Would the US Really Lose a War With China and Russia?

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Would the US Really Lose a War With China and Russia?

A new study offers little evidence for its bold generalizations that the U.S. is losing its ability to win a state-vs-state war.

Would the US Really Lose a War With China and Russia?

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, center, reviews a military honor guard with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing Friday, June 8, 2018.

Credit: Greg Baker/Pool Photo via AP

One of the first things one learns as an infantry platoon leader is that he who tries to secure everything with his soldiers on the battlefield usually ends up securing nothing. Unfortunately for U.S. national security, this old maxim appears to have been forgotten at the strategic and political level by some of America’s brightest minds in the defense community as evidenced in a recent report.

The November 2018 study Providing for the Common Defense, issued by the National Defense Strategy Commission, a congressionally-mandated blue-ribbon panel led by former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman and retired U.S. Navy Admiral Gary Roughead, recommends that the United States should spend more on its armed forces and reinforce its global military presence lest Washington be confronted by a national security emergency at a period when the nation is at a “greater risk than at any time in decades.”

The reason for this seems simple: The United States is purportedly losing the ability to defend its allies and partners, as well as its own vital interests, as a result of a weakened military. (Notably, the study endorses the findings of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.) Consequently, the report pushes for an increase in defense spending, the acquisition of additional military capabilities in key areas, and a general boost of the readiness of U.S. forces in order to meet the aggression of authoritarian competitors China and Russia; the rogue states of Iran and North Korea; and transnational threat organizations including radical jihadist groups.

The report suggests that the United States stay the course, indeed double down, on its global defense commitments, rebuild its military strength, and more assertively confront its adversaries. In short, the authors of the study once more sing the Groundhog Day paean of the bipartisan U.S. defense establishment. While the study diagnoses a new reality of major power competition and conflict, its prescription to resolve the alleged national security crisis is blatantly generic and, once stripped of the usual idioms found in such reports (e.g., credibility, whole-of-government, holistic strategies, etc.) can be summed up in two words: more money.

“The costs of failing to meet America’s crisis of national defense and national security will not be measured in abstract concepts like ‘international stability’ and ‘global order,’” the report cautions. “They will be measured in American lives, American treasure, and American security and prosperity lost. It will be a tragedy — of unforeseeable but perhaps tremendous magnitude — if the United States allows its national interests and national security to be compromised through an unwillingness or inability to make hard choices and necessary investments.”

Unfortunately, the report fails to make a good case for the very existence of this presumed national defense and security crisis. Nor does it in any way help “make hard choices” when it comes to defense spending as the basic premise underlying the analysis of the U.S. armed forces beyond a “the bigger, the better” approach. Additionally, the two major causes for this crisis, as outlined in the study, the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and a failure to enact timely appropriations, as well as the manifold threats posed by the four countries cited above and transnational threat organizations, are insufficiently analyzed. Leaving aside a deeper discussion of the BCA and appropriations, it suffices to say that if a $670 billion defense budget is inadequate to “fulfill the strategy’s [2018 National Defense Strategy] end,” as the authors suggest, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the strategy.

I’d like to briefly focus on China and Russia — the presumed biggest threats to U.S. national security.

For one thing, in its treatment of the two countries the study begs the question whether China and Russia are indeed capable of inflicting a “decisive military defeat” on the United States. The report does not offer any persuasive evidence to back up this claim; instead, it engages in confused threat inflation. The following paragraph of the study is an especially egregious example of this:

If the United States had to fight Russia in a Baltic contingency or China in a war over Taiwan (…) Americans could face a decisive military defeat. These two nations possess precision-strike capabilities, integrated air defenses, cruise and ballistic missiles, advanced cyberwarfare and anti-satellite capabilities, significant air and naval forces, and nuclear weapons — a suite of advanced capabilities heretofore possessed only by the United States. The U.S. military would face daunting challenges in establishing air superiority or sea control and retaking territory lost early in a conflict. Against an enemy equipped with advanced anti-access/area denial capabilities, attrition of U.S. capital assets — ships, planes, tanks — could be enormous. The prolonged, deliberate buildup of overwhelming force in theater that has traditionally been the hallmark of American expeditionary warfare would be vastly more difficult and costly, if it were possible at all. Put bluntly, the U.S. military could lose the next state-versus-state war it fights.

The possible decisive U.S. military defeat is presumably the result of China and Russia’s burgeoning modern weapons arsenal. Why, precisely, Chinese and Russian arsenals would spell defeat given that the United States still enjoys qualitative (and in most cases quantitative) superiority in each of these categories in the near future is left to the imagination. (The report also fails to show how a conventional defeat in the Baltics or Taiwan would threaten the U.S. homeland and trigger a national security crisis save in an abstract domino-theoretical way, as long as the conflict does not turn nuclear and entail the use of strategic cyber capabilities.)

The two criteria for predicting American defeat indicated above are based on the U.S. losing air superiority on the one hand and the difficulty of assembling its forces in theater on the other. Again, there is no evidence why this would be the case in the event of a conflict given prevailing U.S. military superiority in the air and in logistics. Even if that were the case, such difficulties would likely be temporary and not constitute a devastating setback. Indeed, there also appears to be confusion over what a decisive military defeat entails: the destruction of U.S. military forces in the region, or just temporary setbacks, including the loss of air superiority and mass casualties. Remarkably also the report does not include even a superficial treatment of Chinese and Russian defense budgets and military capabilities, save some generalities. Indeed, one is left with the false impression that U.S. military has already lost its technological edge over both adversaries.

In sum, the study reveals a distinctly American mindset, influenced by the unipolar moment of the 1990s and the insurgency wars of the 2000s, where the United States was able to fight relatively bloodless campaigns against technological inferior opponents. The rest of the world, meanwhile, given U.S. military superiority, always had to plan military campaigns with the assumption that a military conflict would be fought against a technological superior enemy and cause mass casualties. In that sense the study is a prime example of what I once called the “U.S. War Gap” paradox. In the cited paragraph the authors utterly fail to connect their facts to the report’s threat inflated conclusions.

Conspicuously, the report also fails to provide an analytical framework for assessing U.S. program and defense priorities. Given that the general recommendations consist of allocating more funding for defense, punctuated by bureaucracy and acquisition processes reforms, and adding more capabilities in virtual every category of the armed forces, this is unsurprising. Notably, one of the contributors to the report, Andrew Krepinevich, offered his personal criticism of this in an appendix section, using a discussion of the future requirements of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific region as an example: “Other than stating the obvious — it’s better to have more military capability than less — no analytic support is presented as to why these particular forces and capabilities are more deserving of priority than others.”

Lastly, the report also does not offer an analysis why conventional deterrence in the case of China and Russia would not hold and what precisely their strategic rationale for seizing the Baltics and closing the South China Sea to international shipping traffic (for example) would entail. As John Mearsheimer wrote in the 1980s, if one side thinks it has the capacity to launch a Blitzkrieg-style military operation and achieve a quick military victory without having to fear massive retaliation, conventional deterrence is likely to fail. Yet, there is virtually no indication in Chinese or Russian strategic thinking that would suggest that policymakers in either country think their militaries would be able to achieve a quick military victory over the United States. As such it unclear how the two countries could trigger a national tragedy of “unforeseeable” and “tremendous magnitude” unless the conflict turns nuclear, in which case, winning or losing would become abstract terms devoid of meaning.