This has been the case since the earliest days of the United States with westward expansion, colonization and genocide of native tribes, to the more recent episodes of invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. The times when the Army has been anything close to what it claims it is, are really in the minority. In keeping with the strategy that we outlined in the first entry of this series, the Army will need to change significantly to actually live up to what it claims to be, working in the service of a foreign policy more concerned with international solidarity and self-defense.
With the “fuck around and find out” strategy we previously discussed in mind, we need to think in greater detail about what the Army’s role will actually be in order to properly think about its structure and capabilities. To fulfill that strategy – as we discussed – we’ll need a force capable of halting and rolling back aggression by a regional or great power against a weaker state or group. If we want to halt an invasion or attack before it’s too late and it becomes necessary to shift gears to a full-on war of liberation, then we’ll need an initial, light, rapid deployable force to get quickly to the theater to shore up allied defenses and to halt the advance or at least slow it down to buy time. Then we’ll need a more heavily armed and equipped force to follow on the rapid deployed force and do the actual rollback of enemy forces in conjunction with forces from other domains such as air, the sea and etc. If the enemy moves quickly enough and completely occupies an area, the Army will need to be prepared to generate mass and then launch a campaign of liberation into the occupied territory, conducting forced entry operations before it can conduct its rollback to push the enemy back to pre-war borders. Additionally, during all of this, there will be the need to inflict sufficient losses on the enemy’s capabilities to ensure that they won’t be able to pull their bullshit again any time soon once we have left the area.
I actually don’t think the Army has to change that drastically in terms of force structure and end strength to serve this notion we’re pondering (changing institutional culture and practices is another story entirely, and I think that issue across the military as a whole is worth an article or entire series in its own right – but I will get to that at some point in the future). There will be some significant change, but it won’t be anything unprecedented in the Army’s history. If anything, it’ll be working to create something similar to what the Army was prior to the demands of, and changes inflicted by two decades of failed counterinsurgency campaigns in Southwest Asia. Before some of the more cogent military enthusiasts get too leery, I’m not talking about a full on “reject modernity, embrace tradition” where everyone wears M81 woodland camouflage again and trades in it M4A1s for M16A1s (as much as that would make me aesthetically happy). New concepts, capabilities, and doctrine will need to be factored in here, even if the structure is more of a return to form. This isn’t a “time is a flat circle” plan but rather a “history doesn’t repeat itself but it sometimes rhymes” plan.
I also actually don’t expect the overall end strength of the Army to change drastically with this plan. According to the IISS Military Balance – which will be my primary source across the years for the approximate size of the military and number of key systems, the military as a whole and the Army in particular are now almost back to pre-9/11 levels: the total active-duty force clocks in at 1,388,100 personnel in 2021, compared to 1,367,700 in 2001, with the Army numbering some 485,000 active troops over its 2001 numbers of just about 478,000. This all of course comes after some major expansion of the Army and Marine Corps at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which would be followed by cuts in the late Obama years and then expansion again under Trump. This is also still much smaller compared to the highest extent of the Army and the all-volunteer military as a whole in 1989 at the end of the Cold War. Most of the change will be cuts to personnel and units within in certain areas that are more tied to the War on Terror and counterinsurgency to accommodate more of the large-scale conflict that we are concerning ourselves with (obviously we won’t completely get rid of those other capabilities, just in case, but they are going to play a much smaller and very different role that I will expand upon more when we get to the Special Operations Force part of this series).
One significant change in my plan that doesn’t necessarily affect the number and composition of units but does affect the way the force is built, utilized, funded, and interacts with the world will be the almost total elimination of permanent overseas basing. This is keeping with the strategy of “offshore solidarity” hashed out in the opening essay of this series. Aside from the ideological underpinnings of avoiding the trappings of empire and trying to help allies and partners stand on their own and have more control over their own affairs, it also has practical applications in concentrating more forces in the continental United States to be available for contingencies wherever they arise. A major drawback is, of course, these forces will all have to travel further to get to the combat zone – something that will need to be touched upon when we discuss the Navy and Air Force and their lift capabilities in subsequent essays. But there are ways the Army can structure its forces and respond to a conflict to make itself as effective and efficient as possible given the constraints that will arise due to the nature of this strategy.
Armor is Back, Bay-Beeeee!
A cornerstone of the changes to the Army will be in renewed focus on mechanized and armored warfare as its backbone. For as long as I can remember, I have seen more than a few supposed “experts” routinely claiming year after year that the tank is obsolete as a weapons system. This is a hobby horse of mine I could absolutely go off on for hours, but to keep it short, suffice to say the importance of armored protected heavy firepower remains critical in high intensity conflict and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If anyone tries to use the most recent Karabakh war as an excuse that things like drones have rendered armored warfare “obsolete”, please kindly inform them that there were far more factors at play in that scenario to inflict heavy armor losses – on both sides – than just the simple use of drones by Azerbaijan (also tell them ‘fuck Azerbaijan’ please and thank you). Having heavy weapons on mobile, armored platforms is going to be useful for as long as I can see warfare being a thing and anything that may change that is too far off or odd for me or anyone else to begin to comprehend. So, with that out of the way, let’s talk forces.
The heavy hitting core of the Army’s maneuver force in my mind would be two “heavy corps” reminiscent of the forces positioned in West Germany during the Cold War. These corps would consist of two armored divisions – each with two armored brigade combat teams (ABCTs) and one Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) – a mechanized infantry division – consisting of two SBCTs and one ABCT, an armored cavalry regiment as the corps reserve and reconnaissance element (really just another ABCT) and then the various support units necessary to back up these combat elements such as supply, medical, intelligence, signals and so on. This would be the heart of the Army’s actual combat arms force with some 12 active ABCTs (one more than it currently has) and 8 SBCTs (also one more than it currently has). These forces would be those forces I discussed that would be the ones to follow on after the rapid deployment forces had arrived in theater to try and stem the tide, mostly coming in via sealift (trying to move six heavy divisions by C-17s and C-5s – while technically possible – is hardly the most efficient nor effective way to get a large number of heavy forces into a theater of war).
So, what about these rapid reaction forces that would be the trailblazers in such a conflict? I see these as being put into “light corps” or “rapid reaction corps”, designed to be easily air-lifted into the theater and be quickly able to fight – at the expense of heavier firepower and protection. The Army would also have two of these corps, each with two motorized infantry divisions (also capable of acting simply as dismounted light infantry or as helicopter-borne air assault infantry) – consisting of three infantry brigade combat teams (IBCTs), along with a single airborne brigade to fulfill the role that armored cavalry plays for the heavy corps, and again with all the various and sundry support units. A light corps like this is the one you’d push forward to the combat zone ASAP once you decided you were in a conflict, buying time for a heavy corps to follow on and join them. This would leave the Army with 14 IBCTs (12 ‘leg’ and 2 airborne), an increase of 1 over the current 13).
These light corps will be structured and equipped to be more easily deployed by air. However, they will not all be “airborne” in the sense that they will drop from aircraft attached to parachutes. While I still defend the utility of the tank, I am less bullish on the applicability of massed airborne forces, and I’m not the first one to assert that they’re overstayed their welcome being relevant in modern warfare. While there are still some niche applications of airborne troops, they are just that: niche. I’m talking like, battalion sized operations to maybe size a key airfield or other important asset. In an era of increasingly sophisticated air-defense systems where the United States can no longer be assured of air superiority – let alone air dominance – I do believe that the divisional or higher sized airborne drop is extinct (hell, I’m not even sure a brigade sized drop is really feasible but it’s at least more feasible than a division drop).
What these light forces would be is air-mobile rather than airborne, capable of being rapidly moved by aircraft from point A to point B – but without having to jump out at the end and just landing to get out. Really, that’s how most of our so-called airborne forces are employed these days anyway. When the Immediate Response Force of the 82nd Airborne was rushed to Kabul to assist with evacuation efforts in the final days of the old Afghan government last summer, they didn’t drop in on Hamid Karzai International Airport like it was D-Day, but their planes landed and they just – you know, got out. Same goes for when XVIII Airborne Corps was deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1990 following the invasion of Kuwait as the spearhead of the massive buildup of forces that would follow. Again, while you may want to hang onto some genuine airborne forces – i.e., the two brigades I mentioned that would each be assigned to a light corps, I see no issue with reflagging the other 3 currently airborne qualified brigades in the Army as just “leg” infantry and calling that a job well done. I see this as a net positive in multiple ways, considering all the time (and lives) that will be saved by more than halving the number of troops that need to go through jump school and be jump qualified.
Getting back to the overall structure of the forces that I have described, all of this doesn’t have to be set in stone and shouldn’t be. Flexibility is key. The current army structure is already built to be interchangeable, so moving around divisions, brigades, or even battalions shouldn’t be a huge issue. This base structure of two and two different types of corps gives you a good starting structure for the type of conflict we’re most worried about given our strategy. It also has room to be scaled up or down depending on what you’re facing. For a smaller conflict against a less capable adversary, you may only need to send one rapid reaction corps to assist local forces – maybe even just one division. In a larger conflict against a significant great power or near-peer, you may need to send most or even all of the active-duty combat force – or call up forces from the reserve to either augment active-duty forces or to stand by in case other contingencies arise. It is scalable and flexible, but at its core is still tooled towards the type of war we are thinking of.
Up until now, I’ve mostly been focusing on the ‘pointy’ end of the stick that is the Army. I’d be a lousy defense analyst if I didn’t talk about the “boring” but incredibly important issue of various rear-echelon support elements. Without essential non-combat elements like intelligence, communications, medical services, logistics and more, no modern military force could effectively function. At first glance, I don’t necessarily see a problem with the quantity and structure of the Army’s forces in this area as they stand. I think the bigger issue for them will be retraining to deal with a higher intensity conventional warfare after spending two decades locked in COIN – something the Army is already struggling with. This is especially true of logistics, with the past twenty years spent having basically unfettered access to all the supplies necessary without anything the enemy could do to substantial stop the flow of food, fuel, ammunition and other essentials to the troops. In the types of wars we’re looking at, that will not be the case. Logistics will need to be robust and resilient in some areas and attritable and redundant in others. It will need to not simply focused on efficiency at the cost of everything else – the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us just how ‘effective’ that ‘just in time logistics’ can be when put under strain. At any rate, looking at the types of supporting units that the current three stateside Army corps, off the top of my head I can’t think of any substantive changes I’d make. Looking at the numbers in front of me, I think there should be enough to maintain what exists along with the units necessary to support a fourth active-duty corps, with any increases being marginal and offset by the cuts I’d implement (they’re coming later, I swear).
Pivoting back to pointy things, but remaining in the realm of support elements, one area the Army will have to regrow atrophied muscle is in short-range air defense (SHORAD), something it was quick to divest of as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq picked up in order to divert resources elsewhere – and with the post-Gulf War assumption that air forces could maintain unchallenged control of the skies. This is something the Army is currently working on fixing right now, fielding a new Stryker-based SHORAD system to supplement the existing Avenger system, but still has a long way to go on. With air superiority far from a birthrate in any future conflict, and the Army’s SHORAD capabilities far removed from the days when every division had an entire battalion dedicated to the task, some more substantive efforts will be required (for now I’ll spare you my gear-guy thoughts on the technological choices they’re making because I could go on an even longer rant, but tech aside they simply need more force structure here). In regards to my proposed structure, I couldn’t find specifics of which level the 10 new battalions the Army is fielding will nest in, so I’m assuming they’re going back to somewhere in the divisional structure.
Meanwhile, much like with the other support units, while I think the Army notionally has enough artillery units, it needs to work on making those units – both tube and missile – far more long reaching (another task it is allegedly taking to heart, but like with everything else, I’ll believe it when I see it and also doesn’t become yet another highly expensive and wasteful military boondoggle). Both of these types of support assets are important for going up against a near-peer or large regional adversary, with longer-range systems currently in service with multiple countries and being exported. This is especially true if you’re having to bust through an anti-access area-denial network and may not be guaranteed superiority in any domain of warfare.
Before we switch gears, this is an important time to note that this Army will not be perfect for everything – and that’s ok. For example, in a notional conflict in the Pacific with a country such as China, where you have vast expanses of ocean and not much real estate to sit down on, a large, mechanized Army isn’t going to do you much good unless China decides to suddenly invade one of its land neighbors (which is not impossible or implausible, but probably not the most likely scenario we’re seeing currently going forward). To anyone who would point this out, I’d say “that’s fine” because honestly, I don’t think the Army should be in the lead here anyway. This is a hypothetical conflict where they’ve desperately been trying to find a way to justify them being at the tip of the spear when it really is not primarily their fight. Oh, they’d be there, but it’d be mainly in a support sense, dealing with logistics and sustainment and other rear echelon tasks. The most combat they’d probably hope to see is through air-and-missile defense protecting bases and assets. Even as someone who wasn’t in the Army or the military, it’s frankly been embarrassing watching the trying to shoehorn their way into that scenario whether by trying to come up with super long-range cannons or desperately trying to assert that armor somehow has a role in a terrain dominated by small islands. Any war of that nature is going to be one mainly for the forces in the Air and at Sea – which we will get to later. The Army should be in the lead when its applicable and otherwise stays in its lane and is told to be a good team player, doing its boring but essential work in the back while others go to the front.
I like your hustle. That’s why it was so hard to cut you.
Now, the more observant among you will have notice the force structure I’m advocating for results in a net increase in the Army’s active-duty combat arms force with the brigade numbers that I quoted at you earlier. You’d be right. But I have cuts in mind elsewhere in the Army’s force structure to compensate for this and keep it about the size it is now or even potentially a little smaller. These cuts would predominately come from force structure that was added or created due to the demands of the failed occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan but still linger on. Again, it’s important to note that the Army is about the size that it was in 2001, when it had a force structure not dissimilar to what I’m currently suggesting. It’s just that personnel and resources were diverted away to units that were seen as crucial to that kind of war (again, not that it did us a whole lot of good in the end).
The biggest example I can think of where you can make cuts in this department is to Army Special Forces. This is where I make a bit of a cop out, because as I mentioned before, I’m not really going to go into detail about this part of the military more until we get to the part specifically about Special Operations Forces. But I can give you a bit of a preview here. SOF as a whole have ballooned significantly since the start of the Global War on Terrorism. Compared to its size in 2001 prior to the 9/11 attacks, U.S. Special Operations Command has more than doubled in size, going from a little over 28,000 active-duty troops in 2001 to over 63,000 active troops in 2021. The U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command is the single largest component of that, going from a pre-9/11 size of just over 15,000 active-duty troops to just over 34,000 active troops in 2021 – also more than doubling in size. Despite the supposed pivot back towards the potential of conflict with major powers, SOCOM is also reportedly still (slowly) growing in size (and wrestling with the implications of continuous inflation over time).
So, I wrote a whole essay on counterinsurgency and my views on it after twenty years of the U.S. military being focused on it above all else (I’d suggest you go back and read it if you haven’t if you want more nuance on my views). While I leave some room for certain exceptions, my overall views on counterinsurgency are the same as the 1983 film War Game’s views on nuclear war: “the only winning move is not to play.” It is on that note I think we could stand to shrink Army special forces – and SOCOM as a whole – back down to its pre GWOT size and potentially even a little bit smaller. That would definitely free up more than a few thousand billets for the combat arms and support units we’d want to stand up to support our new concept. I also think this would actually be better, culturally speaking for SOF as a whole and also offer an opportunity for changes to purge toxic attitudes and mindsets throughout the organization, but that’s the last of the previews I’m going to offer on that entry in this series, so you’ll have to wait until then for more insights on that part of the war machine.
Aside from Special Forces and their supporting elements, I think there are other areas that could stand some marginal cuts. For example: while having some EOD capability is nice, we probably no longer need two EOD groups – another area that doubled in sized during the GWOT and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. At any rate, don’t worry if you think I haven’t cut enough. I’m not trying to needless expand the Army or the military as a whole at the expense of roads, housing, healthcare, and all the other things we want to do as good socialists. Also, while the Army may not be shrinking so much, I have more drastic cuts planned in other branches and areas that we’ll get to deeper into this series (all I can say for now is gird your loins, Marine Corps, you’re going to be the hardest hit out of everyone but I’m doing it for your own good). I’m trying not to keep things just for the sake of keeping them, but also keep in mind you’re talking to the Dem Soc who does in fact think we’ll still need a military under a different system – hence the whole reason I’m writing all this bullshit.
It also just occurred to me before I moved to wrap this up that I didn’t address the National Guard or Army Reserve when it comes to my master plan here. I do in fact have plans for them, but if I droned on any more this essay would end up even longer than it already is on track to be, and I don’t want to go even more overboard with this. Besides, I also want to deal with the general issue of the National Guard (spoilers, I don’t like it) and how federal military reserves and local defense forces and militias and other things should be handled in general, so I think my plan is now to do a separate essay on the military reserve system in the country and changes to it and how it should serve the overall strategy. The sneak peek here is essentially I think that reserves for the Army should be used more like they were prior to the GWOT (this must be shocking to you given what I’ve written so far). While other tasks may arise, I see three main responsibilities for reserves in the Army’s case: they should act as a rapid mobilization source of key enabling units needed to support the active duty, they should provide additional units to augment the active duty when they need more mass, and they should also act as a strategic reserve is more conflict arises elsewhere and there aren’t enough active duty units to handle that new front. We’ll leave it at that for now and will talk about that further in a future essay.
“…in Defense of Others”
Ultimately, the Army isn’t going to look unrecognizably different to what it looks like now. In fact, it will be looking more like what it was for a longer period of time prior to the GWOT. What will really be different will be the ultimate strategy that the Army will be executed in service of and how it will be deployed and employed carrying out that strategy.
I know some people may look at my adjustments and still think the Army is too big or question some of the things I keep or cut. I understand that to a degree, though I would remind them that it’s not just simply the size of a military that makes it expensive. When the U.S. armed forces were at their largest post-draft extent in 1989, the budget – adjusted for 2021 inflation – was around $304 million USD. This stands in contrast to the over $700 billion that the DoD received for 2021, with recent years reaching levels of spending that have only ever been surpassed by military spending during World War II. Remember, this is all for a force that just about at the size it was immediately prior to 9/11.
Granted, some things are going to get more expensive no matter what as war gets more sophisticated and complicated. Part of that is unavoidable. But what is important to understand is that a great deal of the spike in defense spending over the past two decades was due to the requirements of actually physically carrying out the GWOT and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the demands such operations incur. The intensive, constant cost of simply maintaining an occupation with thousands upon thousands of trips in two different countries for years and years, having to make sure they were supplied every day with bullets, bandages, and butter. That is to say nothing of all the money that was poured into “reconstruction” efforts (money that was clearly well spent, especially in the case of Afghanistan). This has further been compounded by money wasted on major acquisitions programs that were cancelled and never came to fruition (to say nothing of the programs that didn’t get cancelled but maybe really should have been cancelled). An additional byproducts of that has been that some systems these programs were set to replace becoming increasingly expensive and time intensive to maintain. From the GWOT we have seen a whole cascading chain of dominos to lead us where we are now.
The long-winded point I’m trying to make is that it isn’t just the size of the military that makes it expensive, but also the equipment it uses and how, when, where, why and how often it is employed. And that gets us back to our ideological underpinnings here instead of just some random guy going on about how he’d structure the Army differently if he was in charge. We can structure the Army whatever which way, but if repeat the same mistakes as before (or make new ones) we can still waste just as much blood and treasure of ourselves and others as those who have come before us have. This is why I started with the strategy first and now have started working my way down. In this hypothetical future, we truly need to be committed to our vision of what is right and wrong and when it is not simply ‘just’ but necessary to go to war.
Giving future us the benefit of the doubt on our commitment, then I think the Army I’ve laid out would be more or less sufficient even if it doesn’t seem like that drastic a departure from what it is now or has been in the past. It wouldn’t be designed or intended to be a force of occupation (peacekeeping maybe being one minor exception here). It would be designed and intended to be a force that is sent to out to fight a modern war until the point the adversary is no longer a threat to those around it. It is designed to go out and do what it has to do to protect those who are under attack, and when not fighting it is in garrison or training for the next war and avoiding provoking conflict or stoking tension. Simple as that. For some time now, the U.S. Army’s stated mission has been “to deploy, fight, and win our Nation’s wars…” In the world I imagine, this sentiment changes a great deal in character while still capturing a similar meaning. The mission becomes “to deploy, fight, and succeed in warfare in defense of others.” While tactically and operationally engaging in offensive actions, the Army – much like the rest of the armed forces as we check off the list – is fundamentally defensive in nature in its strategic usage.
Well, I think I’ve beaten this dead horse as much as I can, so I think that this is a good spot to call it quits for now. I could keep going on, but then this would just become a series about what I think the Army and Army alone should look like. This is all making me realize that I’ll need to come back and revisit this series in the future to make update and changes to my ramblings (or I may just have to write some kind of full-on book or manifesto), but that’s a future me problem.
On the note of ‘future me’ problems, the next entry in this series will be taking us from the green machine to the blue waves as we tackle the U.S. Navy. For those of you who may have thought my plans for the Army weren’t radical enough, don’t worry, that isn’t going to be the norm for all the services and components, because I got some fucking plans in mind for the Navy and Marine Corps and they should be very afraid.
Also, as a final aside, I’d actually encourage folks who have alternative thoughts compared to my own plans to let me know what they would do differently with restructuring and reform or if they have an approach they think would work better (provided you’re not going to be a belligerent asshole about it). For now, though, this will likely be my last essay of 2021, so Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and stay safe all.