US Army 'may be losing skill in fighting land war'

Terror focus may have blunted troops' ability to take on traditional foes: Army chief of staff

ARUSHA (Tanzania) • After 15 years of conflict, the US Army knows how to fight terrorist groups and how to train its partners to do so, as well.

But that is both a blessing and a curse for the US as it weighs the question of whether the terror focus is taking away the army's ability to fight a land war against a more traditional military adversary.

"Today, a major in the army knows nothing but fighting terrorists and guerillas because he came into the army after 9/11," General Mark A. Milley, the US Army chief of staff, said on his way to a high-level meeting this week to help Africa's fledgling militaries deal with growing terrorist threats.

A result, Gen Milley said, has been a loss of what he calls muscle memory: how to fight a large land war, including one where an established adversary is able to bring sophisticated air defences, tanks, infantry, naval power and even cyber weapons into battle.

With the declared end of major combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US Army was supposed to resume training and rebuild its readiness to fight more entrenched powers like Russia, China or Iran. Because the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were supposed to be ending, the US Army's budget has shrunk. The size of the active-duty US Army, now 470,000 troops, is expected to drop to 450,000 next year. If automatic budget cuts are reinstated because Congress fails to reach a budget deal this year, the army will be cut down to 420,000.

"Is that sufficient capacity and capability to do the various national strategies?" Gen Milley asked policy experts at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on May 3.

"We think it is. But the real hard question is, what happens if one of these other contingencies were to go off that?" He was referring to potential conflict on the Korean Peninsula, or with a large power like China or Russia.

President Barack Obama has begun to respond to the re-emergence of Russia as a strategic threat, quadrupling military spending in Europe next year to US$3.4 billion (S$4.67 billion). The US will provide additional weapons and equipment to US and Nato forces in Europe to ensure that the alliance can maintain a full armoured combat brigade there at all times.

US Army officials are also trying to balance responsibilities in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

One possible solution, Gen Milley said, could be to increase training for the National Guard - reservists under dual state-federal control.

This week, Gen Milley's focus is on Africa, increasingly a battleground in the West's war against extremists. In Central Africa, US service members are working with militaries from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger to counter Boko Haram, which US officials say has begun to collaborate with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - potentially working together to plan attacks in North and Central Africa.

Pentagon officials have presented the White House with military options, including air strikes, against the ISIS affiliate in Libya.

In West Africa, US Army and Special Operations forces are working with militaries from Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and other countries to try to stem a recent wave of attacks by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

And in East Africa, US military advisers and trainers are working with regional counterparts to fight the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabab. The group was responsible for one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on African soil, in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2013.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'US Army 'may be losing skill in fighting land war''. Print Edition | Subscribe