The Army’s public relations problem with the American people is compounded by a perception on the part of many defense analysts and policy makers that the Army will not have much of a role to play in future U.S. defense strategies. The current administration’s defense guidance rejected the idea of doing large scale, long-term stability operations. Its so-called Asia-Pacific pivot doesn’t seem to have left a lot of space for significant operations on land with the sole, time worn exception of war on the Korean peninsula. No one gives any credence to a 21st century Anabasis to Beijing even if there is a conflict with China. In places like the Persian Gulf and Western Pacific the emerging anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat appears to make it increasingly unlikely that the U.S. will be able to project and sustain large land forces.
But there are other ways that the Army can exercise “control” over territory and people. The most obvious of these is by protecting those places and populations from hostile action. This once meant manning forts with names like McHenry and Sumter and operating coastal artillery batteries. During the early Cold War, the Army was responsible for dozens of land-based air defense batteries scattered around the country. Today, it is the Army that operates the National Missile Defense (NMD) system that can protect the U.S. homeland from limited ballistic missile attacks.
If it is going to deter aggression the U.S. military must be able to project power in an A2/AD environment and simultaneously defend friends and allies abroad. The U.S. Navy and Air Force will have important roles to play in both these areas. With its Aegis ballistic missile defense system and advanced Standard Missile 3 and 6, the Navy will be a major power in air and missile defense. But the Navy should not have its ships tied down to defending fixed locations. Strategic mobility is one of the Navy’s critical asymmetric advantages over land-based adversaries. While missile defense ships can be surged to provide additional protection for such fixed sites, the better role for those same air and missile defense forces is in supporting offensive operations by the entire Fleet. Similarly, tying down Air Force assets to the defense of their own airbases or friendly territory is a waste of a scarce and precious resource.
The Army could turn theater air and missile defense into a major future franchise. This means getting rid of the idea that air and missile defenses are a supporting capability for an Army that wants to focus on combined arms maneuver. As ballistic missiles, advanced fighters and long-range precision weapons proliferate, air and missile defense may be one of the most important military missions in the 21st century. To defend valuable territory and people at risk requires being there, forward deployed. In the Asia-Pacific region, air and missile defense could be the shield behind which U.S offensive power, resident largely in the Navy and Air Force, will organize and prepare to deliver a crushing counterattack.
The Army will need to answer a number of questions before it takes on this mission. For example, how much of this mission should it take on and what does that mean for programs such as Aegis Ashore? Does the Army want to make the necessary investment in air and missile defense capabilities, including organizing and training as well as equipping? What capabilities should be pursued in addition to Patriot, THAAD and NMD?