Last week, at FrumForum, I wrote that ground forces must remain a defense priority. And, as if to prove my point, President Obama has announced that he is dispatching 100 American soldiers to Uganda, south Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is to help government forces there combat the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Now, 100 soldiers constitute a small contingent, indeed; and their mission is narrowly tailored to “providing information, advice, and assistance to partner nation forces… They will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defense,” wrote Obama in a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Nonetheless, Obama is realizing what George W. Bush realized only belatedly in Iraq and Afghanistan: There typically is no substitute for American boots on the ground. Or, to be more precise, indigenous allied forces typically need the aid and assistance of American soldiers and Marines.
The requisite number of U.S. troops may be small and minimal (as Obama thinks is the case in central Africa), or it may be large and extensive (as it was in Iraq and Afghanistan). Still, the fact remains: you cannot win wars from the air and the sea alone. You must have tactically proficient men with guns who can occupy ground.
Indeed, as Marine Corps General James N. Mattis said two years ago, in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS):
The idea that we are going to be able to fight future wars without having soldiers on the ground, or just having a few special forces — I think that’s a pipedream… High-performing small [ground combat] units are now a national imperative.
Mattis is absolutely right. Yet, Obama has massively cut the defense budget, including more than $330 billion in weapon systems procurement cuts, another $78 billion in efficiency savings, and now an additional $450 billion.
Our ground forces, moreover, have suffered some of the worst cuts, including elimination of all eight combat vehicle types in the Army’s Future Combat Systems modernization. The Army, consequently, hasn’t built a new combat vehicle type since the Cold War. But as the former commandant of the Army War College, retired General Maj. Robert H. Scales, Jr., observes:
A soldier fighting from a vehicle of any sort increases his chance of survival by about an order of magnitude… Unfortunately Cold War armored materiel is optimized for wars on a European, not an irregular battlefield.
In short, we have a president who is creating new overseas deployments for our soldiers, even as he cuts the very funding needed to equip and empower our forward deployed troops. This, in a word, is incongruent and incoherent. America deserves better and so, too, do our troops.