As the United States disengages from Iraq and Afghanistan and enters a period of declining defense spending, the argument that technology is rendering land power obsolete has been resurrected. The appeal of substituting standoff military methods -- such as air- and sea-based missiles and unmanned drones -- for a balanced capability is clear: Everyone favors minimizing U.S. casualties. Recent advances in technology have only strengthened this temptation. This means that as the U.S. military downsizes in coming years, land power may take a disproportionate cut. But before committing to such an approach, Americans must think carefully about its implications.
In the decades after World War II, the United States accepted the role of global power but sought to limit the blood cost of using force. This was done through the constant pursuit of a qualitative advantage in military technology and equipment, the use of operational methods designed to minimize U.S. casualties and cooperation with allies and coalition partners. It also led to an emphasis on standoff military methods in order to put as few Americans as possible in harm's way.
Though the objective itself is admirable, the strategy behind it can prove to be counterproductive and even dangerous if pushed to extremes. Standoff methods are extraordinarily effective in some situations and against some types of opponents. Unfortunately, a global power that seeks to shape the security environment, prevent the emergence of conflict and shape the outcome of conflicts that do occur confronts situations and opponents far from its home territory. In these cases, the capability to project force with little risk to one’s forces is essential. But preferring standoff methods is one thing; having only standoff capabilities is something entirely different. All U.S. presidents have found that the promotion of American national interests requires balanced military capabilities, with more-direct methods, particularly land power, in the mix.