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The Case for Army XXI

Authored by Mr. John Gordon IV, Mr. Peter A. Wilson. | May 1998

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The authors contend that today?s Army is essentially a ?barbell? shaped organization: very light or very heavy forces with little in the form of ?middleweight? units. One of the fundamental decisions that the Army must make in the coming decade is whether it intends to continue this organizational structure or modify it modestly or radically. If major modification is appropriate, what are the options? Fortunately, the Army has several years to consider such issues.

Probably for at least a decade the United States and its allies will not be confronted by a major military competitor or a collection of medium-sized states that are capable of successfully threatening our vital interests with ?conventional? combined arms forces.1 That does not mean that some regional adversary could not achieve a short-term success by invading and seizing territory from its neighbor. Furthermore, that ?smash and grab? strategy could bereinforced by the deft threat or actual use of nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC) weapons?a feature described as a plausible major theater war (MTW) scenario by both the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and National Defense Panel (NDP). Additionally, future opponents are likely to exploit long-range missile systems (both ballistic and cruise) armed with advanced non-NBC munitions to threaten the military viability of any future U.S. expeditionary force. Such a victory could certainly be reversed; for the foreseeable future the United States and its friends can certainly turn back overt aggression if they choose to do so. The critical strategic question is whether the United States and its allies will be prepared to reverse this act of aggression. Under the shadow of a NBC/missile threat, the cost might be perceived as very high especially if the United States has not adapted its forces to that plausible contingency.2

One of the clear premiums of future U.S. combined arms forces will be their ability to rapidly deploy into a menaced theater and operate in the face of enhanced NBC and long-range missile threats. The early deployment of a high performance combat force will have a profound impact on the probability, duration, and overall cost of a major campaign.3

More probable than MTWs is the possibility that the United States will be confronted by a whole series of lesser crises or small-scale contingency (SSC) operations. Civil wars that threaten to spill into other nations, relatively limited armed struggles between religious and/or ethnic groups, and breakdowns in civil order within ?failed states? are all examples of the kinds of operations where U.S. forces could conceivably be deployed.Significantly, many areas where such breakdowns in order could occur are where the United States does not have forces permanently stationed ashore. Finally, many of these future conflicts will take place in an urban environment, which reflects the global migration from the countryside to the cities. Should the United States elect to intervene with ground force, deployments from distant locations would have to take place. This changing reality has a significant impact on how the future Army should be configured.4


A decision to transform a portion of the Army into aero-motorized divisions and brigades appears compelling. The geo-strategic environment will likely call for the rapid deployment of high performance combined arms forces over trans-oceanic distances. Even in Europe, NATO expansion east to Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic highlights the need for operationally agile ground forces since classic prepositioning options may be precluded for geo-strategic and cost reasons.

In many small-scale contingencies, aero-motorized units appear more versatile than pure light infantry units, especially if there is any expectation of intense local combat.

Additionally, there will be the need to have theater forces that have high firepower, operational agility, and a low logistics ?footprint.? This provides them the capacity to operate effectively in a military environment under the ?artillery fan? of long-range ballistic and cruise missiles and possibly ?dirtied? by the use of NBC weapons. Finally, a move toward the medium weight aero-motorized concept would put the Army firmly on the path toward a more strategically and operationally agile force of 2020 without calling for either technological or budgetary magic.


1. The possible exception to this ?10-year? rule is the prospect that the PRC will acquire a substantial air and naval capability to menace Taiwan by circa 2005. To be credible the Chinese would have to efficiently exploit a wide range of contemporary air and naval weapons, largely acquired from the Russian Federation. The Chinese military?not noted for high technology innovation?would have to selectively master elements of the contemporary ?revolution in military affairs.? Even if a Chinese ?regional strategic threat? rapidly matured by 2005, it is likely that the geo-strategic focus of possible future confrontations with the United States will have primarily aerospace and naval features with U.S. ground forces playing a secondary-supporting role. The nuclear capability of China should not be forgotten.

2. U.S. forces in Korea face the immediate prospect that a second Korean War would involve the substantial if not massive use of chemical and biological weapons by the North Koreans. During 1997, a major shift in attitude toward the DPRK?s CW and BW capability occurred both within the region and the U.S. Joint Staff. By the winter of 1998, there was wide concern about the need to enhance both the U.S. and South Koreans? joint capacity to operate in a theater ?dirtied? by wide scale CW and BW use.

3. In an important shift emphasis from the Bottom-Up Review (BUR), the strategic analysis contained in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) acknowledged that CW and BW use was likely in future Major Theater Wars (MTWs). This shift in strategy was strongly endorsed by the National Defense Panel.

4. See the Strategic Assessment 1997, Flashpoints and Force Structure, Washington DC: Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University.