The Army after 15 years of counterinsurgency wars in the Middle East is proficient at fighting small, low-intensity wars but is ill prepared to counter a near-peer in a high-end conventional conflict, according to a new report by the Atlantic Council.

“We have designed by default, for good reason, an Army that doesn’t do any of those things well today because of what we have been fighting the last 15 years,” said David Barno, co-author of the report “The Future of the Army,” senior fellow for military affairs and national security policy at the Atlantic Council and a retired Army three-star general.

Abrams M1A1 Photo: General Dynamics
Abrams M1A1
Photo: General Dynamics

The Army has lost its ability to fight in a high-intensity, high-end conflict against near-peer nations like Russia and China that have similarly advanced equipment and weaponry, Barno said Wednesday during a panel discussion launching the report.

“We have small-wars syndrome. We have been fighting small wars since 9/11. We’ve gotten very good at fighting small wars. … We haven’t been on the receiving end of precision weaponry. We haven’t been on the receiving end of drones firing Hellfire missiles. We haven’t had to take on big rocket attacks and dig in under cover to survive like we did in the Cold War. A lot of the Cold War skills we have lost.”

Nora Bensahel, senior fellow for military affairs and national security policy at the Atlantic Council and a report co-author, says the Army is very adaptable at the tactical level and is combat hardened from the past decade and a half of war.

“I’m not sure that adaptability is true at the organizational or at the strategic level, but certainly at the tactical level,” she said.

Army has done a good job preparing for the type of low-intensity “perpetual war” that it finds itself in today and likely will be involved in for the foreseeable future, Bensahel said. The Army needs to beef up its armor capability and capacity while investing in technologies to counter emerging threats like swarming drones and precision long-range indirect fire, she said. It also should develop a plan to inventory surplus equipment and weaponry, she added.

“We need to improve our armored capabilities,” Bensahel said. “The force has gotten very light, which was an appropriate response to the wars that we have been in but we don’t have enough armored BCTs. … If you need to regrow the force fast, it would be a good idea to have a really solid plan of what equipment is mothballed and plans for how you would bring it up to speed quickly.”

The report makes detailed recommendations on how to prepare the Army for future high-end conflicts, many of which jibe with recommendations from the report cobbled together by the National Commission on the Future of the Army after a year of study.

They include accelerating the development of air mobility with operational reach, building mobile-protected firepower (MPF) and a new infantry combat carrier, developing a mobile-protected “umbrella” air defense system and advanced protection systems and investment in counter-drone systems.

Recommendations for out-year planning beyond 2025 include greater experimentation by operational units, increased virtual reality training, integration of battlefield robotics and artificial intelligence and investment in new technologies for power and munitions.

Brad Carson, former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the Army’s biggest challenge will be to secure funding for the reorganization and modernization that it needs for a future all-out war with a near-peer adversary.

The Army has struggled over the past five years or so, as it has drawn down from Iraq and Afghanistan, to articulate its role in a future national security strategy that emphasizes the Asia-Pacific region, littoral combat and long-range precision munitions, he said.

“What’s the role of the Army in this? The Army has had a hard time answering that,” Carson said. “The Navy and the Air Force can quickly give some answers to that question and therefore they had a compelling narrative to justify their budgets. That’s what the Army needs to do a bit better on.”

“Modernization funds are always the first cut when the Department of Defense suffers from topline decreases and the Army especially since they are less reliant on expensive kit than the other services are.”