Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Some thoughts about how the Army could better tell its story to the American people

By Lt. Gen. David Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.) Best Defense guest correspondent The United States Army is struggling to explain its relevance as it returns home from 13 years at war. The American people and their lawmakers are increasingly averse to large-scale "boots on the ground" missions after more than a decade of bloody and ...

619577_cropped_ricks_bottom_2.jpg

By Lt. Gen. David Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.)

Best Defense guest correspondent

The United States Army is struggling to explain its relevance as it returns home from 13 years at war. The American people and their lawmakers are increasingly averse to large-scale "boots on the ground" missions after more than a decade of bloody and expensive land wars. Together with the realities of skyrocketing personnel costs, shrinking budgets, and a new strategy oriented on the Pacific Rim, these facts have placed the Army at a strong disadvantage in the ongoing defense debates. And while the new battles with ISIS suggest that land warfare is far from dead, pressure to redefine the future role of the U.S. Army is unlikely to abate. What kind of Army does the United States need, and what is this Army for? And most importantly, what does the Army provide the nation?

By Lt. Gen. David Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.)

Best Defense guest correspondent

The United States Army is struggling to explain its relevance as it returns home from 13 years at war. The American people and their lawmakers are increasingly averse to large-scale "boots on the ground" missions after more than a decade of bloody and expensive land wars. Together with the realities of skyrocketing personnel costs, shrinking budgets, and a new strategy oriented on the Pacific Rim, these facts have placed the Army at a strong disadvantage in the ongoing defense debates. And while the new battles with ISIS suggest that land warfare is far from dead, pressure to redefine the future role of the U.S. Army is unlikely to abate. What kind of Army does the United States need, and what is this Army for? And most importantly, what does the Army provide the nation?

Army supporters insist that the United States Army — active, Guard and reserve — provides a wide range of essential military contributions to the United States. These contributions are well understood, even assumed, within the core institutions of the Army. But the Army, with its inwardly focused culture, rarely articulates these contributions in ways that those outside the Army can understand. Few outsiders understand the Army, its language, or its diverse capabilities that support all of the armed forces.

The Army needs to clearly articulate its purpose and value to the American people and their elected leaders. It should emphasize six key themes, in plain English, and as directly as possible.

"When called, the Army fights and wins the nation’s wars." This remains the preeminent mission that the nation demands of its Army. The Army first and foremost must be able to fight and win — to prevail over any adversary — whenever and wherever it is sent by the American people. All other tasks must fall below this essential "no fail" requirement. While the Army conducts many types of missions that support a range of U.S. policy objectives around the world, the most demanding of these remains fighting the nation’s wars on land. Army forces maintain day-to-day readiness to respond rapidly when a crisis requires the commitment of land forces. Army forces maintain combat readiness on top of their daily global engagement responsibilities — building relationships, reassuring allies, and defending U.S. vital interests through the Army’s presence around the world. But the ultimate measure of the United States Army lies in its ability to respond, fight and win anywhere in the globe when called.

"The Army defends and reassures U.S. allies and protects U.S. vital interests around the world." The United States Army is a profound symbol of reassurance and commitment to America’s friends and allies around the world. Army forces, when deployed or forward-stationed, provide the ultimate guarantor of U.S. support to those seeking American commitment — and stand ready to fight, deter, or assist others at a moment’s notice. Recent Army deployments to the Mideast to train anti-ISIS forces or to West Africa to combat Ebola are just the latest examples. While ships and airplanes can deploy quickly into a conflict, they can be withdrawn just as quickly. U.S. Army deployments, by contrast, are far more likely to be enduring rather than transient. Its presence on the ground overseas therefore provides the strongest possible message of U.S. resolve and long-term commitment around the world. Decades-long deployments to Western Europe, Korea, Japan, the Balkans, and even the Sinai Peninsula demonstrate that long-term staying power. Both allies and adversaries know that where Army forces stand, the United States stands.

"The Army prevents conflicts and, by doing so, conserves American lives and treasure." The Army interacts daily with other armies around the world to promote security and help avert instability and conflict. By engaging with other countries’ militaries, the Army creates and sustains bilateral and regional relationships with their leaders. These efforts build long-lasting personal and professional connections that provide important local access and understanding for the United States around the globe. These relationships help maintain international support for U.S. defense policy and help mitigate against the risks of lethal military miscalculation. The U.S. Army also serves as the international standard for legal, ethical and moral military conduct. Its high standards of military professionalism engender respect and influence among partners, friends and aspiring allies around the world. And every day, it demonstrates one of the most important principles of democracy: a military that is subordinate to its elected civilian leaders.

"The Army provides the ‘glue’ for joint warfighting." The Army is more than tanks and helicopters; it provides a web of vital enabling capabilities to the other services and coalition partners alike. The U.S. Army provides indispensable capabilities that all of the services rely upon in joint operations: theater-level logistics (including fuel, water, ammunition); ballistic missile defense of the United States; theater-wide engineering support; communications architectures for joint operations; and oftentimes the core of joint warfighting headquarters for large-scale conflicts (such as the NATO ISAF Joint Command in Afghanistan). These often-invisible Army capabilities get little attention and fewer resources, but comprise sizable parts of the Army. Without them, the joint capabilities of the U.S. war-fighting machine would rapidly grind to a halt.

"The Army expands or contracts as the nation requires." The U.S. Constitution states that the Congress shall "…raise and support Armies." U.S. Army history reflects a recurrent cycle of the Army growing quickly in war, and shrinking dramatically once conflicts end — with a small standing Army as the nation’s historical norm. During the current drawdown, the Army must therefore embrace as a core responsibility its mission to expand rapidly when called upon. As budgets go down, pressure to reduce the size of the Army will continue. And without question, the ultimate size of the active component will be smaller than what may be required in a conflict or even peacetime mission. This may require a much different and closer-knit set of relationships and responsibilities among the Army’s active, Guard, and reserve components than in the past. The total Army must find ways to adapt and meet this responsibility. More reliance and investment in the Army’s reserve components is one obvious way to preserve expansible capabilities and mitigate risk.

"The Army touches every community in America." Nearly one million soldiers serve in the active Army, the Army Reserve, and the Army National Guard, and virtually every community across the nation includes citizens who serve in one of the three components. This forms a crucial link between the military and American society, one that has long been a cornerstone of U.S. democracy. National Guard armories and Army Reserve facilities dot every corner of America and keep the Army connected to its nation and its people. Their soldiers help out in disaster assistance and relief and participate in every facet of American community life. They provide a local face of the U.S. Army to American citizens who can often view their military as distant and remote — especially at a time when less than one percent of Americans serve in the military. And the leavening of the active U.S. Army with two components that are not full-time regulars also helps balance the overall civil-military culture of the entire U.S. Army. It helps guard against elitism and a belief that the Army is somehow separate, distinct, and superior to the nation that it serves. As a result of this community-wide connection, the U.S. Army is much more diverse and better represents the nation as a whole than the other services, which have far fewer such local connections.

The United States Army has a powerful story to tell — but it must do a better job of explaining why it is an indispensable tool in the nation’s military toolkit. Moreover, its daily connection to the fabric of American society all across the land is quite simply unique. The Army is uniquely positioned not only to provide its full range of capabilities to protect America overseas, but to do the same in defense of the people of the United States here at home. The American public and its leaders need to fully understand the broad purpose and capabilities of the U.S. Army, especially as they make difficult strategic and budgetary choices about the future of the U.S. military and national security. Plainly articulating this narrative will help make clear to all the Army’s audiences why the United States Army remains an essential component of the nation’s defense. 

Lt Gen Barno is a senior fellow and co-director of the Responsible Defense program at the Center for a New American Security. From 2003 to 2005, he served as overall commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.