'Persistent Warfare' Not a Winning Strategy

The new term in the Army lexicon is "persistent warfare." In short, the Army argues that everything from terrorists to global warming will require lots of boots on the ground — and the ability to sustain that capacity the world over for a very long time.

"We don't see any deterioration in the need for a ground force," Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes declared at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual convention last October. The Army's talk of persistent warfare was also the centerpiece of a conference of senior civilian and military leaders that I attended recently at West Point.

Unfortunately, the Army's rhetoric has more to do with justifying its long-term budget needs than with offering a compelling vision for the future. As Speakes, chief of the service's programs and requirements, admitted, the American people "understand the need for persistent warfare" and therefore would be willing to pay the cost of readying the Army for the challenge.

But his assertion doesn't pass inspection.

Every decade or so since World War II, the Army has rolled out a new slogan to justify spending more on the service. Repeatedly, they have failed to influence the president or Congress.

Consider Gen. Maxwell Taylor's effort in the 1950s to get more resources after the Korean War. Believing the Army needed a dramatic new concept to demonstrate its relevance to the modern battlefield and improve its ability to compete with the other services for limited modernization dollars, he pushed a plan for restructuring its divisions. He dubbed them "Pentomic" divisions.

Later, a senior Army official attributed the initiative "to the fact that the Army seemed left out, and [it] needed to sound and appear very modern, and Pentomic was thought to be one way to do that." Taylor admitted as much, acknowledging he needed a "Madison Avenue adjective [Pentomic] … Nuclear weapons were the going thing."

President Eisenhower was unimpressed. "If you want to be coldly logical about it," Ike once commented, "the money being spent for ground forces could be used to better advantage on new highways to facilitate the evacuation of large cities in case of enemy [atomic] attack." From 1953 to 1957, the Army budget was more than cut in half. Manpower decreased by a third.

Likewise, "persistent warfare" will fail to sustain the top line of the Army budget. Since the future is unknowable, it consistently comes up short as a compelling rationale for sustaining and shaping defense spending, particularly when policymakers are determined to spend less. All a new president has to do is declare that we're not in an era of "persistent conflict," and that the U.S. will use diplomacy and other soft-power instruments to solve problems without resorting to the use of force. The next day, the budget-cutting axe will fall quick and deep.

The Army should abandon its "persistent warfare" slogan — and not just because it makes for bad political rhetoric. It is also a deeply flawed strategic concept. In fact, it's a highly defeatist notion that actually undermines the case for robust defense spending. Persistent warfare assumes that the application of force is going to fail — that even if Al Qaeda is rooted out in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the world won't really be better off.

"Persistent warfare" also assumes that the United States won't have the freedom and the capacity to fight for freedom at a time and place of its choosing. It implies that even if the U.S. has a strong military, it will lack the capacity to determine its own future and be inexorably dragged into dealing with all the world's problems. It represents the antithesis of why America needs to a strong military — to preserve peace, not fight endless wars.

Sloganeering won't save the budget. The Army doesn't have to convince the American people that they need an army; it has to convince Washington. Only leadership from Congress and the White House can make a difference. We need leaders who take the words in the preamble of the Constitution seriously — who believe "providing for the common defense" is government's first and chief responsibility.

It's time to drum "persistent warfare" out of the service.

James Jay Carafano, a Senior Research Fellow for National Security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), is the author of the books “G.I. Ingenuity” and “Private Sector, Public Wars.”

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.