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The Future of American Landpower: Strategic Challenges for the 21st Century Army

Authored by Dr. William T. Johnsen, Dr. Douglas V. Johnson II, Professor Douglas C. Lovelace Jr., Dr. Steven Metz, LTC James Kievit. | March 1996

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The global security system of the early 21st century will be configured into three tiers, each defined by economic form and degree of governability. The first tier will include the technologically advanced states of Western Europe, North America, and the Pacific Rim. Intense economic competition may occasionally lead to political conflict and even spark full-blown information warfare, but there will be no traditional warfare within the first tier. Second tier regions will retain most features of Cold War era nation-states. Periods of rapid internal political transition will occur cyclically and often will be violent. Second tier states may occasionally resort to conventional, inter-state war, and will retain large land armies equipped with some sophisticated weapons systems. Many of them will develop weapons of mass destruction. The third tier will experience un- governability, occasional anarchy, endemic violence, severe ecological degradation, the politicization of primal loyalties, and political fragmentation. Third tier states may engage in short, spasmodic wars with each other.

Interdependence will be the defining characteristic of the future global security system. Because of interdependence, the global security system will continue to experience cycles with periods dominated by violence followed by widespread resolution of conflicts. The goal of the United States, the only power involved everywhere, will be to take maximum advantage of periods of peaceful conflict resolution and shorten periods of violence. American landpower can play a key role in these efforts.

While the internal dimension of American security will probably change less over coming decades than the external one, several trends are important. Political leaders and the public are likely to remain intolerant of protracted or costly military ventures except when crucial national interests are clearly threatened. Pressure for near total disengagement from the third tier will be particularly strong.

If the future security environment takes the form just described, five strategic challenges will be most important for the Army:

Reconcile long-term and short-term imperatives. Strategists must maximize the chances of long-term success while minimizing short-term risk. If the future global security system is relatively benign, the Army can minimize the resources it devotes to long-term modernization and force development. But if conflict dominates the future global security system, the United States must accept greater short-term risk and focus on force development and modernization. Current American strategy may be slightly skewed in favor of the short term.

Maximize efficiency. American military forces will remain small in comparison to the number and scope of tasks they will be given. This creates an overriding need for efficiency. One way to augment efficiency is through coalitions. Technology probably holds greater promise of bringing dramatic improvements in efficiency, but it requiresextensive investment. Reliance on technology also can generate unintended adverse effects. New technology can make current (and expensive) technology obsolescent. Or, challengers might seek low-tech, asymmetric responses to counterbalance the American advantage.

Maximize the political utility of landpower. A military force has political utility when political leaders and the public deem the expected costs acceptable. It is impossible to predict precisely what the American public and its leaders will define as acceptable costs in coming decades, but Army leaders must be aware that this fluid equation can change rapidly, and the type of force they create, train, and equip must, in part, be determined by the need to maximize political utility.

Undertake a controlled institutional revolution. The historical boundaries of landpower may be stretched as the basic concept of national security expands to include, e.g., protection against violent threats to national information and information systems, the environment, and public health. The Army must decide whether to expand and accept the new roles of landpower or specialize in one or two functions and allow some other institution to assume the new roles. Phrased differently, the Army will have to decide whether warfighting is the function for which it exists or simply one function (albeit an important one) among several.

While the need for a controlled institutional revolution in the U.S. Army is becoming clear, its precise direction is not so obvious. If the functions of landpower continue to diverge in terms of the skills, concepts, and organizations they require, it will become increasingly difficult to craft a military organization that can perform all of its required tasks. If tasks other than warfighting become more strategically important, the relationship between the Army's warfighting component and its peace operations/ conflict resolution/grey area threat component may need radical change.

Preserve public supportfor effective landpower. To retain the public support necessary for continued investment in landpower and for recruiting from a shrinking pool of candidates, senior Army leaders must persistently and convincingly explain the roles that landpower plays in deterring violence, defending against aggression that does occur, reassuring allies and friends, and helping resolve conflicts.

As senior Army leaders explain the enduring significance of landpower to political leaders, the media, and the public, they must counter several popular myths concerning American strategy and the role of landpower plays in it.

  • The United States can disengage from the conflict prone parts of the world, thereby obviating the need for direct involvement.
  • The world will see no more conventional wars.
  • Allies or international organizations can compensate for a decline in U.S. ground forces.
  • Landpower can be allowed to atrophy during the current period of fragmented threat, and be reconstituted if necessary.

The current Army leadership recognizes the need for fundamental change. But this is only the first (and easiest) step. The next one is to reach consensus on exactly what the most pressing strategic challenges are. This essay suggests five. The development of coherent programs to deal with these challenges is the greatest legacy that the 20th century Army can leave the nation.


Assuring the future effectiveness of American landpower is a shared responsibility. The public and policymakers must recognize the enduring significance of landpower and take steps to assure its continued viability. At the same time, Army leaders must embrace the need for fundamental reform in the roles, focus, and structure of their organization. If the public is to make the investment necessary to retain effective landpower, Army leaders must assure that this investment is spent as wisely as possible, with future needs rather than past successes serving as the guide. The current Army leadership recognizes the need for fundamental change. But this is only the first (and easiest) step. The next one is to reach consensus on exactly what the most pressing strategic challenges are. This essay has suggested five. The development of coherent programs to deal with them is the greatest legacy that the 20th century Army can leave the nation.