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Calculating the Army's Pacific future

The U.S. Army is tired of hearing about Air Sea Battle without mentioning the Army. Service leaders also grind their teeth when defense analysts talk about how it is the Air Force and Navy's turn to get the funding boost the Army has enjoyed the past eleven years to fight the wars if Iraq and Afghanistan.

The introduction of the new defense strategy, known as the Pacific pivot, has put the Army on the defensive when explaining its future role. Soldiers say they are frustrated looking back at how they have shouldered the majority of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and now are left to justify their existence under this Pacific-centric strategy.

The frustration was palpable this past week at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington D.C. where Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno summed up those frustrations with his closing comments Tuesday at the conference’s Eisenhower luncheon.

“There are some who have interpreted our new national strategy as questioning the relevance of Land Forces. There are others who would wish away a decade's worth of hard-won sacrifice and expertise with false assumptions about the future,” Odierno said.

“To them I say: Our Army was created 237 years ago to defend this great nation and to secure the interests of the United States abroad. That imperative has not changed.”

Odierno and the rest of the Army leadership spent much of AUSA laying out how the service would adapt to the new strategy while also completing the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Army generals are quick to point out the 60,000 soldiers still deployed to Afghanistan.

Sensitive to the Army’s concerns, Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter made sure to emphasize the Army’s future role under the defense strategy during his Wednesday speech at AUSA.

“We’re building to the joint force of 2020. That’s our goal. The Army will have a major role in each of the tenets of the new [defense] strategy,” Carter told the crowd of soldiers and defense industry officials.

Army leaders outlined their role as being able to provide “presence” and adapting to the “human factors” of a conflict – two skills they’ve matured over the last eleven years.

“Preventing conflict demands presence, shaping the environment demands presence, restoring the peace demands presence, and more often than not, that presence proudly wears the uniform of an American soldier,” Odierno said.

The Army’s top officer said he expects future environments in which the U.S. military operates to become more complex. Soldiers have learned a great deal about dealing with the “human dimension” while fighting counter insurgency battles these past eleven years, and those lessons must be captured for future wars, Odierno said.

The service has held a series of meetings called Unified Quest with a host of experts inside and outside the military to include universities and think tanks. These officials have discussed what type of threats the Army might face to include an entire spectrum of possibilities as well as economical, environmental and cultural factors.

Those meetings have helped formulate the Army’s expectations of the future and what roles it may play. That future includes a wide swath of threats and challenges to include “regular warfare, irregular warfare, terrorism, and criminality all combined together,“ Odierno said.

“That’s what we’re seeing all around the world. So, in my mind, we’re moving the Army to deal within that context,” he said.

Since the Obama administration introduced the new defense strategy, much has been made of the Air Sea Battle concept that Air Force and Navy leaders have been tinkering with these past few years while the Army has been focused on fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Air Sea Battle is a joint concept that defense analysts say will drive the military’s future Pacific-centric strategy. Although many say its focus is to defeat China, Pentagon officials have repeatedly denied that claim.

Instead, it is explained as a strategy in which the Pentagon can meld power projection assets such as a carrier group or long range bombers to influence a region without having a large footprint directly inside it.

More importantly, Pentagon officials expect the Air Sea Battle office to have a major influence in forthcoming budget battles. Of course, the name implies the Air Force and Navy will control the Air Sea Battle office, but Army Secretary John McHugh said that would be the wrong assumption.

“You know the words ‘Air Sea’ lend one to think of Air Force and Navy. I think that’s natural, but Air Sea Battle is much greater than any two services,” he said. “I just want to be very clear that when it comes to Air Sea Battle, there is an Army role, and we’re pursuing it.”

McHugh made sure to point out to reporters attending AUSA that the 10 largest land forces outside the U.S. are located in the Pacific and 22 of the 28 largest Pacific-based militaries are led by land force commanders.

Configuring the military to engage specific future threats and scenarios does bring with it a certain risk – the risk of being wrong. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates pointed out that when it comes to predicting the future, the Pentagon has been perfect, it has been wrong every time.

“The key to our future is our full spectrum capability and our capacity to go anywhere and do any mission," McHugh said. “I have to believe that the Army will provide the hedge against that kind of risk in the future."

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