The Closer

The Closer

At a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno testified that additional funding is needed to sustain an Army above the "absolute floor" of 440,000-450,000 troops he believes is required to execute the "updated" defense strategy, released last month along with President’s Barack Obama’s proposed budget for the next five years. That’s 20,000-30,000 more troops than he’s likely to get if sequestration continues — and 80,000-90,000 less than his ideal number of 520,000.

The new strategy and budget come at a time when America’s role in the world remains up for debate. Recent polls reflect a falling appetite for U.S. military operations, and a continued desire to leave the bloody and frustrating legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan firmly in the rearview mirror. These sentiments capture a striking indifference to the world around us: unabated violence in Syria; Sunni extremists’ spread into Iraq; continued tensions in Egypt; conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan; power struggles in nuclear North Korea; strains between India, China, and Pakistan; tensions in the East and South China Seas; a persistent terrorist threat; and the current contest over Crimea and perhaps more of Ukraine.

At present, U.S. leaders hope to fill the apparent gap between budgets and reality with diplomacy and economic coercion. But it would be a mistake to assume that agreements achieved through diplomacy — such as the interim deal with Iran or attempts to contain Syrian chemical weapons — foreshadow an era in which military power is less relevant. On the contrary, diplomatic and military efforts are two sides of the same coin. It is America’s strength that compels adversaries like Iran to come to the negotiating table in the first place; it is a cornerstone of our ability to lead.

Last year’s "Murray-Ryan" bipartisan agreement on the nation’s discretionary budget (to include defense spending), which allowed the Pentagon to avoid the full blow of sequestration, offers some room for optimism about U.S. leadership. But how the Pentagon opts to spend its money, whatever the amount, will be crucial going forward. The United States remains a key anchor in the Middle East and maintains important national interests there, even if the shale oil and gas revolution makes them less obvious. No matter how the Ukrainian crisis plays out, Europe is likely to require additional reassurance at a time when the United States was planning to cede greater responsibilities in NATO to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. Questions about continued U.S. commitment around the world are already contributing to distrust, and regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and South Korea are watching closely to see if American actions and rhetoric align. Some form of U.S. military power, albeit positioned differently, will remain a critical component of how foreign leaders make their judgments on a whole host of global issues across the economic, diplomatic, and security spheres.

While attempting to manage continued challenges in the Middle East and now Europe, the Obama administration remains committed to placing greater emphasis on the Pacific, and to increasing investments in the maritime capabilities this focus requires. The reorientation toward Asia is warranted. China’s peaceful rise is not only good for the Chinese, it is good for everyone. U.S. actions — including a robust plan for military, diplomatic, and economic engagement — to shape that peaceful outcome are crucial to a prosperous future. Deterring Chinese adventurism and reassuring U.S. allies in the Pacific will require a continuous demonstration of America’s ability to project power, especially through the Navy. Those frigates and aircraft carriers reassure U.S. allies elsewhere in the world and serve as a visible reminder of the force the United States can bring to bear, either for good (in the case of natural disaster) or, if necessary, to address the bad (should terrorist camps require destruction or North Korean-flagged freighters try to escape with Libyan oil, for example).

Augmenting U.S. naval capabilities, the Marine Corps represents a fast, flexible, small, and tailored force ready to help extract U.S. citizens from war zones, conduct early entry or limited duration military operations, and help distribute aid to those in need. The U.S. Air Force, meanwhile, patrols the skies, able to deliver highly precise strikes, supplies to civilians or military forces, and critical intelligence to U.S. leaders from any point around the world.

If the role of three out of the four U.S. service branches is relatively clear, the U.S. Army’s is less so. America’s current defense strategy states that the Defense Department will no longer structure its forces to account for sustained counterinsurgency campaigns, a clear recognition of public fatigue with long and costly wars. The expansion of the Army to address the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan has been extremely expensive, and has ultimately failed to deliver a clear U.S. victory in either conflict. So if America’s new strategic focus is in a largely maritime theater, what role will a large ground force play?

At times like these, disproportionate cuts to the Army may seem obvious, and well warranted. Indeed, under the current budget proposal, the active-duty Army would shrink by 14 percent over the next five years, from 490,000 to 420,000. By comparison, the active-duty Air Force remains essentially unchanged, the Navy grows slightly, and the Marine Corps is reduced by only 4 percent. But in an era in which U.S. leadership is more necessary than ever, creating an imbalance within our broader military force is unwise. Even if prevailing forces obscure the Army’s future role, its purpose is fundamentally the same as it has been throughout history.

The kickoff of America’s national pastime at ballparks around the country offers a timely reminder that at the end of the day, the Army’s role is best described as the "closer": the force that arrives and stays when no other service can, carries out whatever military mission is directed, and provides the best chance of achieving long-term policy goals. As Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently noted, "a U.S. military response to aggression most often begins in the air or maritime domains — and in the future could begin with confrontations in the cyber and space domains — [but] they typically include and end with some commitment of forces in the land domain."

In a Cold War context, the Army’s role as a closer was more straightforward. Underpinned by nuclear weapons, the U.S. military’s ability to overcome numerically-superior Soviet forces successfully deterred an openly hostile and powerful competitor. The value of such conventional capability, however, is less obvious in a uni- or multipolar world in which nation-states are weaker and few would dare to challenge the United States directly. In this world, ending military engagements favorably requires much greater nuance. It also necessitates closer integration across each of the military services, and, more importantly, among military and civilian organizations on the ground. In other words, the U.S. military cannot always be decisive in the way it once could.

This reality doesn’t mean closing no longer matters; it will still be necessary. Should America’s ability to close — anywhere around the world, in large numbers if needed, and for as long as necessary — atrophy too much, the United States will have lost an invaluable hard-power asset. Much has been made of the fact that no other nation poses a true conventional threat to the United States. But this imbalance is the source of U.S. dominance. Should Washington choose to forego this advantage, adversaries will exploit that shift and pursue forces capable of conventional challenges. This outcome would be destabilizing — and incredibly costly in both life and treasure should those forces ever clash.

Perhaps even more importantly, in the case of closing, perceptions matter. The United States risks regional, if not global, opportunism from its most dangerous adversaries if they perceive that America has lost its ability to close. Today, the United States is the only nation in the world that can project power, over time, anywhere. This reality underpins every diplomatic effort it makes to resolve crises around the world. It is an implicit part of every business deal offered by or to a U.S. company. And it is a silent form of insurance for every vacation by American citizens abroad. While a somewhat smaller U.S. military can likely continue to underwrite this order, an imbalanced one — one without the ability to close — cannot.

If closing remains an imperative, what it entails has also become more complex. Individuals, organizations, and states have become increasingly intertwined in ways that have outpaced the systems designed to regulate the international order. One outcome has been a vast expansion in the way that militaries — in particular, the U.S. military — have been used. As a result, closing now incorporates not only destroying an enemy in a major conflict, but establishing strong relationships with professional peers in key nations that can help to facilitate stronger political, economic, and if necessary military ties. The Army’s role in this is critical and unique, since armies remain the dominant military force in most nations around the globe: All but one of the defense chiefs in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for example, are army officers.

So what does closing actually mean for the U.S. Army? It means closing through shows of force, such as positioning missile defense units on the territory of key allies to forestall a potential missile attack by those that might wish to do them harm. It means closing by offering infantry or medical evacuation support to highly-trained special operations forces. And it means closing by providing logistics and other support either to its sister services or to partner nations’ militaries for operations in which they are better suited to take the lead. And it is the Army that is — and will long be — the main element of joint U.S. forces in support of the Navy, Air Force, or of other allies or friends.

As the first few months of 2014 have already made clear, this year promises to be full of unforeseen challenges. But America is still strong, even if sequestration continues. The U.S. economy is recovering, in no small part due to innovations like those that have driven the North American boom in unconventional energy. Political leaders may be finding a way forward through the difficult process of setting fiscal priorities. And the United States continues to have the only military force in world capable of operating globally, reinforcing Washington’s diplomatic and economic efforts and backstopping them should they fail. Sustaining this capability as budgets fall will be difficult. Finding the right balance between the four military services, with an eye to each one’s unique contributions, will be critical. The United States should not, however, assume that it no longer needs a closer. To paraphrase the Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky, we may wish to be done with war, but war is not likely done with us.