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Redefining Land Power for the 21st Century

Authored by Dr. William T. Johnsen.

May 7, 1998

35 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Divisive debates over the future force structures of the U.S. Armed Forces have continued despite the Report of the Commission on Roles and Missions for the Armed Forces (May 1995) and the more recent reports of the Quadrennial Defense Review (May 1997) and the National Defense Panel (December 1997). Part of the reason for the bitter nature of these debates is due to parochial partisanship. Part is due to a lack of clear understanding of the individual components of military power or of their collective interrelationships. This latter conclusion may be particularly true for land power.

Responsibility for this misunderstanding does not always fall at the feet of outside observers. No official definition or general articulation of land power currently exists. And, because land power is self-evident to most who wear Army or Marine Corps green, they see little need to explain land power to a broader audience. But, if national leaders are to have a fuller under- standing of land power, its central role in the growing interdependence of military power, or the policy options that land power's versatility brings to security policy planning and execution, then such explanations are imperative.

To help fill this conceptual gap, the author offers a definition of land power to meet the demands of the 21st century. While defining land power is his primary purpose, he also places land power within the overarching context of total military power. Additionally, he highlights the growing interdependence among the components of national power.


Whether the United States is entering an era marked by a "revolution in military affairs" or continues in the strategic interregnum of "the post-Cold War," a new theory of war will have to be developed to fit "the limiting conditions" and "peculiar preconceptions" that are emerging. To develop this new theory will first require defining land power and understanding its context within military power in the 21st century. That a definition of land power might be needed at this point in the evolution of warfare may seem odd. Readers outside the military, for example, may be surprised to learn that such a definition does not exist. To many military practitioners, especially soldiers, the concept of land power is so ingrained that it is largely transparent. It has existed since our first ancestors used their fists, rocks, and sticks to defend themselves from attacks by predatory neighbors.

But the concept of land power may not be as self-evident as it first appears. For instance, the terms land power, armies, land forces, and land warfare oftentimes are used interchangeably. But, these terms are not synonymous. Moreover, interpretation of these terms, like beauty, often lies in the eye of the beholder, and soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines frequently have different perceptions. Even within large segments of land forces, interpretations will vary considerably depending upon whether one is a soldier or a Marine; has a strategic, operational, or tactical bias; is from a combat, combat support, or combat service support branch; or serves in a particular unit or theater. These differing perspectives too frequently lead to divisive debates that reinforce convictions rather than clarify issues that will help make U.S. military power and its land component more effective.

Given these ambiguities and the dramatic geo-strategic and technical changes that are influencing modern conflict, this is an opportune time better to define land power. In doing so, it is important to remember that defining land power is much more than an academic exercise. If truly we are entering what many refer to as a "revolution in military affairs" (RMA), a fuller understanding of the critical dimension of land power is imperative. Even if more evolutionary change in warfare is underway, grasping how land power must change will still be important. Moreover, if senior military and defense advisors cannot adequately place land power in the context of the emerging international security environment, national leaders may not understand how best to employ the military instrument of power. Nor may politicians be inclined to fund new and essential capabilities for meeting anticipated demands.

Defining land power also will help elucidate the growing interdependence of air, land, and sea power. This understanding should assist decisionmakers in determining how best to orchestrate the key components of the U.S. Armed Forces to promote and protect national interests. In short, before land power can be employed with utmost effect, military advisors and political officials must understand what land power is, what it is not, and what capabilities it offers in conjunction with the other components of military power.

To that end, this essay first offers an elaborated definition of land power. Second, the monograph examines the national and military elements of land power. Third, it assesses the strategic and operational versatility of land power. Fourth, the study examines the growing interdependence of the components of U.S. military power. Finally, by offering conclusions and recommendations, the essay hopes to spark an expanded debate on land power and its potential for promoting and protecting U.S. national interests in the 21st century.

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