Politics & Policy

Why Armies Matter

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

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.

Mahan died in 1914, missing the great bloodletting of World War I. How he would have explained away the fact that both Germany’s and Great Britain’s massive surface navies were reduced to near uselessness throughout the war is anyone’s guess. Churchill probably best explained British naval inactivity when he pointed out that Admiral John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet, was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” Given the rapid advancements in missile technology, it is possible, maybe even probable, that the day is not far distant when U.S. policymakers may judge, as Jellicoe and Churchill obviously did, that their nation’s surface fleet is much too precious to risk in a conflict zone.

In any event, as it was during the war against Napoleon, Britain’s blockade in World War I was a hindrance but never had a decisive impact on the brutal land war, though it led to mass starvation once hostilities ceased. As mentioned above, one must look very hard, indeed, to discover any conflict that was decided by sea or air power. Rather, for 2,500 years of recorded history, the ultimate arm of decision has always been a state’s or nation’s army.

Ask a group of historians to list the decisive sea battles of history and you would likely get near-identical lists from all of them: Salamis, Actium, Lepanto, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, Trafalgar, and Midway. But did any of these battles, on their own singular merit, turn the strategic tide? At Salamis, for instance, the mostly Athenian fleet did break the back of Persian naval power. Less discussed, however is that it was an infantry assault at the Battle of Plataea, the following year, that actually evicted the Persian army from Greece for all time. Still, Persia remained a constant and looming threat to Greece until, 150 years later, Alexander’s armies crushed the Achaemenid Empire and thereby secured Western Civilization. Likewise, during the Roman era, Augustus did not break Antony’s and Cleopatra’s power at Actium. That was done by the hard-marching legions that invaded Egypt the following year.

Many historians also neglect the fact that the losses the Ottomans suffered at Lepanto were replaced within a year, and that the Ottoman threat to the West was not ended until the sultan’s army was broken before the gates of Vienna. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, on the other hand, did have serious repercussions that continue to echo down through history. But it is unlikely that Spain would have allowed that defeat to stand, except that its resources had already been exhausted by its 80-year land war with the Netherlands. Similarly, the Battle of Trafalgar may have shielded Great Britain from Napoleon, but French power was not broken at sea. That was accomplished deep in the Russian vastness, at the Battle of Leipzig, and finally by solid British infantry at Waterloo. In the modern era, Midway is correctly credited with turning the tide of the Pacific war. Still, victory at Midway did not negate the need for three years of bloody ground fighting across the Pacific island chains.

One may ask if air power has achieved any greater strategic success. Here, of course, the historical track record is much shorter. Air forces were important but not a major strategic factor in World War I. By the time of the Second World War, however, air-power enthusiasts were making huge claims for the efficacy of air forces as the decisive element of war. And, while the respective air forces of the principal combatants did, indeed, accomplish much, nowhere, except in the Pacific theater, did air power produce the decisive results claimed for it. The Luftwaffe, for instance, failed to bring Great Britain to her knees. Similarly, as we have seen, Germany, despite the Allies’ massive strategic-bombing campaign, produced more war matériel in 1944 than it did in 1942. Only in the Pacific did air power deliver a decisive outcome, and then only through exterminating cities with atomic bombs. Prior to that, even the incineration of Japan’s wooden cities with fire bombs had done little to break Japan’s will to continue the struggle.

Despite the advent of the atomic era, the Korean War reminded America and the world that the utility of land power was not an end. As the historian T. R. Fehrenbach wrote, “You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it, and wipe it clean of life — but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men in the mud.” Nothing in the succeeding decades has done anything to alter the fundamental truth of Fehrenbach’s observation.

Despite dropping more ordnance than was used in World War II, air power was not decisive in Vietnam. Nor could it bring an end to the internecine fighting in the Balkans. That was accomplished only when the 1st Armored Division, under the most trying of conditions, crossed the Sava River and enforced peace by placing American land combat power between the warring parties. Air power was a crucial ingredient in the Coalition success in Operation Desert Storm. Still, after six weeks of heavy bombing, the Iraqi will was not broken, and it was left to Coalition land forces to defeat the Iraqi army and evict it from Kuwait. The same held true after 9/11. Although air power contributed its full worth in both Afghanistan and Iraq, land forces remained the crucial ingredient of success.

History, therefore, presents one inescapable conclusion. Air and sea power are necessary, sometimes even crucial, ingredients for strategic success, but they are never sufficient in and of themselves to attain positive strategic results. If the next century is to be another American century, with the continuation of the Pax Americana, then this nation must possess a land force — Army, Marines, and Special Forces — of sufficient capacity to meet the numerous challenges, as well as opportunities, an uncertain future will present.

— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author, most recently, of the forthcoming Moment of Battle. The opinions in this article are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.


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