The U.S. faces both the immediacy of great-power competition and the prospect of great-power war. Both of these require a military that is wholly prepared for combat. This preparation includes all the standard aspects of military power — personnel, matériel, and training. But most important and least measurable is intellectual readiness. There is no sign that the armed services, or the defense establishment more broadly, are intellectually prepared for a Sino–American clash.
A military organization’s first peacetime task is preparing for combat. Americans could be forgiven for forgetting this fact, given the state of our contemporary political debate, some of which has drawn the military into the political fray. This political tension combines with recent American combat experience to further conceal the military’s true purpose. Since 2004, American counterterrorist policy has degenerated into long-term “small wars” that any British Royal Marine, French Legionnaire, or pre-1940 American Marine would recognize, but that sit poorly alongside post–Cold War public perceptions. None of these conflicts were clear-cut wars ending in the enemy’s destruction; they were open-ended commitments, difficult for the public to understand because they did not resemble traditional warfare and asked no sacrifice of most Americans.
These conflicts demand officers who take the initiative, operate without extensive support, and are extremely proficient in small-unit tactics and comfortable working with local political actors. Some of these skills translate to great-power warfare, but most are practiced at the lower levels of command. This is especially true of naval and air officers. At no point since Vietnam have they been asked to wage a long-term air-control campaign, and at no point since 1945 have they been required to secure sea control against a capable adversary.
The most recent approximation of conventional warfare came in 2003 against an outdated and ill-led Iraqi army. The U.S. Navy has not faced a conventional competitor since 1991, and has not fought in conventional naval combat since 1945. It is not, however, the lack of major-power combat experience that should cause unease.
The United States’ entire national style is defined by the application of overwhelming matériel superiority against an adversary. Exceptions exist — for example, Grant and Sherman’s operational brilliance late in the Civil War — but in general, major American wars follow an identical pattern: an initial defensive period, during which the U.S. mobilizes resources, followed by a punishing counterattack that overwhelms the adversary.
The key, again, is matériel superiority, which in today’s U.S. military amounts to a bootless faith that technology and industrial capacity can prevail against foes with greater initial military competence. But there is no end in sight to China’s arms buildup. The U.S. ought to consider the possibility that China will possess larger forces than ours, and we should look upon the exceptional military competence of Israel as a model. Underscoring this is the U.S.’s vastly diminished ability to equal American industry’s extraordinary World War II output. The U.S. may not have its former ability to overcome a powerful enemy with matériel in time to prevail.
Moreover, the notion that sheer mass enabled past American victories stems from a warped reading of strategic history. In each conflict, the U.S. did have supremely talented commanders at the highest levels — again, Grant and Sherman in the Civil War, Dewey in the Spanish–American War, Pershing and Sims in World War I, and Eisenhower, Patton, Nimitz, Halsey, and others in World War II. Yet in most cases, it took U.S. statesmen time to identify their generals. Lincoln burned through three commanders before settling on Grant in 1864. Roosevelt took several months to choose Eisenhower, while Nimitz assumed command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet only after the war began. Pershing was promoted in part for his well-timed recent Mexican service.
However, the issue is that the U.S. military has so deeply imbibed the matériel element of strategic history that its ability to identify command talent is a troubling question. The post–Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act (of 1986) promotion system rewards bureaucratic aptitude over military skill, a natural consequence of the same legislation’s radically dilated Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant command (COCOM) staffs. The expanded control that Goldwater-Nichols gave to the central command drained the military services’ ability to shape strategy.
Hence the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs move at a glacial pace and increasingly overmanage, with the former most recently conducting an independent naval-force-structure study rather than devolving to the services the responsibilities that ought to result from their operational knowledge. And the services are now encouraged to compromise current combat capabilities for future advances, most notably in the Navy’s “Divest to Invest” scheme, which relies on small surface combatants that are years away from deployment in numbers and on unmanned systems without public prototypes.
The U.S. military today is focused on budget battles, procurement issues, social engineering, and the permanent quest of large central military staffs to increase their hold on everything from strategy to force architecture. As important as these are, they distract from warfighting. The understanding that the U.S. is in an interwar period does not exist. The notion that the military’s first task is to defeat our increasingly powerful adversaries is a relic from the unexamined past. If it animated the U.S. high command, there would be unrelenting emphasis on selecting officers more like Grant than McClellan for promotion at all ranks. Rather than end the careers of exceptionally promising naval officers for mistakes made during exercises or mishandled paperwork, the Navy should end its witless confusion between “loss of confidence” and the insistence for perfection as reasons to relieve excellent commanders. This would be followed by similar attention to training, planning, and equipping for wars with a major adversary — or two. This would include realistic war-gaming (i.e., where the U.S. side can lose), organizational structures that allow unitary command of such geographically separate regions as Ukraine and the East China Sea, and serious strategic and historical education to parallel and complement what the greatest generation — that means Nimitz, Halsey, Marshall, and Patton — learned about strategy from combat in World War I.
The results of our military’s inability to imagine, plan, and exercise accordingly to deter or defeat China are more readily apparent. A People’s Liberation Army victory in the western Pacific that crippled U.S. forces almost certainly would prompt negotiations and the emergence of a Chinese-shaped world — that is, a world led by the genocidal regime that harvests dissidents’ organs. Too much rides on the question of the U.S. military’s first task, warfighting, to be swallowed by intellectual laxity, to disappear into Byzantine central staffs, or to continue to be distracted by social desiderata.
Read in National Review