At first glance, this may appear to be a surprising comment. After all, the superbly professional ground forces that won the 1991 Gulf War and swept to Baghdad in three weeks in 2003 certainly appeared to be appreciated by the American public. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, atrocities, the war in Iraq has seen no popular contempt, sneering at or taking for granted of the U.S. Army that the backlash against the Vietnam War 40 years ago produced.
But when it comes to allocation of resources, procurement priorities and strategic appreciation of what the United States needs to project its power around the world, the Army remains the Cinderella service.
Even Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who presided over an unprecedented growth in the annual U.S. defense budget, put the bulk of his investment in space systems and ballistic missile defense, and even when he pored money out for the Army, it was primarily for the controversial and futuristic Future Combat Systems program. Individual systems in FCS have been developed well, and some of them have strong promise to contribute significantly to Army operations.
But Rumsfeld's overall sweeping strategic vision of FCS as an enabler of unprecedented centralized control, communications and targeting accuracy has already bit the dust. The Democratic-controlled Congress is cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the FCS budget, and current Defense Secretary Robert Gates does not share his predecessor's boundless enthusiasm for it.
Rumsfeld also loved the mystique and promise of Special Forces and vastly increased their budgeting and size. He shared this enthusiasm with Robert McNamara, the otherwise entirely disastrous defense secretary who so mismanaged the Vietnam War for President Lyndon Johnson back in the 1960s.
But what got lost in all these enthusiasms was any assessment of what the Army's main ground forces and land logistics supply train would have to face and endure in an extended guerrilla conflict. The Army's Humvees proved woefully inadequate in protecting their passengers and crews from improvised explosive devices. The much better MRAPs are now being produced, but woefully late in the day. When advance planning was being done in the first years of Rumsfeld's six-year tenure in the Pentagon, the issue was never regarded by him or his top lieutenants as a crucial priority.
The same thing happened in World War II. Then, the U.S. defense industry churned out more than 80,000 Sherman tanks as the indispensable combat tool of victory in Europe and the Pacific ground theaters. But the Sherman, for all its numbers and superb, rugged reliability, was woefully under-gunned and always had a terrible tendency to ignite when hit and incinerate its crews. British tankers who operated them called them "Ronsons" after a popular cigarette lighter of the day.
In World War II and Korea, thousands of U.S. soldiers also died because they didn't have a really good anti-tank weapon. By contrast, the German armaments industry in World War II, though inferior in size, resources and flexibility to the U.S. one, produced the excellent, cheap and easy to use -- "So easy a caveman could do it" -- Panzerfaust.
These disastrous failures in planning for elementary ground combat weapons stands in striking contrast to the superlative achievements of U.S. naval and aircraft designers in producing endless warships and combat aircraft infinitely superior to anything America's enemies -- and allies too, for that matter -- could design or manufacture.
War doesn't look like becoming obsolete anytime soon. So for everything from future counter-insurgency campaigns to having to face full-size industrially equipped armies, the U.S. Army needs to escape from its historic role as being the Cinderella of the Pentagon's procurement process.