Col. Douglas Macgregor (retired) is a decorated combat veteran, the author of four books, a Ph.D., and executive VP of Burke-Macgregor Group LLC, a defense and foreign-policy consulting firm in Reston, Virginia. Macgregor’s groundbreaking books on military transformation—Breaking the Phalanx and Transformation Under Fire—have profoundly influenced thinking about change inside America’s ground forces. His newest book, 5 Battles in 5 Wars: 5 Essays on Transformation and War, 1914-1991, will be published in 2014.

Recently I interviewed him about America’s military needs in the 21st century:

TAC: What are the real threats the United States faces today and into the near future?

DM: There are three kinds of threats. The first threat is economic. In 1958, President Eisenhower told the American people, “The purpose is clear. It is safety with solvency. The country is entitled to both.” Eisenhower was right then and he’s right now. (See Paul Taylor, Rakesh Kochhar, Richard Fry, Gabriel Velasco and Seth Motel, “Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs between Whites, Black and Hispanics.”) We need to send home low-skilled, uneducated people who are not Americans. At the same time, American citizens must be first in line to receive training, education, and jobs. The second relates to the first in that our borders are open and unprotected. Criminality in many forms marches hand in hand with illegal immigration across our borders and through our ports. The third involves alliance commitments that threaten to entangle the U.S. Armed Forces in conflicts that are of no interest to the American people.

TAC: How would you defend against those threats? Structure of military? Homeland security?

DM: Committing U.S. Army Forces to the Border Security Mission is the only sensible and cost-effective means of securing our borders. These Army forces need to be tightly integrated with U.S. Coast Guard, Air National Guard, and U.S. Navy elements that must secure our coastal waters. Meanwhile, conflicts beyond America’s borders are likely to resemble the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, except that fights for regional power and influence will overlap with the interstate competition for energy, water, food, mineral resources and the wealth they create. These conflicts promise to be far more lethal and dangerous than any we’ve experienced since 1991. Fortunately, we should be able to avoid entanglement in most of them given our growing domestic energy independence and capacity for food production.

However, we need a robust and capable integrated Army warfighting component to deploy as needed with aerospace and naval power. A Korean-style emergency is eminently possible in the next five to ten years. We forget that in 1948, no one anticipated fighting anywhere. World War II had just ended and people assumed we would enjoy a long respite from war. They were wrong. Without a robust, integrated Army, component precision-guided weapons from the nation’s aerospace and naval forces will become the 21st-century equivalent of siege warfare and decide little of strategic importance on land.

In this new environment, shrinking the 1990s Army to a lower number of divisions and brigades while maintaining the three- and four-star headquarters to expand the old Cold War Army if needed is not the formula for success. Without a new force, design savings will not emerge; unneeded programs and equipment will not be identified. Finally, we need to reexamine the alliance structures that are legacies of the Cold War. The rationale for most of them no longer applies. In most cases, smaller states are interested in harnessing American military power to their advantage in conflicts with their neighbors. Japan’s hostile relationship with China is a good example of the sort of alliance relationship that is potentially dangerous to American national interest.

TAC: What lessons have we not learned from the so-called global war on terror and invasion and occupation of Iraq and why?

DM: The American people have internalized the lesson that open-ended military occupations of troubled, dysfunctional non-Western societies are both unaffordable and strategically wasteful. It’s really the top leadership of the Army and the Marine Corps that clings to these missions. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Winnfeld, has signaled the end of this long era of interventionism, but his message is not popular with the Army and Marine leadership.

TAC: There is a lot of talk among conservatives about cutting wasteful and unneeded weapon systems from the Pentagon. What would your top five weapon systems be to abolish?

DM: Abolishing weapon systems changes nothing. We cancelled the B1 bomber, the V-22, and a host of other systems only to see them return at a later date. Structural and organizational reforms are the keys to reductions in wasteful spending. Organization reflects thinking. As Frances Hesselbein said years ago, “Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed.” Until we build unified command structures on the operational level that are designed to integrate capabilities across service lines nothing will fundamentally change and we will continue to invest trillions in many of the wrong systems and capabilities.