Do we still need the Army?

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.

24 thoughts on “Do we still need the Army?

  1. “This is a question I raised in A Swift, Elusive Sword back in 2001. I still haven’t heard a coherent answer.”

    Is the reason truly that no one takes a question is that intellectually vacant seriously?

    It is simple: Human beings live on land. War is generally decided where human beings live. They do not live in the air, nor in the sea. Air and sea lines of communication support commerce or the projection of national power…which happens where people live: On land. The air forces and navies serve to control lines of communication, and then ground forces project meaningful power where people live. That is, land.

    You can dop or launch ordinance from air and sea, but the people who cause the problems are generally still around. Destruction of a target does not equate to military victory, only when an adversary acts in accordance to a belligerent’s will or stated objectives of his war aims. That requires going where the people live, and that is on land.

    • Scott,

      Thanks. The question in not whether we need land forces but whether we need an army. This may be vacuous, but it goes back to the founding of the Republic. If you read the Constitution literally, the answer would have to be “No.”

      I am quite well aware that people live on land, so this discovery is not unique to you. But our land borders consist of Canada and Mexico, and we don’t need an army to protect us from them. We also have a Marine Corps and extensive air forces. Not to mention allies.

      So let me raise the question again: Why do we need an Army?


  2. The USARMY and USMARINES are two very different services. Of which, some missions may over lap but are very different in purpose and nature. Marines are a highly mobile and lethal amphibious force designed to take beachheads or establish foot holds which in turn allows the arrival of other forces, to include the Army. The Marines do not have the operational means to hold an area, they simply dont have the numbers or firepower. Once the Army moves in the Marines move on to their next mission. Marines can be compared to the head of a spear, they open up a wound in the enemy that allows our full might to enter behind them. The Army is an all emcompassing, independently sustainable force with sufficient staff personnel, medical personnel, and host of other occuptational specialities that are absent in the other branches, particulary the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps by and large depends on the Navy for most of its service and support tasks, and if the Marine Corps were enlarged to handle the mission of the Army as the main ground force it would be simply unsustainable. The massiveness of the Army is not in its fighting force but in its support channels, many of the schools that the Marines attend are actually run by the Army…to include, airborne, air assault, armored warfare, and I believe the Army may even run the combat diver school. The Army runs the majority of the maintenance depots and other branches often benefit from Army weapons programs and research. Our current Army, while hard to believe, is incredibly efficient and is capable of accomplishing more with less troops than we have ever seen in history. In fact, the spending of the military in general is at the lowest % of the GDP EVER. We are largely the worlds Army, you mentioned our allies in the statement above, but if you are a scholar of history you would find that the rest of the world does not budget without the significant financial backing of the United States. And, when a coalition of nations is required to destroy a world threat the United State is by and large expected to carry the largest burden both financially and troop wise. There are expectations that come with being a superpower, and one of those expectations is that you lead the way and the rest of the coalition supports. America does not have the luxury of isolating itself, especially not in the modern world. There are literally books written on the questions you raise, but some of the points you make are blatantly false or incorrect. Conducting operations in a thrid world nation is ultimately requiring more troops, not less, nation building is expensive both financially and manpower wise. Proxy wars have been fought between nuclear nations since the Korean War, there is no indication of this changing. Also, I contend the idea that nuclear armament eliminates the chances of war between two nuclear powers. Waging a non-nuclear war is growing more and more complex, the future war will be fought electronically and no branch has invested more into cyber and drone warfare than the Army. Also, in reviewing Freedberg’s article, I believe you misinterpret the article, or lack the historical knowledge to fully understand it, this is not an insult just fact. The issue, as Freedberg presents it, is not that other nations overwhelming man power numbers subjugates a miltary of greater technological power, but that the technology curve has reached a point of stagnation, or limited evolution, great enough to allow other powers to catch up. This is not unexpected as the technology curve was so steep over the past fifty years that without any significant innovation post internet age the curve would ultimately level off, and as such would allow the same technology to become cheaper and any subsequent increases in technology to become vastly more expensive. Additionally, Freedberg’s article is more a glimpse into the Armys own self criticism of its contracting and programs management, which has to this point has been unfocused and underperformed, with no help from Congress. The Army is in the progress of completely redifining the contracting and program management process to both create a much more streamlined, and focused effort that will put the technology of today in the hands of the Soldiers before it is a decade old. The Abrams tank, the finest main battle tank in the world, is powered and built into essentially early 80’s technology, granted their have been a variety of upgrades since then…but this is akin to changing the 8-track player out for a tape player then the tape to a CD and so on. With regards to Stephen Biddle I would say see Operation Desert Storm; where technology and training most certainly were the catalysts to the decisive victory the US experienced. Being technologically inferior would not be a first for America, we were inferior to Germany, in many areas we were inferior to the Soviet Union. The MIG out teched and out gunned our comparable fighter but it was ultimately our pilots training that made them elite. With that, I have to dismiss your premise as entirely infeasible and irrational. I believe that if you go back and look at what exactly the Army does and understand the mission of each of the branches of service you will dismiss your question as well.

  3. Personally, I think the Swiss has shown us that we do need an army. Perhaps, as your points have shown, just not the army we have now. In my way of thinking, and I could be way off track here because I don’t know much about the Swiss, the Swiss use their army mainly for orientation. In other words, like our Peace Corp, their army is used mainly for the betterment of the people serving in the army (a part of orientation is to align forces towards one point or position) and not for purposes of policy, or the lack of policy, foreign or otherwise.

      • If you endorse a Peace Corp, then you are only one step away in endorsing a home-game, and the need for an army, as well.

      • How so? The Peace Corp was created to give citizens of the U.S.A. access to Orientations that were foreign to them, by helping to change the environment the foreign Orientations occupied.
        In other words, in a somewhat Boydian sense, you can change implicit commands by changing the environment observed by all Orientations.

  4. Your argument is one of semantics. What the nation needs is the ability to project our massed military power quickly to where it will accomplish our nation’s political objectives. You could just as easily ask why do we need a Marine Corps. It remains to be seen if they would have survived to this point if it wasn’t for their phenomenal success during the island hopping campaign of WWII. One of the Army’s selling points is how big it is. The Marine Corps is unable to conduct a land campaign the way the Army can. If one were to do away with the Army, the Marine Corps would have to take over those tasks. And it would necessarily have to grow to do that. Call the branch of service what you want. It would not be in the national interest to keep the Marine Corps at present strength and ask it to do what the Army does. We will never know how many international issues the Army prevents just by existing at its current strength levels.

    • Ian,


      “project our massed military power …”

      As I explained in Sword, we can only engage in such operations against very weak opponents, and even there, hanging on to what we took is proving to be a challenge. Notice that nobody is talking about “projecting our massed military power” against Iran or even North Korea or last I heard, Syria.

      So what we’re really talking about is occasional raids, for which the USMC, augmented with USAF and USN TACAIR, plus the forces of our allies, is more than sufficient.


  5. Good points, by Chet and Larry, perhaps others.

    In the context of Chet’s rhetorical assertion, in asking that question,
    I can see his point. In the first place, There is an overlap, first of all between the marine corps (the navy’s army) and the army. Expand the marines Corps ten fold, throw in commensurately more heavy tanks and artillery, and it becomes the the army, including marginal amphibious capability. There is more to it of course.

    But that, ladies and gents, is not the point at all, the point is, in a 4GW and beyond, dominated world, does a million man force, ALL doing the SAME ROLE, or THING, more.or less, make sense ?

    Perhaps, only if you require the depth, that comes with the instance of the conduct of campaigns that fit the current template.being Interminable wars of essentially protracted, rudderless, hostile occupations.

    Oh, and by the way, how’s THAT working out for you ?

    To paraphrase Einstein, “insanity maybe characterized, as doing the exactly the same thing, over, and over, and over, and expecting the outcome to be different.”

    “That’s the way Dad did it” *
    *Downey Jr./Tony Stark
    In Ironman

  6. Two points: Industry is a substantial reason foreign states retain funds in the U.S. Treasury. If the Army went away, and our defense spending went away, what faith would foreign States have in the U.S. dollar? So, alas we have created a self-licking ice cream cone and dependency on our own technology. As for why the Army is necessary: flexibility. It is the easiest to grow if necessary, and has the most diversity to assimilate into various conflicts. Don’t blame the quarterback for sucking at basketball (playing at COIN when it’s not given the appropriate training or when not provided the Grand Strategy from the state necessary to fulfill objectives), particularly when his coach gives him the latest and greatest Lacrosse gear (e.g.: Abrams tanks the Army doesn’t want, but Congress does).

  7. I can agree Brian, and it’s EXACTLY the scenario described by President Eisenhower.

    Time was, the US economy, and it’s CONSTITUTION, could in large measure, and somehow withstand, or shake off all the abuse. People still had some faith, and that got it through the darkest days of the assassinations, Vietnam, Kent State, Watergate, etc.

    No more, in combination with similar in nature new factors, it’s now dragged the country, so far down the road of ruin. Perhaps too far to ever recover.

    It’s likely past the point of no return, as many of us no longer recognize the country we once loved
    and wanted to call home.

    It’s a tragedy, and a crisis we never imagined we’d be facing in our lifetime.

  8. Chet, to begin with, are you saying that we do not need land forces at all, or just no army?

    Speaking as a non-American, I would argue that the current 2nd generation force known as the Army is bloated and not needed. A limited land force that combines the Marines, Army, and ground forces of the US National Guard though is what I feel is needed.

    Such a force would be like those of the neutral nations, Sweden or Switzerland. It’s interesting to note that such nations have some of the highest living standards in the world. It would be primarily a defensive force. Perhaps occasionally striking out where attacked, but mainly defensive. No more wars of choice.

    There’s no need for a medium to large sized “conventional” (whatever that means these days) force. They are only for wars of choice (and they’re not even effective at fighting those). Nobody will launch a “conventional” attack on the US anyways. Terrorism may be a moderate annoyance and will need some countermeasures (but not the massive program that the NSA has opted to undertake nor the dozens of “intelligence” organizations).

    Perhaps a second humanitarian aid or peacekeeping force may be needed, but it would primarily be a real peacekeeping force, not a combat-oriented one.

    – Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      You said what I was trying to say. Many thanks!

      A couple of extra points:

      1. Hard to see the need for a land force from a defensive standpoint. The two arguments made by its advocates back when the Constitution was being debated were need to protect against a surprise attack by a European power, e.g., England, and need for a force-in-being to defend against “depredations by the Indians” along the frontier. Neither of these would seem to justify much of a force today, and neither would defense of our land borders from attack by Canada or Mexico.
      2. Any foreign adventure should be conducted in concert with and only in concert with our allies. If they aren’t willing to participate in substantial quantity, perhaps we should rethink the whole thing.

      I tried to make these points in my first book, A Swift, Elusive Sword, and finally gave up with my third, If We Can Keep It, which is available for download from the Articles page.

      Best regards,

      • Chet,

        I think that the following could be considered:
        “Any foreign adventure should be conducted in concert with and only in concert with our allies. If they aren’t willing to participate in substantial quantity, perhaps we should rethink the whole thing.”

        That implies that “foreign adventures” will happen. If they do though, the US will still need a relatively modest force alongside allied forces. To be honest, in my opinion, wars like Iraq should be avoided if possible in the future, based on past experience. But if you do intend for more small wars, that by nature requires at least some land forces, if only to support allies.

        I do not anticipate any land invasion of the United States in the foreseeable future. I know some Americans will point to the Mexican border, but that requires additional law enforcement. Deploying a military there would likely lead to some tragic results.

        I think looking at the future, we should consider the following:
        1. Prolonged wars on land are, based on past experiences, likely to be counterproductive. They face diminishing support both in the US and amongst any allies or potential allies with time. They are also unlikely to accomplish their original objectives.

        2. The world is starting to become more like the “Great Powers” environment prior to WWI. However, the majority of the nations have reasonable relations with the US and the probability of conventional warfare is low. China, Russia, and sometimes a few of the smaller nations are identified as “threats” but none of those nations are likely to start aggressive war against the US, particularly not given it’s nuclear arsenal.

        While China and Russia are becoming more nationalistic and assertive (it could be argued that some of this behavior may be due to the US), it’s not likely to involve a conventional war requiring a large standing army. It’s a diplomatic problem.

        All of this implies that a large standing army is obsolete. It also suggests that many of the high tech weapons that are being justified because of “China” or “Russia” (take for example the F-22, which some people want to have production restarted) are useless or worse than useless. Worse than useless because they divert resources away from what matters. This assumes that said weapons even work as advertised, which they often do not.

        Remember how I said that the Sweden (and indeed all of the Nordic nations, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark), along with the Switzerland have some of the highest living standards in the world? One of the reasons is because they spend less on defense and arguably only what they need (although in many of these nations, I don’t know if you follow their respective politics, but, often conscription is open to debate, and there are those who have advocated for further reductions in the defense budget.

        Let’s look at this from a grand strategy perspective: Another problem over the past few years has been the loss of American credibility and soft power. For the past few decades, the US has always held the image that it was something to be emulated, that a Western Liberal democracy was the ideal way to live. Over the past decade, consider the following:

        1. The War on Iraq was justified on a lie (Suddam did not have WMDs)
        2. The use of torture has put into question how “good” the US is
        3. The economic crisis since 2008 has put into question America’s economic system
        4. The relative performance of the US since about 2000 has left people to question Western style democracy as something to be emulated
        5. More recently, the revelations by Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have demonstrated that the NSA, along with other agencies have broken all norms and have isolated the US increasingly from the world

        The other issue is that decades of aggressive US foreign policy are beginning to add up. That could have unpredictable repercussions in the future.

        At the same time, the US economy remains weak despite any talk of a recovery. Despite lofty promises, it really doesn’t seem like Obama has really done much since assuming office save continuing the policies of the Bush Jr. administration. A while back, when I visited the US, an African American said to me, “it’s sad that Obama has done less for the advancement of African American social justice than pretty much any president in recent memory”.

        In other words, American soft power is in decline. To spend money on “hard power” or a military seems to be a folly. It would be better to well, spend the money at home and to be what the US claims to be.

        Of course, that simply will not happen. It involves dismantling the MICC, and it would involve building a much more egalitarian society (probably one that looks something similar to what the Northern European nations have). Those who have power don’t give it up easily.

    • “Nobody will launch a “conventional” attack on the US [and its allies] anyways.”
      I guess that would depend on how Japan acts in the now controlled skies over its disputed islands, and how close of friends we think we are.
      In other words should we let Japan become our cold-war warriors and strike where the threat of nuclear confrontation is small, or do we ignore the situation and let Japan do what it must, given the complexity of the situation?
      At least if we feel we deserve a say in the narrative.

      • Larry,

        That would be a good argument, except for the fact that China is a substantial nuclear power. So we aren’t going to fight a conventional war with them.

        Countries around the world are always going to have disputes. How large a force, and how much are you willing to spend on it, so that you can intervene in some of these? And what does the threat of such intervention do to the willingness of the participants to arrive at mutually acceptable solutions? And why is it important to “deserve a say in the narrative” and again, how much are you willing to pay for this privilege?

      • “So we aren’t going to fight a conventional war with them.”
        That said, a cold war attitude looks a lot like conventional war to many still at the helm of our government. What I was really trying to stress was that we need something else going forward and that it would be easy to get into the same kind of cold war situation that we had with Russia.Which if I am not mistaken, a cold war is just a “hot” war on the back burner.
        “how much are you willing to pay for this privilege?”
        That just depends. Will that payment be in dollars?

      • Larry,

        Thanks. You asked: “Will that payment be in dollars?” Of course, some of it will be, and some of that represents opportunity costs to the rest of American society. Some of it will be in lives, both lives lost and lives not spent doing something else. Note that we are now spending about a trillion dollars per year on various aspects of “national defense.” Compare that to even the most right-wing estimates of the cost of providing health care to our population, for example.

        A “cold war” is not a war–hot, back burner or otherwise–although it can also chew up a lot of resources.

      • “Of course, some of it will be, and some of that represents opportunity costs to the rest of American society. Some of it will be in lives, both lives lost and lives not spent doing something else.”
        That reminds me of my theory of war: all war is about economic considerations, and fought by people with little economic considerations.
        “Note that we are now spending about a trillion dollars per year on various aspects of “national defense.” ”
        Yeah, “national defense” or what is more commonly known as a “jobs” bill.
        “Compare that to even the most right-wing estimates of the cost of providing health care to our population, for example.”
        Yeah, as a “jobs” bill, providing health care kinda sucks.
        “A “cold war” is not a war–hot, back burner or otherwise–although it can also chew up a lot of resources.”
        You are right, but it seems to me that what keeps a “cold war” going is the threat of a “hot” war.
        You know, with what I assume to be “cold war” dinosaurs around, such as the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdock, they must be glad today’s warriors like Gen. Dempsey doesn’t have control of drones. I wonder which direction the General would target them, inward or outward? 🙂

  9. ” Our current Army, while hard to believe, is incredibly efficient and is capable of accomplishing more with less troops than we have ever seen in history. ”
    But isn’t this is exactly what Chet was getting at. An army is, by definition, numbers, and if we don’t have the numbers anymore, but “incredibly” efficiency, does that mean we don’t need the army anymore? Can’t we get this incredibly efficiency from something other that the Army?
    In other words, when the Special Operating Forces (SOF) says (and I have heard them say as much) that, “if you put an x on the map” and they “can be there”, why do they need to bring the Army with them?

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