In January 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, together with their respective military advisers, met in Morocco at Casablanca to devise the strategy that would win World War II. To some, the Casablanca Conference may seem like ancient history, but the exchange between Gen. George Marshall, U.S. Army chief of staff, and Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, chief of Britain’s Imperial General Staff, has much to teach us.
Marshall opened the conference with a protest against Britain’s endless operations against the Italians and Germans in the Mediterranean. If the war was to be won, argued Marshall, France had to be invaded in 1943, preferably before the end of autumn. Brooke, Churchill’s principal military adviser, disagreed.
Brooke pointed out that the Germans still had more than 150,000 combat troops in France, and none had moved south in response to the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942 (Operation Torch). The strength of German air power over France was formidable, and the German capacity to rapidly reinforce its troops in the West made an Allied landing in France during 1943 extremely dangerous, if not impossible.
Brooke won the argument.
Political and military leaders in every country always want conflict to be short and decisive. Marshall was no exception. But the key to victory — an accurate and sobering self-assessment of one’s own strengths and weaknesses — is essential. Marshall’s self-assessment was not realistic. The next 18 months of titanic battles, involving tens of millions of Soviet dead and wounded, as well as the slow, costly Allied advance through Italy, proved Brooke was right.
Inside the Washington beltway, there is a lot of talk about “confronting Russia,” “pushing back China” and “aggressively challenging” Iran. However, few, in or out of uniform, comprehend what these phrases mean. Even fewer understand that great powers may escalate, not back down — particularly if they have the luxury of fighting on their own geographical doorsteps.
For example, an American military intervention in southern Iran would seem relatively unchallenging, but a U.S. invasion of Iran would likely precipitate Russian military intervention in northern Iran, based on the model of China’s 1950 intervention in North Korea.
Both Moscow and Washington possess nuclear weapons, but short of defending Russian or American soil, their use is highly unlikely, meaning the military contest would depend primarily on the quality and composition of each side’s general purpose forces.
To sustain American ground forces thousands of miles from the continental United States, America’s Navy would contend with Russian submarines, as well as land-based Russian air and missile forces. For the first time in decades, the American Air Force would confront integrated air defenses stretching from the Crimea to Central Iran. The result would be a land war on strategic terms that do not favor the U.S.
Wars like the one just described demand the persistent employment of powerful aerospace, naval and ground forces. Keeping millions under arms in readiness to fight them is unaffordable, but maintaining the core capabilities to fight such wars is necessary and, as Defense Secretary James N. Mattis pointed out in his recent testimony before the Senate, it’s affordable. Unfortunately, the last 25 years of open-ended interventions — not just the last 15 — have severely eroded the U.S. armed forces’ military-technological edge and operational flexibility — and in particular, those of the U.S. Army.
Today’s Army is accustomed to irregular warfare — the suppression of weak insurgents who do not have armies, air forces or air defenses, let alone naval power — and military “train and advise” missions. If ordered to fight in Eastern Europe, the Near East or Northeast Asia, the Army would send its vulnerable airborne or truck-mounted light infantry forces and, eventually, its antiquated brigade combat teams with tanks, guns and armored fighting vehicles designed in the 1970s. All of these forces would operate today the way they did in 1991 — in linear configuration under several layers of Army division and corps headquarters.
The kind of disaster that Brooke feared in 1943 would unfold in short order.
Warfare today demands a different Army, an army of self-contained, independent battle groups and formations tightly integrated with aerospace power that operate on land the way the Navy’s ships operate at sea. These forces must have the mobility, survivability and firepower to prevail in an integrated, Joint ISR, EW and STRIKE-dominated battle space. It’s not just a question of numbers. In wars of maneuver, quality trumps quantity — but the Army is not organized, trained or equipped to maneuver in the 21st century.
When war comes, the right investments in human capital, technology and organization — made years, sometimes decades, before the battle begins — create the margin of victory.
If the Trump administration is to build America’s 21st century margin of victory, the archaic U.S. Army must become the Trump administration’s obsession.
• Retired U.S. Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, Ph.D., is a decorated combat veteran and author of five books. His most recent, “Margin of Victory: Five Battles that Changed the Face of Modern War,” is available from Naval Institute Press.