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Redefining Land Power for the 21st Century

Authored by Dr. William T. Johnsen. | May 1998

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Whether the United States is entering an era marked by a ?revolution in military affairs? or continues in the strategic interregnum of ?the post-Cold War,? a new theory of war will have to be developed to fit ?the limiting conditions? and ?peculiar preconceptions? that are emerging. To develop this new theory will first require defining land power and understanding its context within military power in the 21st century. That a definition of land power might be needed at this point in the evolution of warfare may seem odd. Readers outside the military, for example, may be surprised to learn that such a definition does not exist.2 To many military practitioners, especially soldiers, the concept of land power is so ingrained that it is largely transparent. It has existed since our first ancestors used their fists, rocks, and sticks to defend themselves from attacks by predatory neighbors.

But the concept of land power may not be as self-evident as it first appears. For instance, the terms land power, armies, land forces, and land warfare oftentimes are used interchangeably. But, these terms are not synonymous. Moreover, interpretation of these terms, like beauty, often lies in the eye of the beholder, and soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines frequently have different perceptions. Even within large segments of land forces, interpretations will vary considerably depending upon whether one is a soldier or a Marine; has a strategic, operational, or tactical bias; isfrom a combat, combat support, or combat service support branch; or serves in a particular unit or theater. These differing perspectives too frequently lead to divisive debates that reinforce convictions rather than clarify issues that will help make U.S. military power and its land component more effective.

Given these ambiguities and the dramatic geo-strategic and technical changes that are influencing modern conflict, this is an opportune time better to define land power. In doing so, it is important to remember that defining land power is much more than an academic exercise. If truly we are entering what many refer to as a ?revolution in military affairs? (RMA), a fuller understanding of the critical dimension of land power is imperative.3 Even if more evolutionary change in warfare is underway, grasping how land power must change will still be important. Moreover, if senior military and defense advisors cannot adequately place land power in the context of the emerging inter­national security environment, national leaders may not understand how best to employ the military instrument of power. Nor may politicians be inclined to fund new and essential capabilities for meeting anticipated demands.

Defining land power also will help elucidate the growing interdependence of air, land, and sea power. This understanding should assist decisionmakers in determining how best to orchestrate the key components of the U.S. Armed Forces to promote and protect national interests. In short, before land power can be employed with utmost effect, military advisors and political officials must understand what land power is, what it is not, and what capabilities it offers in conjunction with the other components of military power.

To that end, this essay first offers an elaborated definition of land power. Second, the monograph examines the national and military elements of land power. Third, it assesses the strategic and operational versatility of land power. Fourth, the study examines the growing interdependence of the components of U.S. military power. Finally, by offering conclusions and recommendations, the essay hopes to spark an expanded debate on land power and its potential for promoting and protecting U.S. national interests in the 21st century.4


As the preceding discussion indicates, defining land power for the 21st century is an important issue. A good definition expands individual understanding of land power. Along with an explanation, the definition illuminates land power?s contribution to military power. A more detailed understanding of land power also highlights its versatility and the options that such versatility offers national leaders.

Defining land power from the perspective of where effects are brought to bear increases the breadth of examination and understanding of the term. It also broadens the concept of where and how land power might be applied, as well as the extent to which land power can be applied. Moreover, it offers a better grasp of how land power caninteract with the other components of military and national power.

Of all the components of military power, land power offers the widest application across the conflict spectrum. Equally, land power operates most effectively throughout the full range of military operations. These qualities enable land power to contribute significantly to all roles that the U.S. Armed Forces can be expected to perform in the 21st century. Given anticipated trends, of all the components, land power is best suited for shaping the international security environment. And, in crisis land power is the ultimate arbiter of events on land. In sum, land power helps promote and protect U.S. national interests every day, in peace, crisis, or war.

Perhaps land power?s greatest contribution to overall national military power is its inherent versatility. This versatility stems from the types and range of activities land power can undertake, and the ability of land forces quickly to adapt existing organizations to meet the demands of a particular mission profile or rapidly changing tactical, operational or strategic conditions. This versatility offers national leaders a range of options for handling opportunities or crises that cannot be matched by the other components of military power, which are limited by the dimensions in which they operate or the nature of their equipment. While land power can be similarly limited, the fact remains that people and the things they value reside on land; only temporarily are they in the air or on the water.

Land power?s versatility is especially pronounced along the lower portions of the conflict spectrum. Here, operations rely less on a technological response from a ?system of systems? that masses deadly effects and more on human interaction, which land power is best-suited to supply. This may be especially true for most peacetime engagement and shaping activities. Similarly, less threatening, but ubiquitous low-level conflicts rely on the human capacity to react quickly to a highly fluid and nuanced environment toproduce decisive results. Furthermore, in many smaller-scale contingencies, sometimes substantial numbers of personnel may be more effective than technological solutions (e.g., people are more effective than laser guided bombs at separating and then developing effective working relations between formerly warring parties).

But defining land power is not an end unto itself. A good definition also is the first step in building a concept for understanding how land power meshes with air and sea power to create interdependent operations where the whole is greater than the aggregate capabilities of the three. Thus, while the central thrust of this analysis has been to define land power and better to grasp its capabilities, a consistent sub-theme is that this understanding serves a higher purpose.

That sub-theme has not been to exaggerate the capabilities inherent in land power or to divide the ?military power pie? into better defined, but increasingly irrelevant pieces. Rather, the discussion has placed land power in its appropriate context, underscored its strengths, acknowledged its weaknesses, and elaborated its interdependence with air and sea power. All of this is intended to assist national leaders in making informed decisions on how best to orchestrate the components of military power to achieve national and military objectives.

Rarely will such orchestration be easy. It will be necessary to strip away the more extreme or aggressive claims of advocates of a particular component of military power, and to identify which capabilities are best suited for a particular task. Because of the dynamic nature of conflict and conditions, such deliberations will be necessary for nearly every new mission. Thus, these ?jurisdictional battles? will have to be fought repeatedly. And, while they must be debated, they cannot be allowed to degenerate into inter-Service ?turf battles? so common over the last half century.

Complicating these efforts is the fact that roles and missions equate to budget authority and programs. As budgets remain stagnant, or more likely continue to shrink, inter-Service rivalries over which component of military power can best meet the needs of the nation are unlikely to abate. And, while competition can be good for the Services and the nation, descending deeper into parochialism over which individual component of power can dominate all mediums is counter-productive. Instead, analysts need to develop a more unified understanding of the relationships between and among the components of military power.

This interdependence of the components of military power will become increasingly pronounced, indeed, imperative if the United States is to respond effectively to the anticipated demands of the 21st century security environment. Only by thoroughly understanding land (and air and sea) power will the U.S. Armed Forces be able to move beyond the current concept ofjoint operations into the realm of interdependence. And, given, anticipated budget constraints and demands of the international security environment, interdependence will be a necessity.

But in evolving toward interdependence some key cautions bear emphasis. First, interdependence does not mean the complete merging of Services or the disappearance of unique forces. There will continue to be missions or tasks that only soldiers, airplanes, or ships can accomplish. Thus, in a drive to interdependence we must ensure that these unique capabilities are retained.

Second, interdependence means more than simultaneous use of all forms of power. It means orchestrating the appropriate components of military power in ways that achieve desired results. In some cases, this may mean that a single component of military power will dominate. In others, it will require the careful orchestration of two or more components to achieve decisive results.

Third, the driving factor for the employment of the various components must stem from the objective to be achieved and the prevailing conditions, not simply to ensure that particular forces or components of power participate. Missions and tasks must be assigned based on the optimum mix of capabilities required to achieve the specified military objective, not according to some predetermined or artificial formula. Especially, missions and tasks should not be meted out solely to ensure that each component participates. Under certain conditions, especially where the unique capabilities of ground forces are needed, land power may predominate. Under others, it will perform a supporting role. In still others, where air and sea forces possess critical capabilities that ground forces do not, land power may play little or no part.

Fourth, true interdependence requires keeping the components of military power, to include the forces that contribute to them, in appropriate balance. This will not be easy. The combination of American infatuation with technology and the political windfalls (i.e., well-paying jobs) to be reaped from hundreds of billions of dollars of defense contracts may skew procurement toward high-technology systems. The rising costs of acquiring such technologically sophisticated equipment, when coupled with the likelihood of flat or shrinking defense budgets, may squeeze out funds for land forces. The fact that soldiers and their equipment usually lack similar high-tech appeal will compound this dilemma. This could throw the components of military power out of balance, thereby jeopardizing the ability of the military instrument to fulfill its roles.

While important, these cautions are not major hurdles. They can be addressed. How and when they are examined should be part of the expanded debate over land power and its role in interdependence. And, these debates are needed. But if informed decisions are to be made by national leaders, it is imperative that these debates focus on the merits of the arguments and not on narrow-minded bias.

Let the real debate, not parochial posturing, begin with this proposed definition of land power.


1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984, p. 593.

2. Joint Publication 1-02, The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (hereafter JP 1-02), Washington, DC: Government Printing Office (hereafter GPO), March 24, 1994, does not contain a definition of the term land power. A search of official Army documents reveals numerous uses of the term, but no definition. Nor did a search of the internet yield a definition. Although not exhaustive, the search indicates a gap in that needs to be filled. JP 1-02 does contain a definition of?land control operations: The employment of ground forces, supported by naval and air forces, as appropriate, to achieve military objectives in vital areas. Such operations include the destruction of opposing ground forces, securing key terrain, protection of vital land lines of communication, and establishment of local military superiority in areas of land operations.?Ibid., p. 211. JP 1-02 also is available on the internet at http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/doddict/.

3. For overviews of the RMA, see Commander Graham Ramsay, RN, ?The Revolution in Military Affairs: A Primer for the Uninitiated,? Research Report 9-96, U.S. Naval War College; James R. Blaker, ?Understanding the Revolution in Military Affairs: A Guide to America?s 21st Century Defense,? Progressive Policy Institute, Defense Working Paper No. 3, January 1997; Elliot Cohen, ?A Revolution in Warfare,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 75, No.2, March/April 1996, pp. 36-54.

4. This debate can be part of the dialogue called for by the National Defense Panel. See, cover letter, Philip Odeen to Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, in Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century. Report of the National Defense Panel, Washington, DC, December 1997, last paragraph.