US must rethink how to handle Great Power conflict
The clash between US policy in Afghanistan and its ruptured impact upon relations throughout Southwest Asia is about to be replaced by the specter of near-peer competitors in China and Russia. This means combatant commanders in war theaters must do more with less.
A change in policy framework from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency toward Great Power competition weakens America’s force deterrence and posture. With multiple transnational problems arising simultaneously, the US is not positioned to resolve intractable geopolitical issues that can easily multiply; having no easy solutions abroad, the US regime needs to prepare itself to weather profound political and institutional domestic challenges whose scale matches those faced by president Harry Truman and his secretary of state Dean Acheson after World War II.
As president George W Bush discovered throughout his travails in Mesopotamia, the US defense establishment is tethered to a Keynesian framework that makes war a jobs program. This framework cannot procure policy resolutions abroad because America’s enemies are hybrid regimes that aren’t susceptible to Western, Clausewitzian foundations of war as imposed politics. Having grasped the nettle of the feudal societies that are Afghanistan and Pakistan, US security planners have anticipated limited success in advancing policy aims in archaic societies.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has instead asked the Defense Department, the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs to consider reshaping the US industrial base away from the “long war” toward Great Power competition. This shift has three profound challenges.
First, a conflict involving the US fighting a two-front war against China and Russia would imply profound changes to the international order. Institutionally, the prerequisites for Great Power war would quickly exasperate the US industrial and social base that serves an inept Keynesian framework. Simply put, the requirements of Great Power war would immediately test America’s weak contemporary force structure and posture.
Second, Great Power conflict is outside the professional experience of contemporary senior civilian and military policy leaders in the US.
Third, the armed forces that the United States and its allies now have were developed for very different circumstances, which means they cannot meet the requirements of Great Power conflict.
Long, expensive war
American force planners anticipate the character of Great Power war with China and Russia to be expensive and long. While the US was fielding counter-terror measures in Southwest Asia, China and Russia were developing precision strike systems, highly mobile nuclear missiles and sophisticated area-denial systems. US force posture isn’t prepared to engage these measures. The current moniker of multi-domain battle barely captures the scale of this engagement in land, sea, air, cyber, undersea, tunnels and space.
To begin reforming defense institutions, the US will need much more than new doctrines that encapsulate ideas of impending conflict. It must anticipate that both China and Russia can cope with protracted struggle. Featuring high-expenditure weapons systems with munitions resulting in high casualties requires that the US fortify its weakened social and industrial base for protracted conflict.
To secure an advantage against both Russia and China, the US must be able to field a distinct comparative advantage: an armed force possessing depth and resiliency, accepting damage while recovering from it. The US cannot hope to accomplish this with its current defense industrial base.
It needs regionally based economies based on sound money and federalism feeding new capital stock into a new national-security innovation base, one that heightens the place of civilians in conflict. For decades, the US defense establishment has spoken ad nauseam about efficiency while ignoring effectiveness. In an interdependent world, Washington needs to think about unifying the political economies of North America to exploit comparative advantages in national resources serving Great Power conflict.
Currently, the US does not have the experience effectively to field a logistical system capable of operating in contested environments. It needs international partners with resource bases capable of fortifying protracted operations.
Finally, Great Power conflict will exacerbate every sinew of the American Republic. To win, American political leaders need to accept the changing conditions abroad that nullify US power.
Both China and Russia are willing to accept conflict. Are we Americans just as willing?