By John Ubaldi, Ubaldi Reports–
With Russia seeking to regain lost territory in Eastern Europe and to reestablish itself as a great power coupled with an expansionist China in Asia the United States has begun to recalibrated its own national security strategy back to strategic power competition.
In the 2017 National Security Strategy it declared, “After being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition [has] returned.”
The question remains is this a wise strategy for the United States?
The Return of Great Power Confrontation
The national security establishment has begun to address this consensus that the era of great power competition has now returned and the United States needs to alter its national security strategy to reflect this seismic shift.
Defense planners have begun adjusting to the realities by redesigning force structure in dealing with the various great-power threats that are facing the United States. National security defense strategists have built a military suited for a time when the U.S. had no near peer competitor and believe what worked then will not work today!
Defense planners have noted that China and Russia have studied the deficiencies in their own militaries and have analyzed the inherent weakness of the United States by investing in a variety of different military capabilities such as missiles, air defenses, and electronic capabilities thus neutralizing the advantages of the U.S and its allies.
This debate is not without its detractors as other national defense experts believe that substantial reforms and investment are sorely needed for the U.S. to regain its competitive advantage and be able to be prepared for any peer or near-peer competitor.
Elbridge A. Colby and David Ochmanek writing at the Rand Corporation, “How the United States Could Lose a Great Power War” as the U.S. forces appear poorly postured to meet these challenges. That’s because both Russia and China have developed formidable networks of missiles, radars, electronic warfare systems, and the like to degrade and potentially even block U.S. forces’ ability to operate in the Western Pacific and Eastern Europe to defend allies and partners in those regions.
Defense strategy returns to Great Power Confrontation
The current focus of the 2018 National Defense Strategy has the Department of Defense focusing on the threats posed by Russia and especially China to the national security interests of the U.S. and our allies, but also our partner nations such as Taiwan in particular.
Has the Pendulum Swung too Far Away from Asymmetric Warfare
Unfortunately, many felt that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of traditional conventional conflict without understanding the current threat posed by the many various state and non-state threats emanating from nations that are classified as semi-failed or failed state countries. This is endemic in the Middle East and throughout Africa as many of these countries sit aside many of the vital economic choke points that are the linchpin of the world’s economy.
Many of the defense experts often point to historical presidents of misguided attempts on changing the shape of defense strategy. After World War II, President Truman and his Secretary of Defense Louise Johnson advocated and implemented sharp reductions in military spending that initiated severe cuts in the Navy, Army and Marine Corps in favor of strategic bombing initiated by the Air Force as the lead in force protection.
Truman and Johnson were openly hostile to the Navy and the Marine Corps. This became so contentious that in December 1949, he told Admiral Richard L. Conolly, “The Navy is on its way out. There’s no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] General [Omar] Bradley tells me that amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.”
New Defense Strategy Left U.S. Unprepared
The unfortunate aspect of these defense reductions it left the United States unprepared for the conventional conflict it found itself in when the Korean War broke out just 10 months later, Truman was shocked to find out that the U.S. was ill-prepared to conduct a naval blockade around the Korean peninsula, and the other military branches were just as ill prepared as the Navy.
Another example is when the United States withdrew from Vietnam; defense strategists dismissed asymmetric warfare and focused on great power competition against the threat from Russia, without training the force on irregular warfare.
This continued debate metastasized further after the end of the Cold War when the Clinton administration had U.S. national security focus around humanitarian intervention which many believed weakened U.S. conventional forces, and challenged the Pentagon’s efforts when it entered in to conflict with the war on terror.
With the election of President Bush who recalibrated military strategy by rebuking the Clinton administration national strategy and had the Pentagon focus on conventional warfare.
U.S. Unprepared for Asymmetric Warfare
This change in direction left the U.S. unprepared for the asymmetric warfare it found itself embroiled throughout the Middle East region; especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Military analysts would also point to Israel who embraced a conventional war strategy during the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war against an asymmetric enemy and suffered the consequence of a flawed grand strategy and misguided strategic assumptions.
Over the past few years Russia and China have invested substantial resources in artificial intelligence, cyber assets, and space technologies—as well as missiles and air defenses countering the advantage of the U.S. in these areas at the same time increasing their anti-access/area denial capabilities.
One has to understand the old military axiom, and one that former Secretary of Defense James Mattis often repeated, the enemy “gets a vote” on when and where the next conflict will be fought.
Adversaries of the U.S. have learned of its Achilles Heal
Russia, China and other potential adversaries have learned that they cannot defeat the United States in a conventional war, but they have realized the inherent weakness of the U.S. is in asymmetric warfare which has been fully exposed in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Both Russia and China have been focusing efforts utilizing indigenous units such has Moscow’s use of paramilitary groups in Eastern Ukraine, while receiving support from conventional units. China has continued to utilize asymmetric strategies, and would advocate such a strategy in any confrontation with the United States.
Other adversaries of the United States such as Iran would employ asymmetric warfare against the U.S. to negate the strategic advantage in the U.S. conventional capabilities, this proved to be the Achilles heel of the military as was evident in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. defense strategists and policymakers have undertaken the desire to refocus on conventional adversaries such as China, Russia, and Iran, but this doesn’t take into account that non-state actors have sown unrest throughout Central America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East undermining regional stability.
If History is any guide local crises in various regions of the world have led to great power conflicts.
The United States can still recalibrate its conventional capabilities in fighting against peer or near-peer competitors, but it should not totally abandon its focus on asymmetric warfare if it does it will be replicating history when after extricating itself from Vietnam, the U.S. abandoned all focus on irregular warfare only to find itself immersed in it in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It took several years of bloody fighting for the U.S. to figure how to combat asymmetric war in Iraq, let’s not repeat past mistakes!