Land Power’s Exceptionalism

Rick Ganske has crafted an interesting, yet tragically flawed, response to my post, "Welcome to the Post-Precision World." He misses the mark in refuting its main idea. My thesis is that land power has a unique and irreplaceable level of precision in terms of military power. Other forms of military power are also able to manage various forms of technical precision, but only land power has the ability to apply force at incremental levels that have strategic effect. Land power is central to a state’s military power, and this fact is worth more consideration. Mr. Ganske, and others who attempt to argue otherwise, cannot deny that in most cases, land is where ultimate decisions rest. Other forms of military power support the drive for the desired outcome on the ground. One can reread Thucydides’ and the Peloponnesian War or pay attention to ongoing conflicts for evidence. It’s worth revisiting Mr. Ganske’s flawed points.

“The use of military power is never a precise scalpel in the hands of a highly tuned surgeon.”

Military power can, in fact, be precise. The use of the absolute term, ‘never,’ is the first indication Mr. Ganske is on the wrong track. The use of military force has evolved from massed armies and navies clashing to the current character of war. The modern character of war sees the use of smaller numbers of both men and materiel for a variety of military operations, and this evolution includes the development of special operations forces whose critical capabilities include special warfare and surgical strike operations.

SOF is precise military power. The use of small, highly-trained teams of soldiers in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments for military operations can be a precise and exacting use of force. It isn’t the “blunt instrument of coercion” Mr. Ganske says all military power is. Mr. Ganske may be more familiar with another notable other form of precision within military power that I discuss — precision guidance munitions.

The development of PGMs has increased the lethality and effectiveness of all forms of fires while sharply reducing collateral damage and non-combatant casualties. Both SOF and PGMs are forms of precision within military power, and neither is exclusive to any single form of military power or service within the U.S. armed forces. Moreover, both of these forms of military precision center on tactical actions that seek to achieve strategic effects.

The use of military power, in general, can be destabilizing. This isn’t unique to land power.

The use of decapitation attacks and targeted killings may lead to strategic effects; if not direct military, those effects may be political or as part of an information campaign. The United States has used drones for its targeted killing as part of the counter-terrorism strategy, but this use of air power may be just as destabilizing and an intrusion as the presence of large ground forces Mr. Ganske highlights. For example, both Pakistani and Yemeni governments have faced pressure for not stopping U.S. strikes. These air strikes may be counterproductive and weaken countries. Land forces may present a similar challenge, but those forces may also be able to help build space for institutions to develop. Strikes alone cannot.

“There is a conflation of tactical and strategic effect in the Oliver’s argument.”

Wrong again. If the last 13 years of conflict have taught us anything, it’s that tactical actions can build to a strategic effect. Tactical actions, like SOF or PGM strikes, can have strategic effects when a part of an overall strategy or when the action has a significant political, informational, or military impact. The loss of a key leader or essential infrastructure due to an air strike or SOF raid may have strategic consequences.

This iconic image of a summary execution near the end of Tet may have been the tipping point of the communist’s strategic victory. One bullet may be able to have influence.

Tactical actions can help change the strategic narrative even if the overall strategic situation doesn’t radically change. The 1968 Tet Offensive is an excellent example of this. Tet was a decisive tactical defeat for North Vietnam and essentially destroyed the Viet Cong, but the images suggested a different story. The tactical actions of one battle clearly had a strategic impact. There’s more use to the irregular war framework.

Mr. Ganske’s examples of mixed U.S. land power success all use enemies who lacked everything except land power. Afghan and Iraqi insurgents, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, and Mao’s Red Army are all examples of armies that won (or, perhaps, winning in Afghanistan and Iraq) on the basis of their land power. In each example Mr. Ganske uses, the forces lacked a significant air force or navy — or even a need. In effect, Mr. Ganske reinforces the centrality of land power within the utility of force.

“The mere presence of a soldier on the scene creates an imprecise destabilizing influence on the conflict.”

The presence of land forces, “soldiers on the scene,” can actually be quite stabilizing. A quick survey of modern U.S. history provides plenty of examples of how land forces provide stability in conflicts. Post-World War II occupation forces provided stability in Europe and destroyed the remnants of Nazi holdouts; U.S. forces continue to stabilize the Korean War truce after more than 60 years; Multinational Force & Observers help maintain peace between Israel and Egypt; U.S. forces brought stability to the Balkans and continue to keep peace there.

Despite the common perception that peacekeeping doesn’t work, its record of success is actually quite high when there’s a willingness to provide adequate forces and resources.

If one were to expand the scope to include international peacekeeping operations, one would see that collective peace operations, which heavily rely on land forces, actually have a good record of success in bringing stability to conflict zones. Many of the failures of these operations stem from a lack of political willingness to commit the necessary force. When that willingness has arisen, the effects have often been positive. In her book, Does Peacekeeping Work?, Virginia Page Fortna, found that,

“Peacekeeping intervenes in the most difficult cases, dramatically increases the chances that peace will last, and does so by altering the incentives of the peacekept, by alleviating their fear and mistrust of each other, by preventing and controlling accidents and misbehavior by hard-line factions, and by encouraging political inclusion.” — Page 178

The Democratic Republic of Congo and MONUSCO is an example of this. Land forces, whether U.S. or otherwise, can assure, deter, coerce, and compel. Stability is part of land power’s utility, but land power does rely on the other forms of military power.

Mr. Ganske mistakenly centers his response on the idea that any form of military power can act in isolation, which is untrue. Reacting to multiple forms of military power creates the greatest threat to an adversary, but only land power has the maximum utility of force in the combination. Even in isolation, however, land power sometimes has the ability to achieve strategic ends. Remember his examples of U.S. adversaries in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Mr. Ganske is also incorrect in stating the use of military force is a “blunt instrument of coercion.” Military power spans a utility of force: from assurance to compulsion; coercion is only part of that utility.

During the 1950s the U.S. Army believed that atomic technology had permanently and radically changed the battlefield and the nature of future warfare. In response, it developed the Pentomic division and this educational video. By 1960, the Army recognized its error and reconfigured its divisions.

Flashy rhetorical tricks are unnecessary to build a case for the centrality of land power, nor is the case a plea for help in the face of budgetary challenges and force structure reductions. People have a tendency to place undue faith in new technology, as if the next new widget with a faster processor or camera changes everything. The technological advances since the dawn of the missile age have sometimes led to the discount of the soldier on the ground, and a major event comes about to remind us of land power’s importance.

The case for land power rests on the warning that in war, technology supports, not augments, people. Current events make the case for land power. The nature of land power provide a reassurance to allies and can effectively deter aggression. If called upon, land power can also compel decisions, all as part of an interservice effort. The dazzle of new technology can be blinding for some people, and that may discount the importance of the soldier in strategy development.

Irvin Oliver is the author of this post. The views expressed here are the author's and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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