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Can the US Army Still Fight as a Heavyweight?

After more than a decade of fighting insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army is taking stock at Operation Dragon Spear to find out whether it has what it takes to fight a country like Russia or China.

by Ryan Faith
Aug 4 2015, 6:23pm

Photo by Justin Connaher/US Air Force

On August 5 and 6, a whole mess of senior Pentagon leadership and military brass will convene in California's Mojave Desert to witness something both spectacular and confusing. In the middle of the night, under a bright desert moon, US soldiers bristling with high-tech weaponry and other assorted killamajigs will gently parachute from the sky, then capture and secure an objective. Sort of.

It will be the grand finale of Operation Dragon Spear, an exercise from which the bigwigs are supposed to draw useful conclusions about how the US military will fight in years to come. The army, like the rest of the military, is still working through the implications of President Barack Obama's shift from the George W. Bush-era focus on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. This involves planning for threats other than insurgents and suicide bombers, which means thinking about the kind of big, proper armies capable of fielding lots of heavy weapons like tanks, ground attack aircraft, artillery, and helicopters. That, in turn, will drive changes in US equipment and training.

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Operation Dragon Spear is a signal that the US Army is turning its attention from low-intensity counterinsurgency conflicts, which it's been engaged in for close to 15 years, to conventional wars — variously described by the Pentagon as high-intensity conflict, full-spectrum operations, major contingency operations, and decisive action. Whatever term is used, the Pentagon is referring to the kind of insanely destructive conflict that would result if the US found itself in a war with Russia, China, or what is called a "peer or near-peer competitor," which means anyone with a large, high-tech military.

VICE News will be broadcasting live from Operation Dragon Spear Wednesday night through Thursday morning as the army practices Joint Forcible Entry (JFE) — in this case, a nighttime airborne assault that will involve getting people and kit from the air to the ground to take control of an objective. And it should reveal a lot about how the US envisions a fight against a peer or near-peer competitor.

Strategically speaking, the United States is an island — it's been more than a century since US interactions with its northern or southern neighbors have been carried out at gunpoint. Thus, aside from a far-fetched Red Dawn scenario, there's not much prospect of anyone invading anytime soon.

That's why the US military is almost exclusively geared toward projecting its military power abroad. This has traditionally been done with an extensive network of overseas bases, but there are problems with that strategy. First, host nation restrictions on bases have generally been growing stricter year by year. Second, if the next war shows up at a place America's bases aren't, the bases won't be of much use. And unfortunately, the US intelligence community is no Santa Claus when it comes to knowing who's going to be naughty or nice, so it's tough to know where the next major international crisis will flare up.

Thus, the US is pretty interested in exploring ways to keep the bulk of its combat power in the United States while retaining the ability to quickly send the military just about anywhere to do its thing. For the Navy, this means aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered attack submarines. For the Air Force, it's long-range bombers and aerial refueling. Likewise, the Marines focus on amphibious assault and seabasing.

And the Army… well, the Army is a bit of a hard case.

On the one hand, all wars are about conditions on land — after all, that's where the people, nations, and governments are. Since the US is a figurative island, its ground combat force has to go through the air and/or over the sea to get the job done.

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The world's air and water are generally considered global common property, except for the bits right next to or above individual countries. This is because air and water can easily be moved through, but are more difficult to defend than land and even harder to hold. The JFE involves going from the commons to the land, where the decisive fighting — especially the boots-on-the-ground part of the fighting — will happen. D-Day, for example, was the mother of all forcible entry operations.

The Navy uses the commons for projecting power by moving around mobile bases (a.k.a., ships) to strike at what can be hit from the sea. The Air Force generally keeps its bases static, achieving its long reach with platforms (e.g., planes) and munitions (e.g., long-range missiles). Both the Marine Corps and the Army can (and often do) get troops into the action using both sea and air during a forcible entry operation, but the Marines are heavily invested in projecting power from the sea. So whether by default, design, or necessity, the Army has for almost a century taken ownership of the job of projecting land combat power from the air.

Strictly speaking, JFE doesn't necessarily have to be a foot in the door for a bigger follow-on force. It might be a raid, an evacuation, or some other sort of smash-and-grab type of deal. Generally, the point of a JFE in a high-intensity conflict is to build or capture some sort of transportation infrastructure, like an airport or seaport, that will make it possible for "continuous landing of troops and material," and for everyone to have some room to maneuver.

Any kind of sizeable ground combat force is incredibly difficult to use. The standard "unit of force" for the Army is a Brigade Combat Team. According to a 2003 US Government Accountability Office report, a heavy combat brigade weighs in at 29,000 tons of stuff and has 4,500 people; all of that would require almost 500 C-17 cargo jets to move. At the other end of the spectrum, a light infantry brigade requires 7,300 tons of stuff and 3,800 soldiers — which would still require close to 150 sorties to get around.

Until that "continuous landing of troops and material" brings in significant forces, a newly landed light force is in a very tenuous position. It successfully uses surprise and speed to seize its objective, but once the element of surprise is gone, the whole thing becomes a race to see what gets to the light force first: reinforcements, or a counterattack.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, there hasn't been the possibility that a big, bad Chinese armor brigade or cranky Russian motor rifle division would show up, ready to pound a freshly landed airborne force into paté. But if the US Army wants to do its JFE thing in a way that is relevant in a high-intensity, decisive-action context, then it needs to brush up on its tactics and get comfortable with much larger, bolder, and more aggressive kinds of JFE than it's done in years.

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The Army, of course, didn't forget how to deploy ground forces via air in Afghanistan and Iraq — they did it there plenty — but there's a difference between what they've been doing and what they're practicing this week. The point of Operation Dragon Spear is to dust off the book of knowledge about dropping in a considerable combat force for a fight against a major-league competitor. You can land forces by air in a lot of different situations, but in a major war, there's a good chance your successful surprise attack will turn into crushing defeat faster than you can say "Han Solo chasing Death Star stormtroopers" if you don't do it right.

The Army needs to not only relearn these skills, but also prove to itself and top management that it's not gone completely rusty from lack of practice and training. Thus, the question the delegation of Pentagon grandees will see answered this week, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the desert, is whether the US Army is ready for a primetime air assault against a serious opponent.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via DVIDS

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