Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., the commander of US forces in the Pacific, delivered a keynote speech at this year’s West Conference held in San Diego, California, in which he called on the Army to pursue a more active role in what is traditionally seen as naval warfare.

According to Harris, arming the United States Army with a weapons platform that is capable of sinking ships is a logical way to fill existing gaps in America’s defense structure.  Currently, the Army would rely on the Navy to provide sea-borne defenses around their area of operation – pinning naval vessels in certain locations in a defensive posture, and reducing the fleet’s offensive capabilities.  By adopting a land-based anti-ship missile into the Army’s arsenal, Harris posits that they could provide their own island defense capabilities, freeing up the Navy for combat elsewhere.

“As I’ve already told our outstanding U.S. Army Pacific commander General Bob Brown, before I leave PACOM, I’d like to see the Army’s land forces conduct exercises to sink a ship in a complex environment where our joint and combined forces are operating in other domains.” Harris said in his speech.

“Moving forward, all the Services will have to exert influence in non-traditional and sometimes unfamiliar domains. More change, more angst, more opportunity.”

Harris sees elements of the American Armed Forces’ traditional delegation of roles as a weakness in modern combat operations, and to his credit, there has already been quite a bit of water muddying in recent years when it comes to the delineation between combat responsibilities and their respective branches.  The American Air Force is, as you might have guessed, the largest and most powerful in the world, but what you may not know is that the second largest air force on the planet actually belongs to the U.S. Navy.  The Marine Corps, traditionally seen as a rapid response force tasked with being “the first boots on the ground” now carries out many occupational roles that would traditionally be left to the Army.  As the nature of combat changes, so to must our definitions of the roles each branch plays – as insurgent war fighting has left the battle ground, and indeed the battle itself, with no clear boundaries or concrete endings.

“We must be able to execute joint operations across far more domains than operational planners accounted for in the past. We need a degree of ‘jointness’ where no domain has a fixed advantage or a fixed boundary. A Combatant Commander must be able to create effects from any single domain to targets in every other domain in order to fight tonight and win.”  The Admiral continued in his speech.

Harris’ call for the Army to take aim at what is a traditionally Naval target is just one step in the right direction, as far as he’s concerned.  Eventually, Harris believes the technology each branch employs to carry out their combat objectives should be interlinked.

“For example, I believe Army missileers should incorporate their air defense systems into the Navy’s Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air, or NIFCA, architecture.”

From the outside looking in, that seems like a no-brainer, but the reality of such a coalition of technology would be extremely difficult to establish.  Each branch acquires equipment specific to their needs, seeking contracts with suppliers that can adhere to their strict requirements to limit costs.  Each branch, for instance, utilizes separate software suites for personnel tracking and administration – each sourced from different companies with no intent on making the platform universal, or even a means by which to transfer data from one branch to another.  Expand that process into the realm of developing complex weapon systems and command and control platforms, and the price of interconnect-ability could be enormous – but the price of failing to do so could losing the advantage in future combat operations.

“Some might think these are lofty goals, but I don’t. I think they’re achievable goals. Put another way, ‘innovate or die.’ The way we think about war and how we conduct it is quickly changing.” Admiral Harris said.

“I think most of you here in this room will agree with me when I tell you that the most frustrating part about change is that some of the biggest obstacles we have to overcome are those that we impose on ourselves. In the vernacular, we need to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.”


Image courtesy of Breaking Defense