As the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) annual conference in the nation’s capital gains momentum, the long-standing Pacific “pivot” of the larger military looms in the background, drawing the eyes of army chiefs and the crosshairs. of military technology. However, in the commentary below, Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute argues that America’s major land forces cannot take their eyes off the ball — or the bear — in Europe. (Follow the AUSA 2021 coverage of Breaking Defense here.)
It has almost become an article of faith in the Department of Defense that China is quickly becoming the US’s number one concern. The combination of China’s economic might, investment in advanced technology, large-scale military build-up and ability to operate in the so-called “grey zone” of conflict is raising concerns in the Pentagon over the ability of the US and allied forces in the region to target Chinese. deter aggression in both near and far terms.
In fact, some defense officials believe that the balance of military power in the western Pacific has already shifted to such an extent that the United States could lose to China in a future conflict over Taiwan.
But such myopia for the Pacific is all too often overlooked, to the peril of America, Russia and its growing army. It can be argued that the threat posed by the former Cold War enemy is both more immediate and stressful than China’s and should be a higher priority for US land forces in the military.
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A number of studies and wargames support the argument that Russia could carry out a quick round invasion of the Baltic states, while using its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) assets to disrupt NATO’s responses. Russia has shown its ability to quickly concentrate significant ground combat forces on its western borders. Moscow recently announced that it is establishing new land forces in its western military district, which borders NATO’s eastern border.
As the modernization of the military focuses on armed forces and weapon systems with the Pacific theater in mind, remember to ensure that troops in Europe are of sufficient quantity and quality to deter Russian designs on the continent.
China Alarm must not drown investments in land forces
Both China and Russia have invested heavily in a range of A2/AD capabilities designed to counter existing US and Allied capabilities and dominate future battlefields. In response to the growing security challenge of potential adversaries, especially China, the 2018 National Defense Strategy proposed creating a more lethal force, focusing on investments in space, cyber, C4ISR, precision attacks, unmanned systems and flexible platform.
Each of the services has put forward new concepts of operations emphasizing concentration of effects, distribution of forces, mobility, sensor-to-shooter connectivity in all conflict zones.
None other than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, has proposed distorting future defense budgets in favor of heavy spending on naval, air and space platforms.
“So, look, I’m an army man. And I love the military … but the fundamental defense of the United States and the ability to project power forward [are] will be naval and air and space forces,” he said.
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This statement is particularly worrisome when taken in the context of flat or declining defense budgets. It suggests that the military in general, and its ground combat capabilities in particular, will foot the bill for investments in ships, planes, satellites and missiles.
This view places the military in a difficult position and has prompted military leaders to jump into the “me too” game and develop capabilities beyond its traditional role.
Recent statements have touted the military’s ability to act as the Marine Corps as a “stand-in” force within the adversary’s A2/AD ring, deploying small, mobile troops equipped with precision fires on long-range, advanced intelligence systems, information operations, cyber, electronic warfare and aerospace.
Army draft documents have highlighted the potential role of the army’s new long-range fire systems as an important means of defeating China’s A2/AD capabilities and endangering the People’s Liberation Army and navy. The military has advertised that it is looking for ways to give its new missiles and long-range artillery an anti-ship capability.
Military leaders have also weighed the pros and cons of prioritizing investments in armed forces and technology in favor of the Indo-Pacific theater over Europe. In a document prepared for the then incoming Army Chief of Staff, General James McConville, it was suggested that “[i]rather than focusing on setting up a fully modernized force to [U.S. European Command], could be an alternative to deter Russia with minimal current conventional forces and allow the military to shift the strategic focus for modernization efforts to [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command].”
While General McConville has not explicitly endorsed this view, his recent Chief of Staff No. 1, Army Multi-Domain Transformation, strongly emphasizes the military’s role in the Indo-Pacific theater. [PDF].
Some systems work in both arenas, but not enough to counter Russia
It is easy to see how the military could be misled into thinking that it should emphasize forces and weapon systems particularly suited to the Indo-Pacific theater and, accordingly, emphasize modernized capabilities that would strengthen the attitude of American ground fighting in Europe. This would be a mistake. As General McConville noted: [PDF] in a recent discussion at the Brookings Institution, “The core of the military is ground combat.” This is especially the case in Europe.
It is true that some of the systems being developed as part of the military’s current modernization efforts will be applicable in both the Indo-Pacific and Europe. These include long-range precision firing systems such as the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, Precision Strike Missile, Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, Future Long Range Assault Aircraft, mobile air and missile defense, and hypersonic missiles.
However, these capabilities will not be enough to counter Russian investment in conventional land forces or deny Moscow the ability to rapidly capture and maintain territory in Eastern Europe.
To counter Moscow’s moves, the military must ensure that its future budgets maintain adequate investment in enhanced capabilities for sustained land battles. These include the Optional Combat Vehicle, a replacement for the Bradley Infantry Combat Vehicle, and one of the Army’s 31+4 Modernization Priorities. Another is the latest upgrade to Abrams’ main battle tank, the SEPV3 variant. A third is the armored multi-purpose vehicle, which would replace the obsolete M-113.
A new capability that would certainly be of value to the military in a European scenario is a 155 mm mobile howitzer. The Army is looking at several non-development platforms to replace the towed 155mm M777 howitzers in the Stryker Brigades. 155mm truck-mounted howitzers are said to be more maneuverable, survivable and responsive than the existing towing system. They have a “shoot-and-scoot” capability that can increase survivability against Russia’s proven ability to detect and attack enemy artillery units.
To bolster NATO’s defenses, more US ground combat units must also be deployed forward, to the Baltic States and Poland. The concept of stand-in army troops stationed close to the threat is even more relevant in Europe than in the Indo-Pacific.
As Robert C. O’Brien, President Trump’s former national security adviser, wrote in a recent editorial: “The Biden administration could make its own show of solidarity with Poland and the Baltic states by increasing the US presence in the region.” Stationing an armored fighting brigade in Poland would be an ideal complement to the existing alliance forces in the country.
The last administration has done much to improve the position of US military forces in Europe, moving significant combat capabilities to the east. More needs to be done.
dr. Daniel Goure is a Senior Vice President at the Lexington Institute, a public policy research organization in Northern Virginia. dr. Goure was Director of the Office for Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 1991 to 1993.