Why Armies Matter
Navies and air forces can be crucial, but they don’t win wars.

Admiral Gary Roughead


Jim Lacey

Around the Pentagon, the budget cutters have put away their knives and are reaching for axes. In times like these, every service naturally circles the wagons around its share of the budget pie. The stress is so great that otherwise smart people take incredibly silly stands. Last week, for instance, the former chief of naval operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, published a paper that calls for cutting the Army in half and leaving the Navy’s budget untouched. He sums up the logic for this advice in a few simple words: “The force we propose accepts risk in the burden we are placing on our Army and Marine Corps.” Admiral Roughead, unfortunately, fails to tell us what risk he is accepting in the nation’s behalf. Let me do it for him. The risk he is taking on is summed up in one word: defeat.

A combined Air Force–Navy effort popularly known as Air-Sea Battle takes a seemingly more reasoned approach. At its base, Air-Sea Battle calls for purchasing expensive new weapons (lots of them) so as to clear the sea-lanes of enemies (that don’t yet exist), and to be able to fight through any enemy’s air and coastal defenses. These proposals, however, fail to answer a huge strategic question: To what purpose? After you have opened the sea-lanes and broken through an enemy’s defense, what do you do if that enemy refuses to surrender? In the past, we carried out these missions in order to open the door for the Army and Marines to enter a country and defeat an enemy force.

At present, our Army and Marine Corps are being set up to take an outsized share of the cuts. That will leave precious few troops to do any fighting. This is happening for two primary reasons. The first is that the Air Force and Navy think they were shortchanged during the last ten years as the Army and Marines claimed bigger helpings of the budget pie. Of course, there is an explanation for why the Army and Marines got a bit extra in the past decade, something that may have escaped Admiral Roughead’s notice. Allow me to spell it out: They were fighting two wars.

In fact, if America does find itself in another conflict, in this decade or the next, it is highly doubtful that we will be engaged with another nation’s high-seas fleet, for the simple reason that no other nation has a comparable high-seas fleet. Nor is it likely that the Air Force will fight swirling air battles for control of the skies. The reality is that any future conflict is likely to look a lot like the ones we have fought for the past several decades, when the Air Force and Navy have played crucial, but supporting, roles.

The second reason why the Air Force and Navy may receive a bigger share of the budget is that they have convinced many policymakers that they can win the next war on their own. Never mind that the one inescapable fact of warfare is that in all of recorded history, there is not a single instance of sea power’s winning a conflict on its own. And the record of air power is even more dismal. For instance, during World War II, despite repeated thousand-bomber raids, Germany increased its war production every year. Only by using atomic weapons was air power ever decisive. But one doubts the utility of such weapons in most of the situations we are likely to confront in upcoming decades.

The judgment of history is clear. For at least the past three millennia, only land power has provided decisive strategic results in any conflict. The explanation is simple. Decisive results are gained only if one side is able to direct the actions or change the attitudes of its opponent. In short, you have to convince the people you are at war with to surrender — and people live on land. Air and naval power can, of course, affect what happens on land, but if one desires long-lasting, decisive results there is still no substitute for placing infantrymen amongst the enemy.

Still, policymakers are being seduced into spending trillions of dollars to buy lots of toys for services that have never produced and will never produce a decisive outcome, while the services that actually win wars are shortchanged. Why? Of course, equipping an infantryman is never as appealing as buying a new F-35, which can be subcontracted in hundreds of congressional districts. And seeing Marines and soldiers in the dirt and mud has none of the sexiness of supersonic flight, or the majesty of a carrier strike group at sea. But I think it goes deeper. I believe most policymakers are ignorant of the historical facts, and have forgotten who actually wins wars.

For this I place much of the blame on strategists and historians who have never attempted to match Alfred Thayer Mahan’s classic work — The Influence of Sea Power upon History — with a similar work extolling the influence of land power. A century ago, Mahan’s work captured the popular imagination in a way that few, if any, other books on strategic policy or history have done. Even today, Mahan’s book remains in print, and it is required reading at our nation’s war colleges. In his masterwork, Mahan makes a convincing case that the security of the United States requires maintaining a powerful fleet with global reach. He does so by demonstrating the crucial strategic importance that possession of a dominant fleet has had on the security of nations, and on the course of history. Regrettably, Mahan made his case by telling only half the story.

If The Influence of Sea Power upon History was the only historical narrative a policymaker had read, he could be forgiven for not knowing that armies had anything to do with the wars Mahan wrote about. For instance, if all you had was Mahan’s accounts of the glorious British naval victories of the late 18th century, you would be shocked when you discovered that the British actually lost the Revolutionary War. As for the contribution of Frederick the Great and his Prussian army to the final outcome of the Seven Years’ War, Mahan states: “The deadly and exhausting strife of his small kingdom . . . diverted the efforts of France from England at sea.” One could easily get the idea that the great battles on the Continent had nothing to do with the larger strategic picture beyond their value as a distraction. Unfortunately, Mahan ended his account before the Napoleonic Wars. If he had continued, he likely would have made much of the Battle of Trafalgar, but one wonders how he could avoid the fact that Napoleonic military power was broken in icy Russia and finally crushed in the great land battles of 1813–15.