Few may remember that in the weeks before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress, the administration, observers and critics were in a debate over the fundamental structure of our national defense.
There were some who believed a strategic shift was needed and that the future of modern warfare would be about missile defense, satellites and high-tech weaponry — because no adversary would dare challenge America’s conventional forces. With that in mind, this new strategy would be paid for, in part, by cutting the size and strength of the U.S. Army.
I was reminded of this debate, and my role in it, while preparing my remarks for the Association of the United States Army’s recently completed exposition in Washington, D.C.
In 2001, I was a member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of its Subcommittee on Personnel. I spearheaded a letter signed by 81 of my colleagues and sent to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, cautioning that while we supported “efforts to ensure that our military is prepared for future conflicts, reduction in the Army’s force structure would clearly undermine that goal.”
A newspaper in my home state of New York editorialized that we were clinging to “relics of the old 20th-century force” because “high-tech air power and precision munitions [were] increasingly dominating the modern battlefield.” Then the terrorists struck, and the conversation turned from the theoretical to the tangible, from the uncertainty of future threats to the reality of an unprovoked attack.
Despite prognostications that combat would be more like “Transformers” than “Saving Private Ryan,” the realities of Iraq and Afghanistan have proved far different and far more conventional. While we marvel at our technological superiority and are thankful for high-tech advancements that make soldiers safer, the story of these wars is much the same as conflicts past. Because after we shocked, after we awed, we did the most important thing to gain and ensure victory: We marched.
And it is the American soldier who has borne the brunt of these conflicts, providing 50 percent to 70 percent of our deployable forces.
Today, we again find ourselves in another debate over the future of America’s national defense. While we recognize that the Army must join with the rest of the federal government in reducing our size and cost, I’m concerned when I read suggestions by columnists, analysts and part-time experts that the United States probably doesn’t need a strong and decisive standing Army.
Ten years of war has strained all branches of the military and those who wear its uniforms. Each service has unique needs. Each has its own burdens. But, I would argue, we shouldn’t strengthen one by weakening another. Instead, we must ensure a balanced approach to meet future contingencies. Perhaps most importantly, we can’t break faith with the men and women who have fought for us during the past decade.
To meet current and future threats, our military must remain the finest in the world. It must be an agile and deployable full-spectrum force that can deter conflict, project power and win wars.
Just as we didn’t predict Pearl Harbor or 9/11, we can’t predict the future with any certainty. We can, however, remember the lessons of history: No major conflict has ever been won without “boots on the ground,” and a strong, decisive Army will be — as it always has been — the strength of our nation.
Army Secretary John M. McHugh is a former Republican House Member from New York.