The conventional wisdom holds that the future of American conflict will be dominated by drones, SEALs, and a massive combined naval/air team in the Pacific. This scenario envisions little purpose for land power outside the limited but potent capabilities inherent in Special Operations. But there is an alternative view that believes the conventional wisdom to be utopian and unwilling to consider the most likely conflicts to occur in the future.
Today's U.S. Army understands that it is America's "insurance policy." For every type of operation that falls between the boutique capabilities inherent in Special Operations -- to which the Army provides more forces than any other service -- and the very high-end capabilities (nuclear and conventional) of the Navy and Air Force, the Army is the general-purpose force that provides the greatest flexibility to respond. People live on land, and land power therefore remains the most adaptable, flexible force in a country's arsenal. (For the purposes of this essay, land power will apply to the U.S. Marine Corps, as well as the Army).
Regrettably, the Army seems to be struggling to express a coherent narrative about its future. The Army has long been known to be strategically inarticulate, unable to effectively express its role in the larger defense establishment since the fall of the Berlin Wall. But this tendency is especially unfortunate at the current moment, as the Army is still the force most likely to be called on in future U.S. military conflicts. If the Army is unable to clearly articulate why it will need resources -- people, money, equipment -- for the United States' most likely contingencies, it risks having these resources diverted to deal with far less likely situations. And that would leave the Pentagon dangerously ill-prepared to face the very real threats that America faces in the coming decades.
The Army's identity crisis contrasts with the Air Force and the Navy, which have hitched their future to a very clear -- if misguided -- narrative known as Air-Sea Battle, introduced by the Pentagon in 2009. Operationally, Air-Sea Battle provides a means of coordination between the two forces as a way of ensuring military access to coastal waters (and, by implication, land territory) for the United States and its allies -- which is, to put it plainly, allowing it the ability to violate the territorial sovereignty of other countries more or less at will. While the Air-Sea Battle concept envisions conflict with China as its raison d'être (though its proponents also say that it could also be applied in the Arctic or for humanitarian disasters), the Army looks at the world more rationally and, frankly, with a bit more frugality.
The Army correctly discerns, but will politely not say, that the Pentagon's "pivot to Asia" borders on strategic silliness. That American commerce, and therefore diplomacy, is shifting to Asia is clear. But it remains difficult to see a military confrontation in the region that would not immediately involve China -- and therefore possibly shut down world trade as we understand it. While history shows us that we cannot count on catastrophic consequences preventing the outbreak of war, to plan for military action in China is to plan on the collapse of the world economy. It's possible, but unlikely.
The Army instead looks to more plausible spheres of competition. One can quickly divide them into two "baskets" -- threats posed by underdeveloped and essentially non-governed spaces, and threats posed by collapsing states.