“This paper is the opening salvo in an effort to solve the central military strategic problem facing this generation of American military professionals and policymakers. It aims to focus military thinking and policymaking on the most critical issues, while also serving as the intellectual basis for developing a new American way of war.”
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By Chris Dougherty
Published on CNAS, June 12, 2019
For the first time in decades, it is possible to imagine the United States fighting—and possibly losing—a large-scale war with a great power. For generations of Americans accustomed to U.S. military superiority and its ability to deter major wars, the idea of armed conflict between great powers may seem highly improbable. The idea that the United States—with the most expensive armed forces in the world by a wide margin—might lose such a war would seem absolutely preposterous. Nevertheless, the possibility of war and U.S. defeat are real and growing.
Given that U.S. armed forces’ last major conventional combat operations were the massively lopsided victories against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991 and 2003, many Americans might be wondering how this could come to pass. This report makes the case that one salient issue is that the American way of war—the implicit and explicit mental framework for U.S. military strategy and operations—that coalesced after the Gulf War is no longer valid.
China and Russia have spent almost two decades studying the current American way of war. While the Department of Defense (DoD) has taken its military superiority for granted and focused on defeating nonstate adversaries, China and Russia have been devising strategies and developing new concepts and weapons to defeat the United States in a war should the need arise. They have offset their relative weakness versus the United States by using time and geography to their advantage and by focusing their weapons- and concept-development efforts on finding ways to attack vulnerable nodes in U.S. military operations. The goal of these strategies and concepts is to create a plausible theory of victory whereby China or Russia avoid a “fair fight” with the Joint Force and could therefore defeat the United States and its allies and partners in a regional war. These Chinese and Russian strategies, which once seemed implausible or far in the future, are beginning to pay off. They are shifting military balances in key regions and pushing allies and partners to reconsider U.S. security guarantees.
“America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.”
The declining U.S. military advantage in key regions and the increasing plausibility of the Chinese and Russian theories of victory animated the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). The NDS realized that, absent an effort to reshape U.S. military strategy, operational thinking, and consequent force design; the DoD and the Joint Force would face increasing difficulty ensuring favorable balances of power in key regions like East Asia and Europe; countering Chinese and Russian coercion below the level of overt conflict; deterring Chinese and Russian attacks on allies and key partners; and, should deterrence fail, defeating Chinese and Russian aggression. Put more simply, the NDS and efforts like the Third Offset Strategy that preceded it are a flashing warning signal to the DoD, the Joint Force, Congress, and the American people that there are fundamental flaws in the current American way of war.
The potential consequences of these flaws are profound. The possibility of U.S. military defeat, or even the perception that defeat is plausible, could begin to unravel the United States’ constellation of alliances and partnerships as allies and partners begin to hedge their bets on U.S. security guarantees. These relationships have helped the United States maintain a global order that for decades has made Americans secure, prosperous, and free.
Despite the warning signals and the dire consequences, changes to U.S. military strategy and operational thinking have been incremental, lethargic, and too focused on finding “silver bullet” technological solutions. Developing a new American way of war will require some shifts in resources and material, but at its core it is an intellectual challenge. Most efforts to drive change have done so with the goal of finding a way to make the current American way of war work again the way it did in Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
There is no going back to the post–Cold War era of U.S. military dominance. The DoD, the Joint Force, and the broader defense establishment have to come to grips with the systemic nature of the challenges posed by China and Russia. America needs a way of war that isn’t predicated on historically anomalous imbalances in national power, but rather is suited for long-term competition with great powers with capable militaries and substantial non-military power.
The challenges posed by China and Russia are real and difficult, but American military thinkers have faced and bested similar challenges in the past. Previous generations of American military professionals won a two-front global war against Germany and Japan, built the intellectual framework for great-power competition and deterrence in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, and developed the technologies and concepts that underwrote U.S. military superiority from the end of the Cold War until today.
This paper is the opening salvo in an effort to solve the central military strategic problem facing this generation of American military professionals and policymakers. It aims to focus military thinking and policymaking on the most critical issues, while also serving as the intellectual basis for developing a new American way of war. Given the urgency of the challenge and the consequences of failure, it is the duty of every American defense professional to sustain U.S. strategic advantages and pass them on to the next generation.
“If we want everything to stay as it is, everything will have to change.”
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