When it comes to military reform, China appears to be doing it a lot better than the United States
By Daniel Davis
In the years after World War I, British military strategist Captain B H Liddell Hart advocated a new fighting concept that solved the problem of the static, set-piece nature of that conflict that resulted in the pointlessly slaughter of millions. He advocated for a force of coordinated armored, infantry, and air power fighting in mobile formations, operating under the “indirect method”.
Unfortunately, key leaders in London and Paris rejected his theories because they had “won” the Great War and didn’t feel the need to change. Less than two decades later, a combined British and French field army would be swept off the continent and into the English Channel in a lightning war by a German army that had listened to and incorporated some of Captain Liddell Hart’s key concepts. Unless significant changes are made, the modern-day US army could be half-way to suffering a similar fate.
In an article published today by the Armed Forces Journal in Washington DC, I argue that the US army’s generals, as a group, have lost the ability to effectively function at the high level required of those upon whom we place the responsibility for safeguarding our nation. Titled “Purge the Generals: What it will take to fix the army”, the article details how our senior military leaders have amassed an unprecedented record of failure in major organizational, acquisition and strategic efforts over the past 20 years.
The worst part is that senior leaders are likely to repeat the mistakes of the past by readying the US army for the wrong future; one in which the US could suffer an otherwise avoidable military defeat.
The global strategic situation has undergone considerable change in the past five years. Beginning in late 2007, the US economy suffered its most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression; recovery has been slow in coming and tepid since its arrival. With the conclusion of the eight year war in Iraq and the sun setting on the 12 year bleed in Afghanistan, the US is being forced to reduce both domestic and defense budgets. Whether anyone wants to scale back the armed forces or not, reductions are coming. The question, then, is how those cuts are to be made.
According to the 8 July edition of the Army Times, senior leaders have announced they will reduce the US army from the current level of approximately 535,000 down to 490,000. The unequivocal result: a smaller and less capable army. Many military leaders warn that these cuts will have a hollowing effect “putting our national security at risk”, (pdf) as General Odierno told a Congressional panel in February 2013, and imply there are no other alternatives.
That is not correct.
In 1997, then-lieutenant colonel Douglas A Macgregor published Breaking the Phalanx: a New Design for Landpower in the 21st Century describing a military transformation that would result in a smaller, less expensive force which would produce greater combat capability than the larger formations it would replace. Unfortunately, US officials rejected those new ideas, opting instead for incremental changes, which left the field army little changed from the version that won Desert Storm in 1991. One nation, however, did not reject Macgregor’s ideas.
In 1999 two colonels from the Chinese people’s liberation army (PLA) published a strategic analysis called Unrestricted Warfare. In this essay, they discussed the changing military environment and ways China could modernize its force for future war. Regarding force design and operating methods, they wrote: “In his book, ‘Break the [Phalanx] (sic),’ [Macgregor] advocated simultaneously abandoning the systems of divisions and brigades and replacing them with … battle groups of about 5,000 men each… [The book recommends the adoption of] building-block methods according to wartime needs and put into practice mission-style group organization.”
These views apparently heavily influenced PLA modernization theories, as one year later Breaking the Phalanx was translated into Chinese. A decade after that, the US army’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) reported the PLA had incorporated many of Macgregor’s concepts. In the SSI’s 2011 study Chinese Lessons from Other People’s Wars (pdf), the author noted
The PLA entered the 21st century in the midst of a transformation from essentially an infantry based force into one designed around combined arms mechanized operations. A decade into the new century, the PLA is redesigning its forces into battle groups, using modular force structures and logistics to support operations in high altitude and complex terrains, conduct out of area operations, and develop the core for its vision of a hardened and network-centric army.
Macgregor has recently updated his concept to account for the past decade of US war experience. Whereas current army plans call for reducing the force to 490,000, the Macgregor Transformation Model (MTM) can produce an army with as few as 420,000 troops that actually has greater combat power than the force of 535,000 had before the reduction, but cost more than $10bn a year less. The MTM would also produce a more strategically responsive army, and perhaps most importantly, could be sustained at this high level of performance even in the era of constrained budgets. The US military leaders continue to reject MTM, while the Chinese have embraced it and are years into the transformation.
Before the United States shares a fate with 1940 Great Britain and falls victim to an ignored reformer’s ideas, we must reorganize the US army into a stronger force while there is yet time. Logic affirms the reasonableness of such action. Budgets demand it.
• The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the US Army.