This is a question I raised in A Swift, Elusive Sword back in 2001. I still haven’t heard a coherent answer.
The issue was — and is — that because the Army is designed for war on land, and because the advent of nuclear weapons has rendered war impossible except against weak, non-nuclear powers such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and because the USMC augmented by USAF and USN airpower and the forces of our allies are vastly more than adequate to engage in conventional warfare against Third-World opponents (and if our allies aren’t with us, should we be doing it at all?), why do we still need an Army? This is not an argument that the Army is incompetent, just irrelevant.
My suspicion is reinforced by a series of wargames recently conducted by the Army itself. As reported by Sidney Freedberg on the web site, Breaking Defense, “Adversaries around the world are catching up. By the 2030s some countries – or well-connected non-state forces such as Hezbollah – may challenge or even exceed American capabilities in a few key areas.” So despite billions spent on R&D, the advanced technology labs of Hezbollah are outpacing us. This being the case, there is no sign that spending even more billions cannot be similarly negated.
Furthermore, even if we invest the money needed to stay ahead, techwise, it won’t be enough. As Freedberg opens his piece:
A massive wargame held here this week to explore the “Deep Future” of warfare in the 2030s demonstrated a stark truth — one that Clausewitz enumerated in his famous work, On War — there’s no substitute for sheer numbers, no matter how much high technology the Army buys.
We now have a situation with the Army that the more money we pump into it, the less advantage we get. Can you extrapolate this trend? It’s not clear that spending more provides no additional capability, relative to likely opponents, although inclusion of Hezbollah does make one wonder about this.
This is a case of zugzwang, a term originally from chess, where it means that it’s your move, but any possible move would make your situation worse (leads to a mate by the opponent, for example). You’re not allowed to pass on your move in chess, for those who haven’t played in a while. The term has been broadened to include situations where you’re behind the power curve, that is, doing more just makes things worse. When one factors in the costs of more R&D spending and more people, especially in our current economic condition, spending more and getting less at the margin does hurt our ability to survive and prosper as a country.
The only solution is to quit playing this game. Invoke the Wookie Gambit and hurl the board to the floor. While you’re at it, re-examine the assumptions that got you into this position, in this case that a) a replay of WWII is still a reasonable planning scenario, and b) what decides the outcomes of conflicts are technology and numbers, in that order, which is about as far from the principles of maneuver as one can get (see, for example, Patterns of Conflict, chart 115, or Stephen Biddle’s excellent Military Power, pp. 20-25 — “technological superiority is no better than a coin flip for predicting victory and defeat.”)
It’s difficult to examine assumptions from within the system, even if the resulting problems are understood by the members of the organization. You can see this from Freedberg’s article. So the only alternative that makes sense is to wind down the Army as an organization that did its job but which we no longer need nor can afford.
This is not something that can happen immediately, and for the first decade or so, it won’t be cheap. Weapons programs typically have hefty cancellation clauses, for example, and the country must play fair with those who committed their careers to the Army. There will also be indirect costs: Weapons programs and force build-ups are the only fiscal stimulus programs that can make it through Congress, so ending them will put a further burden on the economy. But within a couple of presidential cycles, the benefits will become obvious as the country redeploys its treasure, manpower and brainpower.