WASHINGTON Even with drones, smart bombs and precision weapons, war remains a clash of human wills that ultimately requires boots on the ground, and the notion that land forces are obsolete is naive and dangerous, the top U.S. Army general said on Wednesday.
"Technology will not solve the problems alone," General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told a panel discussion at the annual conference of the Association of the U.S. Army, a military support group.
"(There's a) thought process that if we stand off and if we throw precision missiles, rockets, that will cause the enemy to capitulate. ... In my opinion, that's a false assumption," Odierno said.
That is why leaders of the main U.S. land forces are working to distill and teach the lessons of the past dozen years of war, when American troops invaded Iraq but failed to translate it into a strategic success.
"We executed a brilliant campaign. ... We achieved all of the objectives except for one, and that was the capitulation of the enemy," said General Robert Cone, the head of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
"Many of us, particularly in my community, crossed the berm (at the Iraqi border) with a target list and an order of battle," he added, saying what "we really should have had" was a deeper understanding of the country's history, culture and tribal structure.
General John Paxton, the assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said troops were needed on the ground because "virtual presence is actual absence."
"You need to have somebody there," he said. "At some point, they want to sit and grip-and-grin and drink chai (tea) and talk about what the problem is."
The Army, Marine Corps and Special Operations Command have joined to create a Strategic Landpower Task Force to examine the lessons learned over the past decade to help U.S. troops achieve strategic objectives when they use military force in the future.
Admiral William McRaven, head of Special Operations Command, said technology had not changed the need in warfare to dominate the enemy on key pieces of terrain.
What has changed, he said, is the need for U.S. forces to better understand the local population.
McRaven, whose forces specialize in getting to know local culture, language and people, said if U.S. forces did not understand the population and the human aspects of conflict, they would get the military part of the equation wrong.
"It's key to understand where to dominate terrain by knowing what motivates the people, what incentivizes the people, what mobilizes the people, what frightens them and what will undermine their will," he said.
The effort to highlight the importance of ground troops in military operations comes as the Army and Marine Corps face major cuts in force size because of tight budgets.
The Army is being reduced to 490,000 soldiers from 570,000, and a recent review by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested it might have to shrink further, to between 420,000 and 450,000. The Marines are being reduced by about 20,000, to 182,000 uniformed personnel, but might have to slim down to between 150,000 and 175,000.
Odierno said on Wednesday he disagreed with the assumptions underlying the lower numbers proposed as a result of Hagel's review, calling them "very optimistic and very dangerous." But he said the top military leaders were working through the issue.
Despite the potential for more cuts, Odierno said what worried him most was a current of thought that technology may be making ground forces unnecessary.
"There's a lot of intellectuals out there that believe land power's obsolete," he said. "It's naive and in my mind a dangerous thought."
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Peter Cooney)