The U.S. Army in the 21st Century

The United States Army has endured as a coherent, professional fighting force for over 225 years. The Army has carried the Nation through eleven separate wars[1] and scores of police actions and engagements. While atrocities and strategic mistakes have been committed, in most of these cases the Army has fought with honor, success, and professionalism. As the nation moves into the twenty-first century, its people again turn to the Army for foreign policy and military security. The Army is willing and eager to meet this challenge, but as always the devil is in the details. The impact and long-term effect of Army technical modernization and reliance is not yet entirely clear. However, some principles can be analyzed. To a concerned, well read observer, numerous strengths and weaknesses are evident.

With the decision to move toward a techno-professionalism, the U.S. Army has dramatically altered its force profile. Advantages of these new technologies are clear: U.S. systems themselves are far superior compared to equivalents, even in spending, to enemy tanks, helicopters, missile systems, and small arms. The effect and force projection capabilities of a U.S. Army main battle tank or attack helicopters are clear, decisive, and effective. Advancements in technology have given the Army lasting force multipliers, multipliers that give a demographically miniscule Army reach and worldwide poly deployment potential. However, with so much technology a threat of technological dependency may arise. Much of traditional American strength has come from versatility and diversity of capabilities. By over-emphasizing a particular aspect of weapons system improvements, the specter of losing this versatility is not far fetched. Once systems of operation are created, it is difficult to escape, alter, or even think in terms not contained within the original parameters of the experiment. Furthermore, in a quest toward high-tech the Army can often miss intelligent, effective low-tech solutions, often at the fraction of the cost.[2] After thousands of years of military machination, three of the most effective ground combat weapons systems are still a hole in the ground, a bag with sand in it, and a pit with some sticks.

Another question comes to mind when looking at U.S. Army weapons systems. How do they work against what Islamist rebels are using? In a world where secondhand weapons systems are abundant, and where the components of improvised weaponry are prolific and economical,[3] the Army stares down a reverse economy of force. While U.S. weapons systems are the pinnacle of engineering development, the Islamist rebels are not fighting with the America deck, that is, they are not challenging us with tanks or Scuds or even regular infantry. Instead, they rely on irregular units, partisans, IEDs, and fanaticism. This approach is why they are hanging in a war where they are outnumbered and outspent.[4] Although U.S. techno-systems look great against post-Soviet industrial opponents, or even light tech opponents such as China or France, we are not fighting them. Next-generations systems seem of little assistance against an enemy that refuses to fight on your terms.

As always the most important question is strategy and tactics. In warfare nothing comes close to its level of pre-eminence. The enemies the U.S. Army faces are clever, adaptive, resilient, and dedicated. They will not simply lie down and fight a U.S.-style war. They will strike where we are weak and attack when we are not prepared. To use a cliché they are not stupid and use craft, diplomacy, and manipulation. To assume anything different would be a critical mistake. As the underdog they have the added leverage of increased mental reliance and usage. This advantage is why it is important not to over-rely on technology and spending, and why we must continue to evolve our strategic and tactical thinking. The stakes are high; we do not face a merciful or enlightened opponent. We do not face an enemy of respectable combatants who will leave us alone if we leave them alone. The U.S. Army must be reminded that they are not invincible. History has shown that comparable techno-happy armies have come crashing down.

When looking into the future, little is certain, except that the Army will continue to face tangible and effective threats. The Army and its political superiors should remember one crucial factor: the goal of war is to win. Not to further some theory, not to ride into battle with shiny cool-looking things so we can feel good, but to win. The Army needs to be versatile, contemplative, and on a short leash. As always, if this mindset fails, it is the least who will suffer: an ordinary solider serving his country, or a random herdsman, or camel, who becomes collateral damage.

[1] American Revolution 1776-1783, War of 1812 (1812-1815), Mexican-American War (1840-1843), War of Southern Treachery (1861-1865), Plains Indian Wars (1867-1875), Spanish-American War (1898-1901), World War I (1917-1918), World War II (1941-1945), Korean War (1950-1953), Vietnam War (1965-1973), and Gulf War (1990-1991).

[2] Sand Bags Baby

[3] Often IEDs are made of blasting explosives, petrol, fertilizer, artillery munitions, or mining charges. They are often set off with cell phones, beepers, garage door openers, or a human hand.

[4] Estimates of the insurgency range from 20,000-50,000, whereas the U.S. Army has had over 130,000 troops in Iraq. Also, the U.S. spends more than most of the world combined on its Army (though measured against GNP it's a smaller amount)(Kennedy).

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