The conventional wisdom holds that the future of American conflict will be dominated by drones, SEALs, and a massive combined naval/air team in the Pacific. This scenario envisions little purpose for land power outside the limited but potent capabilities inherent in Special Operations. But there is an alternative view that believes the conventional wisdom to be utopian and unwilling to consider the most likely conflicts to occur in the future.
Today’s U.S. Army understands that it is America’s “insurance policy.” For every type of operation that falls between the boutique capabilities inherent in Special Operations — to which the Army provides more forces than any other service — and the very high-end capabilities (nuclear and conventional) of the Navy and Air Force, the Army is the general-purpose force that provides the greatest flexibility to respond. People live on land, and land power therefore remains the most adaptable, flexible force in a country’s arsenal. (For the purposes of this essay, land power will apply to the U.S. Marine Corps, as well as the Army).
Let’s be honest — is there anything in the South China Sea for which Americans will voluntarily sacrifice their supply of iPhones and iPads? For an instructive example, hark back to the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. The invasion of Georgia, an aspiring NATO state and strong U.S. ally, by a nuclear-armed country with which the United States is economically tied (but not nearly to the scale of China) did not elicit from the United States more than a mild show of force, military assistance to Georgia, and strong protest. Nor should it have. An appropriate solution evolved (albeit not one the Georgians endorsed — a foreshadowing for the Filipinos and Japanese); so will it in the waters off the coast of China. The world’s countries must come to accept that the United States cannot help them resolve all their border disputes, particularly those with strong regional powers.
Doug Ollivant, at “Go Army, Beat Navy” at Foreign Policy.