Personal Theories of Power: Land Power

by Nathan Finney. He is an U.S. Army officer, the Managing Director of the Military Fellowship at the Project on International Peace & Security, the editor of The Bridge, a member of the Infinity Journal’s Editorial Advisory Board and a founding board member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. He holds masters degrees in Public Administration from Harvard University and the University of Kansas, as well as a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Arizona.

This article is part of the Personal Theories of Power series, a joint BridgeCIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

Every war, and every belligerent in every war, manifests a distinctive pattern of strategic behaviour among an expanding list of geographical environments. It is true that modern strategy and war registers trends towards ever greater complexity, ever greater ‘jointness’ to offset and exploit that complexity, and in the maturing potency of new modes of combat…It is no less true, however, that land, even ground, warfare has yet to be demoted to an adjunct, auxiliary, or administrative, role vis-à-vis superficially more modern modes and foci of fighting. — Colin S Gray, Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 165.

In a discussion over the modes of power that are employed to achieve political purpose, the above quote would likely halt all communication before it even started. Some would even immediately engage their cognitive biases and fill their slings with the tried-and-true military service-focused and parochial rhetorical ammunition. The current narratives from the various services can certainly be seen to support such an assertion.

U.S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery, fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in Panjwai district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011.

U.S. Army soldiers from the 2nd Platoon, B battery 2-8 field artillery, fire a howitzer artillery piece at Seprwan Ghar forward fire base in Panjwai district, Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, June 12, 2011.

However, while the above quote captures repeated insistence on the importance of land power, the author also indicates that while land power is vital, it is not sufficient, for “In practice, thus far, no single geographical domain suffices as provider of all strategic effect that belligerent states need.” (Colin S Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations (London: Routledge, 2007), 316).

So, when a political decision requires a definitive, more enduring answer, land power will likely be the main element of national power employed — there’s a reason the key theorist of war and land power focused on destroying an adversary’s armed forces, occupying his country, and breaking that nation’s will as his three main objectives in war (Carl von Clausewitz, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War (New York: Alfrec A. Knopf, 1993), 102). Such use of large amounts of men and women in campaigns of physical control are not the only use for land power, however. While it is the only element of national power that can compel through physical dominance (or as Rich Ganske have described in “Personal Theories of Power: Joint Action” by quoting Rear Admiral Joseph Caldwell Wylie, through a sequential strategy; Wylie quoted by Lukas Milevski, Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy: The Effects of Sequential and Cumulative Patterns of Operations“, Journal of Strategic Studies 35, no. 2, January 18, 2012, 223-242), land power can also accomplish tasks through three other approaches to the use of force — assurance, deterrence and coercion — to create strategic effect.

Beyond Physical Control
To Gray, “strategic effect is the [cumulative and sequential] impact of strategic performance on the course of events.” (Gray, Modern Strategy, 19. The “cumulative and sequential” was added to the definition in Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 18). It is the expression of how well a force translates tactical action into political gain; or said another way, how well the effects of military action maintain alliances and/or force an adversary (or adversaries) to change their behavior to match our desires. Given the fact that land power will likely be the element of national power least used to create strategic effect in today’s environment given its high political cost at home and abroad, how does an Army, as the principle manifestation of land power, provide options to assure, deter, and coerce? [1]

Deterrence and assurance require both credibility and capability. Credibility is created through the perception that force will be used to achieve stated interests. However, without an acknowledged force required to achieve said interests, i.e. the capability, then the threat of its use to deter undesired behavior or assure anxious allies is empty. In the end, an adversary cannot be deterred or an ally assured unless they believe the offending party can be compelled to appropriately change their behavior. While other elements of national power are important to either deterrence or assurance, both require credible and capable land power, the only element of national power that can compel behavior through physical control. The size, capability, proficiency, and posturing of land forces is what provides a credible deterrent and assures allies. As has been shown in Eastern Europe, the lack of a credible and capable force for deterrence can lead to political adventurism by adversarial entities and a failure to assure allies in a region.

Members of the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade and a Polish paratrooper unit attend a welcome ceremony.

Members of the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Brigade and a Polish paratrooper unit attend a welcome ceremony.

Coercion is used to impel adversary behavior by shaping choices, either by punishment or denial; both utilize physical and psychological factors. Coercion by punishment is accomplished by damaging or destroying adversary capabilities required to achieve their interests, such as destroying naval assets that are being used in a blockade. Coercion by denial is using force to prevent the adversary from accessing the resources or territory required to accomplish their goals. Land power largely utilizes coercion by denial, such as placing American troops in a threatened country to significantly raise the costs of any action by an adversary. This also provides a degree of assurance for that partner nation. An example is the deployment of U.S. troops to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The use of these three approaches to force — deterrence, assurance, and coercion — can be seen as largely an attempt to control the choices of an adversary through the threat of force or limited use of violence. In Wylie-speak, since he is in vogue throughout these blog posts, the threat of force or limited use of violence by land forces in this manner reduces the adversary’s choices through a sequential strategy, ideally creating “implications of certainty of the end” through “its persistent exercise…typically steadily reduce the number of viable options open to the enemy.” (Lukas Milevski, Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy, 233).

Land Force Considerations Outside of Physical Control
Using land forces to deter, assure and coerce in today’s strategic environment will require three core elements:

  1. The use of smaller, tailorable elements of the Army to accomplish strategic objectives. From a Special Forces detachment supporting a partner nation through foreign internal defense to a battalion task force taking part in a multinational exercise to strengthen NATO, Army forces must be prepared to train, equip, deploy, employ and sustain smaller packages of forces around the world. However, these elements must also be able to tap into larger regionally-focused/based forces to provide flexible options and scale up to conduct operations that provide denial by punishment, or compellence when necessary. The ability to disaggregate for cumulative operations must be matched with the ability to re-aggregate into larger formations — up to Division- and Corps-level — to conduct the combined arms operations required in ground combat across the range of military operations. (David E. Johnson, Hard Fighting, RAND, 2011, 173).
  2. A better balance of combat and enabling capabilities. While the application of land power is largely seen through the action of combat elements, so called “tail” elements are as important, if not more so, to military forces. Even Clausewitz, who purposefully excluded logistics discussions in his magnum opus due to his focus on the fighting itself and its use as a political instrument, recognized that “The provisioning of troops, no matter how it is done…always presents such difficulty that it must have a decisive influence on the choice of operations.” (Carl von Clausewitz, ed. and trans. Hans W. Gatzke, The Principles of War (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole, 1942)). The U.S. Army post-WWII has largely diminished the importance of its enabling capabilities — everything from transportation to engineers to missile defense to logistics — in favor of the “tooth” resident in its combat formations, even to the point of contracting out significant portions of the enabling functions; this in spite of the frequent acknowledgement of the importance of logistics in war (for example, see Martin van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, 2 edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), John A. Lynn, Feeding Mars: Logistics In Western Warfare From The Middle Ages To The Present (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994) and Benjamin Bacon, Sinews of War: How Technology, Industry and Transportation Won the Civil War, (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1997)). The Army must create a better balance between combat units to those that project, set, protect, and sustain a theater.
  3.  

    Multiple explosions as the British Python Minefield Breaching System clears a minefield.

    Multiple explosions as the British Python Minefield Breaching System clears a minefield.

  4. Assigning dedicated Army forces to geographic combatant commands and posturing those forces forward. Supporting the two elements above, land forces should be more permanently provided to those that use them in theatre. The value of Army forces is not that they can be made expeditionary, but that they can provide quick and enduring force when properly postured in theater. These elements can be used to conduct any and all of the three uses of force, in addition to be present when compellence, or a sequential strategy, is required.
  5. Conclusion
    In discussions of military power today there is much elaboration upon of the loss of “overmatch capability”. This term is largely meant in terms of the decreasing technological gap between the U.S. and its likely adversaries, from non-state actors with anti-acess/area-denial capabilities to near-peer states with air and sea platforms that look suspiciously like U.S.-technology still in production. Another aspect of overmatch is how presciently forces are postured and organized to prevent conflict through the assurance of allies or the deterrence or coercion of adversaries — or to be used to compel an enemy, if necessary. A decrease in overmatch from this aspect creates risk that the military will not be able to achieve the missions the U.S. requires of it. While we must mitigate risk across all domains, risk to the land domain is the most deadly. For, “Military success in land warfare can have a decisiveness unmatchable by success in the other geographies. If a state loses on land, it loses the war.” (Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations, 313).

    Footnotes
    [1] Elements of this strategic environment are not unique, of course, nor are its impact on the use of land power. For example, Clausewitz acknowledged the facts of limited war in his 10 July 1827 note and Sir Julian Stafford Corbett recognized land power was often ill-suited for limited warfare because of its inherent threat to the territorial imperative in his Some Principles of Maritime Strategy.

    • • •

    CIMSECThe Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) is a non-profit, non-partisan think tank. It was formed in 2012 to bring together forward-thinkers from a variety of fields to examine the capabilities, threats, hotspots, and opportunities for security in the maritime domain. Check out the NextWar blog to join the discussion. CIMSEC encourages a diversity of views and is currently accepting membership applications here.

    The Bridge is a blog dedicated to strategy and military affairs. It was formed in 2013 to bring together forward-thinking junior to mid-grade officers and practitioners from a variety of fields to analyze and write about current and future national security challenges.

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, Nathan Finney.

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