Small Wars Journal

Of Groundhogs and Ground Combat

Thu, 04/11/2013 - 3:30am

Punxsutawney Phil is in big trouble. The Pennsylvania groundhog predicted an early spring, and it didn’t arrive.  For his malfeasance, he may yet be indicted or sued by angry Americans from the snow belt.  It’s a tough job being the Groundhog-of-record, but Phil has been right about 40% of the time.  Ironically, our ability to predict wars appears to be less refined than the groundhog’s “power” to predict the onset of spring.  Weak capability, however, does not stop program pruners from making predictions.  One consistently wrong—but always convenient—prediction has been the improbability of ground wars and the declining utility of ground forces.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, surprise has been an element in most of the wars that we have fought. This includes the wars (and major stability operations) we have chosen, as well as those that appear to have chosen us.  The size, shape, location, or types of war on the horizon have often been beyond our predictive capabilities. Force planners should take this into account and err on the side of balance and flexibility.  To paraphrase Trotsky, we may not be interested in ground wars, but, over and over throughout the last century, they have been very interested in us.  Perhaps, the past holds some lessons for the future.

The American military experience in the 20th Century has been centered on ground wars. In the beginning, the focal point was ground forces in ground wars.  The Navy and later the Air Force have always played a key role in getting ground forces to theater.  Over the years, air and naval forces have also become more useful and occasionally dominant in prosecuting wars on land.  Our first big war of the 20th century was the Philippine War from 1899 to 1902.  The Navy was well postured to defeat the Spanish fleet in the Philippines, but no one planned for the occupation of the far-flung islands.  An indecisive President McKinley kept his advisors guessing.  We could have turned the islands over to the local insurrectos under Aguinaldo, but a few months after the battles in Cuba, President McKinley ordered the occupation of the archipelago that was destined to become an American strongpoint in the Pacific.  A year of conventional war and two years of bloody guerrilla conflict followed. We won, but it wasn’t pretty or altogether honorable.  In the fight for Cuba and the Philippines, the Navy was well prepared, but the active Army was small and unable to mobilize rapidly and effectively for expeditionary work.  Weak opponents and tough state volunteers—many of whom were old Indian fighters—helped US ground forces win in the Philippines.   

In both World Wars, US ground forces were not well prepared for wars that in retrospect were inevitable.  In World War I, after a slow start, Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force became the makeweight in the allied victory of 1918.  Our ground forces and the fledgling land-based air forces, however, were mainly foreign-equipped and slow to come on line.  Only Pershing’s stellar leadership kept them from being deployed as fillers for the hard-pressed British and French forces.  In World War II, the Army Air Force and the ready Navy did well from the beginning, but the ground forces were small, not ready, and not modernized.  They evolved into nearly 100 divisions of well-led, well-equipped, world-class soldiers and marines.  The Navy and the Army Air Corps ended the war with more ships and planes than anyone had imagined possible, and both of them had major campaigns where they were the dominant service.  The United States also reversed its World War I industrial performance and became the arsenal of allied forces. 

After World War II, the wizards of the nuclear era proclaimed it to be an era of push button warfare.  Not only ground forces, but also surface fleets and tactical air forces were dinosaurs approaching a well-deserved extinction.  Only nuclear weapons and their delivery systems truly counted. Ground wars on the periphery were unthinkable, or maybe they just weren’t being thought about. 

The test came in Korea.  President Truman, General MacArthur, and Secretary Acheson all felt safe to declare South Korea outside of our defense perimeter.  In the summer of 1950, the North Korean Army challenged this oversight and came within a hair of pushing South Korean and American forces off the peninsula.  The Army initially had only occupation troops in Japan. They were committed to battle with disastrous results.  In the first battle, Task Force Smith—a battalion-sized unit—was easily routed by the North Korean Army.  TF Smith had inadequate communications, no infantry antitank weapons, no air or naval gunfire cover, and grossly inadequate artillery support.  Truman praised their heroism and skill, but the truth was that Task Force Smith was poorly equipped, under trained and overmatched.   Of the 518 men committed, 153 became casualties. 

The first six months of the Korean War were a nightmare.  In the fall of 1950, following the brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon and the drive north, the weakness of many Army units was again exposed on the Yalu River, where in the late fall of 1950 Chinese forces destroyed two US divisions in the worst US ground defeat in modern history.  General Ridgway put the Army in Korea back together and it fought well through the rest of the war.  Again in this conflict, the Air Force and the Navy did much better than the ground forces and in the first year of the war, the Marines also showed up the Army. In the Korean War, the Air Force and Naval aviation passed a special milestone:  no ground pounder has been attacked by an enemy aircraft since April 1953.  The effectiveness of American air power has been an increasingly potent force multiplier for US ground forces.

After the Korean War, the Eisenhower administration’s New Look markedly favored the nuclear elements of the Air Force and Navy.  Ike pushed deterrence and avoided major wars, but he left behind simmering conflict situations in Southeast Asia, Cuba, and the Middle East.  President Kennedy brought in a strategy of flexible response and improved all of the conventional forces.  He also pushed hard to sell the reluctant Army and Marines on counterinsurgency.  While JFK, right before his death, wanted to pare back the ground commitment to Vietnam, his successors escalated it.  After the American-sanctioned assassination of President Diem, they may have seen no other choice.  LBJ and his generals tried to win a war of attrition on the ground with great help from tightly controlled conventional bombing.  Johnson and Nixon not only put over 500,000 troops in Vietnam, they did it without calling up the reserves.  The US Army became, in the words of General Creighton Abrams, “an Army of privates and second lieutenants.”   In the end, it nearly broke under the strain. The drug-plagued, ill-disciplined force that left Vietnam in 1973 was only a pale imitation of the highly professional force that deployed to Southeast Asia in the early years of the conflict. In the end, we lost over 58,000 Americans in this conflict that ended—after a reduction in American aid and a North Vietnamese offensive—in a clear defeat for our allies in April 1975.

After Vietnam, joint force conflicts that featured ground wars or stability operations continued to take place.  President Ford had a small rescue operation near Cambodia. President Carter had the stillborn raid to rescue our hostages in Iran.   In the Reagan administration, we had a botched peace operation in Lebanon that cost the lives of over 240 Marines and sailors, a successful small-scale counterinsurgency operation in El Salvador, and an invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada.  

Under President George Herbert Walker Bush, we had Operation Desert Storm, a large scale, multinational, conventional war to free Kuwait, whose invasion by Iraq had been a strategic surprise.   This later led to major air operations over Iraq, Northern and Southern Watch.  In the last few weeks of his administration, Bush 41 landed ground forces in Somalia in a very successful, multinational humanitarian operation, which morphed into a botched peace enforcement operation during the early part of the Clinton administration.  While the US and its partners ended famine in Somalia, that operation is remembered for “Black Hawk down” and American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.  President Clinton’s team did better with major air operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and later in Kosovo.  Both of these successful uses of coercive air power, however, were followed up by major ground force peacekeeping operations that kept the Army busy for a decade.  US ground forces still participate in peace operations in Kosovo. 

Today, the joint force has been at war since 2001.  While naval and air forces have contributed mightily, and the remotely piloted aircraft of the Air Force and other agencies have performed superbly against al Qaeda and its close associates, the weight of the so-called war on terrorism has again fallen on the ground forces and small numbers of CIA operatives.  Indeed, it is the heavy price paid by our men and women in uniform that has generated another pre-postwar wave of “never again-ism.”  In the new defense priorities, the SECDEF and President tell us that we will no longer size forces for prolonged stability operations.  Secretary Gates mocked the notion of ever again fighting a land war in Asia.  Moreover, the United States has shifted our focus to Asia Pacific, where military problems tend to have a naval and air forces cast, or so we are told ad nauseam.  This theater alone can justify a larger Navy and a more modern Air Force, replete not only with a full complement of F-22 and F-35 fighters—the latter at nearly $180 million per unit—but also a new long-range attack aircraft to supplement and ultimately replace our grandfather’s bombers, the B-52s, and our father’s bombers, the B-1 and B-2.

At the end of every ground war, proposals to cut ground forces have proliferated, and the contemporary period is no exception.  The Defense Department plans to reduce the Army and Marine Corps to their pre-9/11 levels, a combined total of 670,000 personnel.  This is a significant cut from the high-water mark of nearly 800,000 soldiers and marines, set by Secretary Gates.  This risky cut, however, is not enough for some strategists.  Retired Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, and former West Point Professor Kori Schake—both now of the Hoover Institution—have recommended in the Brookings-Alexander Hamilton Project paper National Defense in a Time of Change further deep cuts in US ground forces.  Citing (but never assessing) what they characterize as the DoD notion that “manpower intensive, sustained ground operations [are] unlikely,” Roughead and Schake recommend cutting the reduced active Army from the DoD-recommended 490,000 to 290,000 with another 10,000 cut to the Marines, as well. 

The authors recommend that the Army somehow focus its combat role on following the Marine Corps into battle, which would certainly be a new role for forward deployed soldiers, Army special operators (half of the DoD total), and the XVIII Airborne Corps.  Indeed, reducing the synergy between Army and Marine Corps forced-entry capabilities would be a strategic felony, a mistake as grievous as doing away with naval aviation because the Air Force has lots of planes.  The authors do recommend that the United States add 100,000 soldiers to the reserve components, citing the added mobilization time that they will have to move into “mature theaters,” which, oddly enough, would require the deployment of combat service support forces that only the Army has in large numbers.   Establishing a mature theater of war is an Army mission that depends mightily on assets in the US Army Reserve, which is why it is important for the Army to get there early.

What can we learn from past conflicts?  Ground wars happen more frequently than we like to admit.  In fact, while the US has clearly chosen some of them, it has backed into or been caught up in others.  There has been no predictable time period between one major war and the next.  The Korean War followed World War II by less than five years.  It was a complete surprise and it is not over.  Desert Storm—another major surprise—followed Vietnam by fifteen years, but in between there were a number of smaller operations.  Four years after Desert Storm, the air operations in Bosnia and later Kosovo were followed by major peace operations for the Army.  In less than 5 years, the United States was again surprised by 9/11 and the subsequent war on terrorism.  Although the Navy and Air Force have made increasingly important contributions, the burden of ground wars and peace operations still falls on the Army, the Marines, and Special Operations Forces from all services.  Ground forces that are small, weak, or unprepared—materially, morally, or mentally—have suffered mightily in the past century.  Deep cuts in US ground forces beyond the tough reductions already mandated by the Pentagon carry inordinate risk.

It is psychologically easy to cut ground forces after a taxing 11.5-year “decade of war.”  We are tired of the bloodshed and the air and naval communities have unmet modernization needs.  But, if you assume that we won’t have another large-scale ground war any time soon, and that it is safe to cut the ground forces to the bone, you are betting against a century of experience.  With that kind of prediction, you may end up in the dock next to Punxsutawney Phil.

About the Author(s)

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army Colonel, served DoD in and out of uniform for four decades.  His decade plus in the Pentagon was capped off by service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-04. He taught for 25 years at West Point and the National War College, and for more than two decades in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He is an author in and co-editor (with Richard Hooker) of Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War, NDU Press, 2015. Collins is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University.


I like this article because it reminds the 'clever and forward looking thinkers' that war requires people on the ground, infantry even. I can't think of a conflict in the last some scores of years that didn't require more infantry than was predicted. Now the situation has gotten worse; it isn't infantry the elites deny the needed for, it is ground forces altogether. Good for Mr. Collins to bring this up. They won't listen of course but it should be said.

What the heck is a "mature theater"? Near as I can figure it is something akin to the Pacific and the ETO in 1942, Vietnam in 1966, Iraq in 2006. Things like that. If so, a reserve force of 100,000 won't be big enough to be of much help.