The era of untrammeled U.S. military superiority is over. If the United States delays implementing a new approach, it risks losing a war to China or Russia—or backing down in a crisis because it fears it would—with devastating consequences for America’s interests.
The U.S. Defense Department’s 2018 National Defense Strategy initiated a needed course correction to address this challenge. As then-Defense Secretary James Mattis put it in January that year, great-power competition—not terrorism—is now the Pentagon’s priority. But while the strategy’s summary provides a clear vision, it leaves much to be fleshed out. What should this shift toward great-power competition entail for the U.S. military?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elbridge Colby (@ElbridgeColby) is the director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. He served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development in 2017-2018.
To answer, we must first understand the current geopolitical landscape. As ever, the foremost concern of the United States is to maintain adequate levels of military power; without it, there would be nothing to protect Washington from the worst forms of coercion and every incentive for ambitious opponents to exploit the ensuing leverage. Largely for that reason, the United States has an enduring interest in open access to the world’s key regions—primarily Asia and Europe—to ensure their latent power is not turned against it. The United States does so by maintaining favorable balances of power in these regions through a network of alliances. These partnerships are not ends in themselves but rather the way the United States makes sure that no state dominates these critical areas.
Russia and especially China are the only countries that could plausibly take over and hold the territory of Washington’s allies and partners in the face of U.S. resistance. If they did so—or even if they merely convinced their neighbors that they could and then used that fear to suborn them—they could unravel U.S. alliances and shift in their favor the balances of power in Europe and Asia. If China did so in the Western Pacific, it could dominate the world’s largest and most economically dynamic region. If Russia did so, it could fracture NATO and open Eastern Europe to Russian dominance.
Beijing and Moscow must therefore not be given such an opening, which is why Washington must focus not on abstract metrics of its military superiority—such as how many carriers it puts to sea or how much it spends in comparison to other countries—but on its and its allies’ clear ability to defeat major aggression in specific, plausible scenarios against a vulnerable ally or established partner such as Taiwan.
In other words, the United States must prepare to fight and achieve its political aims in a war with a great power. Doing so will not be easy. The last time the United States prepared for such a conflict was in the 1980s, and the last time it fought one was in the 1940s. But that’s all the more reason why Washington must immediately start readying itself if it wants to deter another great-power battle now.
The U.S. military will need to undergo dramatic change to prepare for possible attacks from China or Russia. For a generation, the Pentagon operated on what might be called the Desert Storm model, under which the United States exploited the enormous technical advantages it had developed starting in the 1970s to build a military capable of dominating any opponent in the 1990s and 2000s, a time when it lacked a peer competitor.
This approach was exemplified by the Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991. After Iraq seized Kuwait late in the summer of 1990, the United States first deployed forces to protect Saudi Arabia. Over the ensuing six months, Washington assembled a broad coalition and built an iron mountain of aircraft, tanks, warships, ammunition, and every other expression of military might. Once the United States was good and ready, it launched a withering air campaign that pummeled the Iraqi military and quickly established total dominance of Kuwaiti and Iraqi airspace. The subsequent ground invasion rapidly expelled the Iraqis from Kuwait, after which the United States quickly ended the war on its preferred terms.
The Gulf War operation was a stunning success—but the victory was owed in great part to the fact that the nature of the conflict was perfectly suited to the United States’ advantages. Iraq had a formidable military, but it was well behind that of the United States and incapable of striking accurately beyond territory it owned or occupied. Meanwhile, the desert provided an optimal environment for U.S. surveillance and precision strikes, and Baghdad had no nuclear weapons to deter Washington from launching such a pulverizing assault.
The world took note of the awesome power of the U.S. military. Until today, no other country has dared to assault a U.S. ally. The point was only magnified by the prowess the United States showed in its wars against Serbia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Iraq in 2003.
The problem today, however, is the approach that worked so well against these so-called rogue state adversaries will fail against China or Russia. That is because they have spent the last 10 to 20 years specifically figuring out how to undermine it. Victory, as the old saying goes, is never final, and it breeds its own frustration. Today that takes the form of two militaries that, while different, pose serious and intensifying threats to U.S. allies and established partners in Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific.
The approach that worked so well against these so-called rogue state adversaries will fail against China or Russia.
The core of both countries’ challenge to the U.S. military lies in what are commonly called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems: in more colloquial terms, a wide variety of missiles, air defenses, and electronic capabilities that could destroy or neutralize U.S. and allied bases, surface vessels, ground forces, satellites, and key logistics nodes within their reach. Both China and Russia have also developed rapidly deployable and fearsomely armed conventional forces that can exploit the openings that their A2/AD systems could create.
Despite these advances, both China and Russia still know that, for now, they would be defeated if their attacks triggered a full response by the United States. The key for them is to attack and fight in a way that Washington restrains itself enough for them to secure their gains. This means ensuring that the war is fought on limited terms such that the United States will not see fit to bring to bear its full weight. Focused attacks designed to pick off vulnerable members of Washington’s alliance network are the ideal offensive strategy in the nuclear age, in which no one can countenance the consequences of total war.
The most pointed form of such a limited war strategy is the fait accompli. Such an approach involves an attacker seizing territory before the defender and its patron can react sufficiently and then making sure that the counterattack needed to eject it would be so risky, costly, and aggressive that the United States would balk at mounting it—not least because its allies might see it as unjustified and refuse to support it. Such a war plan, if skillfully carried out in the Baltics or Taiwan, could checkmate the United States.
An estimate of the expanding reach and capacity of Beijing’s conventionally armed ballistic cruise missiles.
The final piece of U.S. defense strategy that needs to change is the relationship with allies and partners.
The final piece of U.S. defense strategy that needs to change is the relationship with allies and partners. Unlike in the post-Cold War era, the United States needs its allies to help blunt Russian or Chinese invasions but also respond to crises and manage secondary threats around the world. U.S. forces are simply not large enough to do all this themselves—and, given the necessity for the Pentagon to focus on competing with Beijing and Moscow, the U.S. military’s future focus must be on quality rather than size.
Washington should encourage different allies to focus on different roles, depending on their military situation and development level. Front-line allies and partners such as Japan, Poland, Taiwan, and the Baltic states should concentrate on their ability to blunt Chinese or Russian attacks on their territory and to restrict Beijing’s or Moscow’s ability to maneuver through adjoining airspace and waterways by building their own A2/AD capabilities.
Higher-end allies farther from potential battlefields, such as Australia and Germany, should work on contributing, both through their forces and basing, to defeating Chinese or Russian aggression against nearby allies. Partners such as France, Italy, and Spain with established interests in places such as North Africa should allocate more forces to handling secondary threats there.
The strategy outlined in this essay is an ambitious one. But it is feasible at current spending levels—if the Pentagon and Congress make the hard choices needed. A serious strategy in challenging times should provide clarity on what is more important and what is less so and thus what to do and buy and what not to. Strategies that promiscuously enumerate threats, and call for equivalent vigilance between great powers that can change the world and rogue states and terrorists that cannot, will diffuse and squander Washington’s scarce attention and resources. Such strategies call to mind the remark about ordinary critics, who, striving for balance, search for truth in the middle, between the extremes of right and wrong. Certain threats are simply more consequential than others and thus demand more attention.
A clarity in priority means hard choices but does not mean ignoring other threats to America’s interests, including terrorists, North Korea, and Iran. It does, however, mean right-sizing the U.S. approach to these threats. The United States cannot afford to transform recalcitrant Middle Eastern societies or pursue an eliminationist vision of counterterrorism—but it does not need to. It needs to defend itself from a North Korean nuclear attack and help South Korea defend itself from invasion by Pyongyang. But it does not need to be able to invade and occupy the North. The United States needs to relentlessly pursue terrorists who can directly threaten it and its allies, but it does not need to strike at every extremist with a taste for violence or remake the societies in which they live. The United States needs to check Iran’s aspirations for regional hegemony but not overthrow the Islamic Republic. Moreover, the United States does not need F-22s to attack terrorist havens nor whole brigade combat teams to advise Middle Eastern militaries; cheaper drones and tailored advise-and-assist units will do.
To quote Carl von Clausewitz’s immortal line, “Nothing is more important … than finding the right standpoint for seeing and judging events, and then adhering to it.” The United States has found the right standpoint with the National Defense Strategy. Now it is a matter of realizing it.
An earlier version of the web edition of this story incorrectly sourced the map on China’s growing power. It came from a 2015 Rand Corp. report.