The combination of professionalism and technology may also result in narrow-minded specialization more suited to a debating society than to an organization whose task it is to cope with, and indeed live in, the dangerous and uncertain environment of war.
The impending national COVID-19 recovery effort, combined with an enormous and rising national debt, portends a years-long period of declining defense budgets. This will force a re-evaluation of priorities, to be sure, but it will also accelerate trends that have already begun to take shape. The Department of Defense is committed to the development and application of critical technology, for instance, and that is unlikely to change. In the age of high-technology war and multi-domain operations, the military is likely to forsake traditional force structure and conventional capability for modernization and new technology. The Marine Corps is already taking the lead on this approach, shedding tanks and infantry formations to prioritize new technology in a multi-domain fight. In the years ahead, defense officials will be tempted to reduce manned systems and conventional force structure. These changes will manifest as soon as the forthcoming budget proposal.
The Pentagon, promising a “dramatic shift” toward new capabilities, is likely to cut traditional land warfighting functions and formations in favor of research and development investments in space, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing in 2021 and beyond. In making significant cuts to budgets in the months ahead, defense officials would be wise to review another period in which emerging technology—in the form of nuclear weapons and airpower—held the allure of allowing the nation to win while reducing investment in the conventional force.
The Dawn of Nuclear War
The 1950s competition between two nuclear-armed states, the United States and the Soviet Union, ushered in the risk that war was a potentially global apocalyptic event. Conflict no longer threatened mere armies and cities; swaths of humanity itself would disappear into the raised dust of atomic blasts. War threatened to kill hundreds of millions within days and perhaps a billion within months and years. Radiation would render vast landscapes forever ravaged. Entire species of animals wiped out by radioactive fallout. War was no longer a means of gaining and holding power; it became an unthinkable specter haunting humanity’s very existence.
The Cold War also ushered in an argument about the nature and purpose of landpower in an atomic age, an argument in which two sides hugged opposing philosophies tightly. One side, represented by US President—and former World War II Supreme Allied Commander in Europe—Dwight Eisenhower, believed that seizing and holding terrain had been rendered irrelevant by technology capable of quickly and entirely destroying that terrain. The other side of the disagreement was represented by another fabled World War II commander, Matthew Ridgway, formerly of the 82nd Airborne Division who was by 1953 the chief of staff of the Army. Ridgway believed that the unimaginable stakes of nuclear war meant that conflict would revert to its natural expression: between groups of ground soldiers fighting for an advantage on land.
There were more foundational disagreements between the two men. For Eisenhower, defeating the Soviets would require a moral and economic informational campaign demonstrating to the world the benefits of capitalism. Economic might, combined with a society committed to the principles of self-determination, was the critical weapon system that would allow the United States to outlast its communist rival. Balanced budgets and smaller federal expenditures were more important than overwhelming landpower. Ridgway, meanwhile, believed not only in the enduring utility of ground combat but also in the centrality of the foot soldier in a US-Soviet military confrontation.
The difference between these two colliding outlooks struck at the heart of the nature of war itself. Ridgway and Eisenhower, two American titans of war, staked out irreconcilable positions. The resultant debate has profound lessons for the Army today.
Dispute About the Nature of War
For Eisenhower, the nature of armed conflict itself had changed: war was no longer a political endeavor, but was now an absolute effort, one with the potential to render politics itself pointless. He felt that by holding onto the antiquated notion of a large ground force, Ridgway was stubbornly trying to put limits on war when they no longer belonged. This, Eisenhower felt, was dangerous and could lead the Soviets to think that the United States was not serious about nuclear retaliation. Furthermore, defeating the Soviets, according to the president, required a robust domestic economy and balanced federal budgets, which mandated a smaller military. It also required the threat of nuclear weapons delivered by air. In effect, new technology, nuclear weapons, and aircraft allowed the country to reduce the size and cost of the Army, which would be relegated to restoring order in American cities in the aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack, a mission that did not require a large combat force.
Ridgway, on the other hand, felt his commander-in-chief failed to understand that because nuclear war was unacceptable for any rational actor for resolving most crises, the next fight would involve non-nuclear ground combat. According to Ridgway, by drastically reducing Army budgets in the mid-1950s, the nation gave up any military options short of suicide or surrender.
Ridgway argued for an Army resourced with tactical nuclear weapons, capable of fighting in small units in jungles and larger units in rolling European plains and cities. The general saw future conflict as a ground battle integrating airpower, low-yield nuclear weapons, and artillery. Ridgway felt his Army was dangerously underprepared for this looming struggle. Eisenhower and Charles Wilson, the secretary of defense, publicly ignored their Army chief and privately questioned his intellect. In 1955, Eisenhower effectively fired Ridgway, refusing to reappoint him for a second two-year term as Army chief.
Ridgway Was Right
While Eisenhower’s strategy arguably played a role in winning the Cold War, history proves Ridgway’s astute prognostication. Historically, great-power competition often manifests in conflict through proxy wars; by divesting a portion of America’s landpower capabilities, the White House rendered the nation unprepared for a growing number of limited conflicts. More importantly, a gutted and largely demoralized Army would reveal itself incapable of defeating the Viet Cong insurgency in the years after Eisenhower left office.
The parallels to today’s global security situation are clear: a small group of states has a technological advantage over much of the rest of the world, rendering a global war of great powers a nightmarish proposition in which entire cyber, space, domestic, and international military infrastructures are at risk. To prepare for multi-domain conflict with a high-tech adversary, US leaders must maintain sufficient traditional capability to either compel an enemy to avoid a land fight or crush enemies who desire to engage in one. In so doing, the Army must set the conditions to acquire capabilities necessary to gain an advantage at the outset of conflict and maintain conventional capabilities to fight in a degraded environment afterward.
In the event of a major theater war, there will be no time to shift the force from competition to conflict. The potential transition from a high-tech competition to a traditional shooting conflict will occur without warning. Our enemies will not give the United States the time needed to develop and hone traditional warfare skills if we are not ready to go.
The Consequence of Error
The Army must pursue new technology without growing overly infatuated with space, missiles, cyber, and artificial intelligence. High-tech wars, after all, may not be short; they are very likely to be grinding wars of attrition that devolve into troops engaged in ground warfare and clashes in large urban areas.
As the nation lurches into a period of great fiscal uncertainty, Congress and the Department of Defense must heed the lessons of the Eisenhower and Ridgway struggles. The days of $718 billion defense budgets are over, at least for the coming years, and perhaps well beyond. Tough choices lie ahead; leaders will be tempted to cede conventional infantry, armor, and artillery for hypersonics, autonomous systems, and space-based defenses. However, the consequence of error in threading the forthcoming defense budget needle is catastrophic. The Army must be ready to win on the ground the next time it is required to do so.
Col. Joe Buccino is a soldier and resident student at the US Army War College. Previously he has served as a Pentagon spokesman and spokesman for the 82nd Airborne Division.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
While it is true that the Army was demoralized upon entry and for the duration of Viet Nam, it is a mistake to blame that for the fall of South Viet Nam. The Republic never had the support of the people it claimed to govern – it was corrupt and unstable even before the U.S. arrived and never improved. That was a political failure that no military effort could ever overcome.
It is ironic that Taylor, though having re-structured the Army as CSA after Ridgeway, hewed to the Ridgeway line in supporting U.S. involvement in Viet Nam: that ground battle must still be relevant. That may have been true, though it was clearly not the case on the ground chosen to test the premise.
The First Gulf War was a success because the objectives were limited. The Second failed because the objectives exceeded what was, is and will ever be militarily achievable. In short, returning to exactly why we failed in Viet Nam.
Ridgway NEVER supported U S involvement in Vietnam!
I sincerely hope that the Era of $718 billion budgets IS over. We can get by on half of that if we are able to root out the waste and corruption that plague our acquisition processes.
Why Inspector Generals have been unable to achieve reconciliation of funding speaks more to the depth of the corruption than to actual costs of programs and materiel.
That is a great point, CO. There are at least a dozen reasons MAC-V failed in Vietnam. Among them: an inability to match local governance tactics with theater strategy and an underestimation of the NVA in 1968. However, the Army was unprepared to fight or even fully understand the VC in 1965. Through at least the end of 1968, the Army was unable to produce trained, disciplined units to defeat the VC and protect the south.
I do, however, have one contention for you, my friend: unlike Taylor, Matthew Ridgway never wanted to fight in Vietnam. His most significant (and just about only) success as Army chief was talking Eisenhower out of an American commitment to the south after Dien Bien Phu. General Ridgway's presentation to Eisenhower in 1954 is an overlooked bit of the history of that awful war. Ridgway was in the minority; the rest of the Joint Chiefs advised U.S. intervention.
Was Ridgway an effective Army chief? No! He leaked information, slow-rolled actions, spoke out against the president's New Look philosophy and complained about the NCS's grand strategy. However, in May 1954, he gave the country's leadership his best military advice about a war he felt the country could not win without significant blood and treasure.
Correction duly noted, and allow me to clarify. Taylor wanted to prove that there was a non-nuclear ground force needed for flexible response. Again, this may not have been wrong in principle – but it did lead him into grievous error in SE Asia.
In 1965, the US Army was not "a gutted and largely demoralized" force. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations had embraced Ridgway's critique of the New Look. The Army received significant increases in its budget. It had a sound doctrine for defeating insurgencies and used it in Vietnam—Gregory Daddis details why that was not enough to achieve US war aims. Although the Army Staff came to detest McNamara's Whiz Kids, morale among career personnel rose after 1960, even given the continuing dysfunctional organizational culture brought to light by the 1970 Army War College study. And while draftees, draft motivated volunteers, and ROTC lieutenants still had the resigned acceptance of service described by Brian Linn in Elvis's Army, they went to Vietnam in 1965 without complaint and fought as well as their fathers had in the Second World War. It was by the end of 1968 that the Army was "a gutted and largely demoralized" force—see for example accounts by Tim O'Brien and Bruce Palmer, Jr.
Yes, sir. Fair enough. James William Gibson and Schulzinger and others make the point that the draining of the Army (to include the lack of institutional purpose) in the late 1950s led, in part, to early setbacks in 1965 – 1966. Kennedy / Lemnitzer ramped up troop strength very rapidly, filling out units w/ draftees and volunteers while remaking the Army from New Look to Flexible Response. Had Ike kept the Army force manning levels at Ridgway's recommended strength for the 1955 defense budget, you wouldn't have needed to round out the units with the draft…and you wouldn't need the creation of Project 100,000 in 1966.
@Buccino, thank you for a great article! Very thoughtful and thought-provoking. Reading Ike's autobiography, and his public papers, he gently dismisses Ridgeway and his fellow Chiefs as being understandably and predictably parochial. Rather than a philosophical disagreement about war, Ike suggests it was about a contest for budgetary resources wrapped in emotional plea. I think Ike was right in his strategy in that, "defeating the Soviets would require a moral and economic informational campaign demonstrating to the world the benefits of capitalism. Economic might, combined with a society committed to the principles of self-determination, was the critical weapon system that would allow the United States to outlast its communist rival." Wherein Ridgway was right in that any strategic / diplomatic / economic strategy musts be backed with requisite military strength. Where their positions irreconcilable? I don't think so. You would be hard-pressed to find a strategic leader that understood joint/combined warfare as well as Ike. He did not have to rely on the Joint Chiefs for military expertise as his predecessor did. Where Ike wanted to find efficiencies were in fundamentally joint ventures, such as acquisition, logistics, intelligence, basing, housing, transportation, etc. However, the military wasn't ready to embrace that level of jointness during Ike's tenure. Visionary leaders can be impeded by those that embrace status quo. For argument's sake, let's take a sentence out of your closing comments and change it to read, "The Joint Force must pursue new technology without growing overly infatuated with machine guns, airplanes, tanks, and carrier groups." As you suggest, high-tech wars will not be short… Rather, they will be persistent and un-ending. And wars of attrition will not be wholly conventional. Future war will become increasingly cognitive in nature with adversarial society as the target…and no conventional force will be the savior.