Foreign Affairs

Finding Strength in Decline

A U.S. soldier in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, April 2010
A U.S. soldier in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, April 2010

President-elect Joe Biden will enter office at a crucial time for the U.S. military. After decades of focusing on minor powers and substate actors, the United States must prepare for a new era of great-power competition with China and, to a lesser extent, with Russia. That realization makes the new administration’s review of U.S. defense strategy the most important of its kind since the end of the Cold War.

Russia is a shadow of its Cold War self, but it retains its nuclear arsenal and has developed formidable cyberwarfare capabilities. Its conventional forces remain more than a match for those of NATO’s frontline states, stretching from Estonia to Bulgaria. China poses a much greater threat as a burgeoning economic, technological, and military superpower. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears intent on constructing an Orwellian state even as it presents its political and economic model as superior to that of the United States. In recent years, it has flexed economic and military muscle in pursuit of its ambitions, expanding territorial claims along its land and maritime borders and seeking to establish a hegemonic position in the western Pacific.

The task of preparing the U.S. military to fend off either Chinese or Russian aggression is complicated by another major change: the relative decline of U.S. power. After World War II, the United States enjoyed enormous economic and technological advantages over its rivals. Washington could harness far more resources than its adversaries and deploy cutting-edge weapons and tools in the service of its military objectives. But its leads in both areas have shrunk. The Biden administration will have to make the most of U.S. military capabilities and alliances as the gap between the United States and its rivals continues to narrow.

Shrinking Leads

The incoming administration’s defense strategy review will be a sobering experience. Policymakers will have to reckon with the fact that the United States has lost two major sources of enduring advantage over other powers: the material resources it can mobilize and the superiority of its advanced technologies.

The United States’ relative economic advantage is at its lowest ebb since the late nineteenth century. There has long been a strong correlation between GDP and military prowess; the bigger the economy, the more robust the military. China’s GDP, at roughly two-thirds that of the United States and growing, is substantially greater than that of any power or group of powers the United States has faced over the past century. Together, China’s GDP and Russia’s GDP represent roughly three-quarters that of the United States. By contrast, the Soviet Union’s economy was little more than a third of the size of the U.S. economy even during the oil shocks and stagflation of the 1970s.

The United States now also has less “fiscal slack”—the flexibility to undertake and sustain a major military buildup when necessary. During the Cold War, the United States was able to have both “guns and butter,” spending on average over six percent of GDP per year on the military while Americans still enjoyed substantial gains in their standard of living. Today, the United States allocates roughly half that share of GDP to defense even as the U.S. middle class founders and social mobility diminishes.

This dynamic will make it difficult to increase defense funding to address the expanding threats posed by China and Russia. Both the Social Security and Medicare trust funds are projected to run out within 15 years, and interest payments on the national debt are expected to more than double by 2030. These problems can be addressed by increasing taxes, cutting spending, and reducing services and benefits, but the American people show little interest in making the sacrifices necessary to do so. Even if they did, funding for defense would likely be reduced, not increased, absent a major crisis.

U.S. allies will likely be of little help making up for the shortfall in defense spending. In the past, Washington has benefited greatly from its system of alliances. During World War I, for instance, the United States fought alongside the world’s three major empires. It allied with the world’s largest country (the Soviet Union) and greatest empire (the United Kingdom) to triumph in World War II. And during the Cold War, Washington counted the world’s biggest and most advanced economic powers on its side. In recent decades, however, the United States’ European allies have disarmed to the point that their militaries are incapable of any significant independent action. A series of U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have cajoled and, more recently, harangued these allies to boost their defenses, but the erosion continues.

This trend seems certain to persist barring a major deterioration in the European security environment. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have more generous social welfare systems than does the United States and a higher percentage of elderly citizens straining their countries’ social safety nets. Japan, the world’s oldest country, is experiencing similar demographic problems. Low birthrates in these countries also mean that fewer people are available for military service. As a result, U.S. allies will continue to experience greater stress on their public finances, inevitably limiting their military potential.

Just as the United States’ economic advantage and the strength of its allies have withered, so too has its technological advantage. Following World War II, the United States led the way in developing nuclear weapons, nuclear-powered submarines, reconnaissance and communications satellites, and increasingly accurate ballistic missiles before pioneering stealth aircraft, smart precision-guided weapons, and sophisticated communications networks (or “battle networks”).

Over the past decade, however, the U.S. military’s technological advantage has eroded significantly, perhaps precipitously. The same is true of U.S. technological prowess as a whole. The country that, half a century ago, made repeated manned expeditions to the moon has until recently been resigned to sending its astronauts to space on Russian rockets. Americans merely talk of going to Mars, while China explores the far side of the moon. The United States has no clear-cut superiority in emerging commercial technologies, such as synthetic biology, additive manufacturing, small satellites, artificial intelligence, and robotics. This is not to say that the United States is no longer a power in advanced technology, only that its long-standing lead has shrunk substantially and that the likelihood of a return to the kind of dominance it has enjoyed over the past three decades or even during the Cold War era is slim.

Eight-Dimensional Chess

The shrinking of these economic and technological advantages comes at exactly the wrong time. After 30 years of facing off against “minor league” powers such as Iraq and Libya and combating substate terrorist organizations and insurgent movements in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the U.S. military must now prepare for “major league” competition against China and Russia. Much of the equipment the United States has invested in to fight its recent wars—such as Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) and the hundreds of nonstealthy drones used in Afghanistan and Iraq—would be of little use against modern Chinese and Russian capabilities. To paraphrase General Omar Bradley’s famous claim about the Korean War, when it comes to addressing the challenges posed by great-power competition, the United States today risks having the wrong kind of military, conducting the wrong kinds of operations, with the wrong equipment.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—China’s armed forces—has all but erased the U.S. military’s dominance in precision warfare. The Russian military seeks to field a “reconnaissance-strike complex,” fusing advanced surveillance technology with precision-strike forces through a sophisticated communications network. The term “complex” is instructive, as this method of warfare relies upon integrating different kinds of forces and capabilities, from boots on the ground to satellites to hackers.

Think of it this way. Until the invention of the telegraph in the middle of the nineteenth century, war was waged in two domains: the land and the sea. Forces operating on land could do little to directly influence what occurred at sea and vice versa. Since then, war has expanded into six new domains—air, undersea, seabed, electromagnetic, space, and cyberspace. Complicating matters further, actions in each of these domains have, to varying degrees, the potential to influence matters in the others. Three-dimensional chess is hard enough, but advanced militaries today compete across eight dimensions.

Imagine, for instance, a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Such an offensive would depend in part on securing control of the seas around the island nation, an effort that would involve not only Chinese surface-level warships but forces operating in all the other domains. Those in the electromagnetic realm would jam U.S. communications, while cyberweapons would try to corrupt the data moving through the U.S. military’s battle network. High-powered laser antisatellite systems based on Chinese territory would try to blind U.S. military satellites, while Chinese satellites would scout the seas around Taiwan and supply guidance information to PLA weapons homing in on their targets. Sensors placed on the seabed would send data on the movement of U.S. ships and submarines, as PLA submarines would prepare to ambush an arriving U.S. task force.

Simply put, command of a particular domain is becoming less determined by military forces operating in that domain than by a combination of forces operating in and across many domains. Given limited resources, U.S. military planners need to determine which of these domains are the most important to control and to deny to the enemy. They must prepare to operate across a range of these domains and acquire the right capabilities to do the job.

A Different Kind of Military

The United States cannot simply spend its way to a position of unimpeachable strength in this competition as its economic and technological leads over China continue to narrow. Washington must avoid the temptation to simply boost defense budgets and accelerate the current defense program. Yes, the United States likely needs a bigger military to compete with China and Russia. But more important, it needs a different kind of military, one that takes into account a changing security environment.

The United States should focus its efforts primarily on stabilizing the military balance with China—reckoning with Russia should be a secondary priority. In particular, U.S. defense planners must figure out how to deter Chinese aggression in the western Pacific and defend the region successfully if deterrence fails while avoiding any escalation that might lead to the use of nuclear weapons. This will require preparing thorough plans—known in the military as operational concepts—that set out the combination of forces and methods needed to accomplish the country’s strategic objectives in war. Operational concepts provide a crucial link between Washington’s overarching strategic objectives and its defense policy and budget priorities.

The U.S. military developed such detailed operational concepts during the Cold War. One set focused on defending NATO’s European frontiers from a Soviet attack. The army worked with the air force to devise a framework for addressing the Soviet Union’s threat to central and Western Europe. This plan called for U.S. and allied ground forces to arrest any advance of Soviet frontline forces while also relying on deep-strike forces—such as combat aircraft, missiles, and rocket artillery—to break up the second and third waves of advancing Soviet forces. U.S. planners positioned large quantities of equipment in Western Europe to enable a rapid reinforcement of NATO’s frontline forces. They placed additional equipment in Norway so that U.S. Marine Corps units could quickly deploy there to reinforce NATO’s northern flank. For its part, the U.S. Navy planned to employ a combination of attack submarines, long-range carrier aircraft, and seabed sensors to keep the Soviet fleet and aircraft bottled up beyond the waters linking Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and the United Kingdom, thereby enabling reinforcements to move safely by sea from the United States to Europe. Informed by these operational concepts, senior civilian leaders in the Pentagon and in Congress could identify and justify defense program and budget priorities.

Today, Washington lacks these kinds of integrated operational concepts for defending vital U.S. interests against challenges in both the western Pacific and Europe. These concepts are certain to require significantly different types of forces and weapons than those that proved most useful against insurgent forces and terrorist organizations. With its economic lead over its rivals shrinking, the United States must spend its military budget wisely. The longer it takes to develop operational concepts for great-power competition, the longer U.S. program and budget priorities will be out of whack.

Dragons to Slay

Major improvements in U.S. military effectiveness against the challenges posed by Chinese and Russian military power will not be realized overnight. That said, the United States can take heart from the fact that when it entered its Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, the U.S. armed forces had recently been demobilized in the wake of World War II. The NATO alliance had yet to be formed, and its cornerstone, West Germany, would not become a member until nearly a decade later. Only a handful of U.S. troops were based in Europe. Washington’s once and future great-power allies—France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom—were only beginning to recover from the devastation of years of war. Far from looking for new dragons to slay, Americans wanted to put the recent war behind them and enjoy what they hoped would be a long peace. Yet the United States still found the leadership to commit to a strategy that would see it through a new era of great-power rivalry.

Thankfully, war with China or Russia in the near term appears remote. But more hostile confrontation in the future remains a possibility, especially if Washington cannot maintain a stable military balance in the western Pacific or Europe. U.S. defense planners must craft and execute a strategy to preserve the country’s principal strategic interests in a world that has changed profoundly in just a few years. With the United States’ advantages eroding, there is no time to waste.

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