Air-Sand Battle

The fight against the Islamic State is forcing the Pentagon to rethink its plans for the future of warfare.​

STAFF/AFP/Getty Images
STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

The fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State is still in its early days, but already it is challenging the Pentagon’s assumptions about where and how war will be fought and what the military will need to be prepared.

The conflict in Iraq and Syria represents the type of war the Obama administration has tried to relegate to history. The days of fighting protracted ground wars in the Middle East were supposed to be over. Instead, the White House directed the Pentagon to turn its attention to the Asia-Pacific region, where it’s believed by some that high-tech weapons systems belonging to the Air Force and Navy could be optimized in a more conventional fight.

But with new conflicts and pockets of violence and instability rapidly cropping up in places such as Ukraine, the Middle East, and parts of Africa, defense policymakers are being forced to revisit, if not rethink, some of the assumptions that underpin today’s strategy and resource decisions.

Among the ideas under scrutiny are the relevance of ground forces and whether state actors pose the most dangerous threat to the U.S. homeland and global security.

For the military services, the debate over these assumptions will directly affect their size, budget, and the types of weapons they buy.

For senior military leaders, the issue of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, "is as much about where the services are headed as it is about the problem to solve," said David E. Johnson, a military analyst at Rand who from 2012 to 2014 directed the Army’s Strategic Studies Group for Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno.

The Pentagon has laid out a strategy that accepts greater risk in the ground forces so that more resources can be poured into the Air Force and Navy — the services that play the biggest role in the Asia-Pacific region. A smaller ground force is also believed to be necessary due to escalating personnel costs at a time when the defense budget is shrinking.

As part of this plan, the Army is continuing to shrink from a wartime high of 570,000 active-duty soldiers to today’s 505,000, with the goal of dropping to 490,000 by the end of 2015. And even deeper cuts are likely to come; the Army is expected to downsize to 420,000 soldiers if Congress doesn’t undo the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration planned for 2016.

The assumption behind these troop reductions is that the United States won’t fight large-scale, protracted ground wars like it has in Iraq and Afghanistan anytime soon. And although no one is recommending inserting large-scale U.S. ground forces into Iraq — the current cap is 3,100 "non-combat" troops — events there and in Ukraine are providing the Army support for its argument that it is too risky to make the Army much smaller than it already is.

"I think there is a sense by many in the Army of, ‘Hey, we told you you’ve been engaging in some degree of wishful thinking and we think we’re getting growing evidence that we’re not talking about hypotheticals,’" said Maren Leed, a senior advisor to Odierno from 2011 to 2012 who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It’s ISIS, it’s Ebola, it’s Russia. Name your problem, ground forces matter."   

Meanwhile, the other services are arguing, "You can do it with us and with other people’s boots," she said.

In Iraq and Syria, the Air Force and special operations personnel are doing the United States’ heavy lifting, conducting daily airstrikes and working with the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the Syrian Kurds to try to halt the Islamic State’s momentum.

The Air Force points out its prominent role, noting that it has conducted nearly 70 percent of the missions against the Islamic State, including the majority of the strikes in Syria. However, current and former Air Force officials grumble that the bombing campaign has too many restrictions. Air power advocates say the Air Force could deliver a knockout blow to the Islamic State if allowed to, but instead, it’s relegated to a supporting role to the forces on the ground.

Meanwhile, senior Army leaders point out the limits of airstrikes and advanced technology in addressing the human drivers of war.

"A lot of times when the Army talks about the future of war, we don’t have a super-happy message," Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the deputy commander at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, said. "We’re saying: ‘War is hard. War is difficult to resolve.’ But there are those who actually have a happier message but the problem is, it’s self-delusion. It’s visions of future war that are fundamentally flawed."

Depending which side of the argument one lands on, what’s going on in Iraq and Syria is either an example of how much a military can do with air power alone or proof that without competent ground forces, progress against the Islamic State is limited.

"Each one of these conflicts has served to reinforce each narrative," Leed said.

For senior Army officers, it’s clear there is no solution to the Islamic State without competent ground troops.

That thinking has clearly influenced the Obama administration’s strategy, the success of which hinges upon whether the United States and its coalition members can train indigenous forces in Iraq and Syria to retake territory now controlled by the Islamic State.

There will be "boots on the ground" — they just won’t be American boots.

This already represents a shift in the debate, Leed said. "Everyone agrees now that boots of some nationality are needed but now the question is: How much can we outsource?" she said.

Again, the debate returns to the Army’s future role and the question of what is an appropriate size for it.

Directly fighting the Islamic State is not a reason to grow the Army; but the speed at which the militant group moved across Iraq this summer, taking Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, in June, and its ability to threaten Baghdad and Erbil, "raise questions about our assumptions about the need for large ground forces," said Paul Scharre, who before joining the Center for a New American Security worked in the Pentagon’s Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2008 to 2013 on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance policies, among other issues.

If Baghdad and/or Erbil fell, what would the United States have done? Scharre asked. Hypotheticals like that deserve consideration, he added.

Also, what happens if Iraqi security forces cannot win against the Islamic State?

For Johnson, that question is the "gorilla in the dark room behind the door," of the current U.S. strategy.

"The real moment of truth comes when the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga try to retake territory. Are they willing and capable? And what are the implications if they’re not? What is the ‘Plan B?’" asked Johnson.

The Defense Department assumes that on the spectrum of conflict, nation-state actors pose the greatest threat to U.S. security. The Pentagon has yet to reprioritize sufficiently to truly account for the threat extremist terrorist groups pose, Scharre said.

Many defense planners tend to view Iraq and Afghanistan as distractions that do not represent the types of higher-end, conventional threats that the United States should focus on, but that is faulty thinking, he added.

McMaster also argues that this assumption should be challenged.

"In the past, we were mainly concerned with the most industrialized and capable nation-states who could project power across the oceans and pose a threat to us," he said. "We weren’t really that worried about the least-industrialized places and we certainly weren’t very concerned about non-state actors and we didn’t think they’d be very capable. But what we see now is technology is transferred and gives these groups access to very destructive weapons," McMaster added.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen