Can America win the next big war?
By Tom Rogan
December 3, 2020 – 11:00 PM
Every year, China and Russia independently invest hundreds of billions of dollars in pursuit of a single, overriding objective — attaining the ability to defeat America in a major war.
But it is only now that the U.S. national security apparatus has begun to wake up to how successful Beijing’s and Moscow’s endeavors have been. Unless the Biden administration allocates continued resources to countering the gains America’s adversaries are making, Beijing and Moscow might soon be able to defeat America in a climactic conflict. This isn’t hyperbole.
Let’s start with a look at strategic weapons.
As you read this article, China and Russia have deployed hypersonic glide vehicles into their armed forces. These are capable of carrying many nuclear warheads straight through our missile defenses to American cities. Russia’s “Zircon” weapon stands out as particularly impressive. In contrast, America is unlikely to have any operational hypersonic weapons before mid-2022 at the earliest. Time is against us. The U.S. military’s continued dominance of conventional nuclear strike capabilities mitigates the risk that an adversary would launch a hypersonic surprise attack. But the fact that China and Russia were able to deploy these new weapons encapsulates the core concern that both nations are prioritizing their ability to defeat America in war. Hypersonic vehicles are neither cheap nor technically simple to develop, and nations confident of peace do not invest in them.
A similar story applies to space warfare.
Satellites have never been more critical to military communications, situational awareness, and command and control — including nuclear control. China and Russia have long understood this. So, while George W. Bush was focused on the War on Terror, and Barack Obama on multilateral cooperation, China and Russia developed satellite-killing weapons. Some of these are now in orbit around Earth, and perhaps bring James Bond villainy to mind. But there’s no funny side to this story. Russia has an operational weapon that can maneuver alongside a U.S. satellite and release a high-speed missile to destroy it.
Only when the Trump administration took office did the U.S. military’s Strategic Command receive money and permission to counter these space threats. It would be disastrous if this recent investment were now to stop. Neither should President Biden, once in office, entertain diplomatic delusions. Beijing and Moscow will happily sign new global space nonproliferation agreements, but they will be lying, and they will laugh behind their hands that we are foolish enough to believe them while they systematically break their word.
America’s two big adversaries have been equally aggressive in taking advantage of U.S. vulnerabilities closer to Earth.
Consider Russia’s focus on electronic warfare. Centered on the disruption of enemy communications, radar, and weapons targeting, electronic warfare systems allow a force to render an enemy’s combat systems impotent. This makes Russia’s threat to Europe particularly potent. Using advanced systems such as its Krasukha-4, Russia embeds electronic warfare into its air defense network of Tor-2E, S-350E, S-400, and S-500 systems. This is a very mobile, integrated system that gives Russian forces the means to establish highly defensible strongholds.
Contemplate how this might play out in an actual war with NATO. Russian forces could invade Estonia and quickly secure a chokehold around the NATO state. As NATO starts preparing a counteroffensive, Russia uses its electronic warfare, air defense, artillery, and missile systems to create a hardened defensive bubble to keep hold of its conquest. Vladimir Putin then offers NATO a choice between escalation and heavy casualties or a cease-fire on terms favorable to Russia. Putin knows he could not withstand a full-scale NATO counteroffensive. But he is also a keen strategist and might well bet that a rapid and successful invasion and the establishment of a stronghold would split NATO. Would the Belgians, Germans, Italians, and Spanish agree to a bloody counteroffensive, or would their governments, amid public fear and opposition political pressure, opt for peace? The fact that we cannot answer this question confidently is, by itself, reason to fear Putin’s strategy. NATO’s war plan to defeat this stronghold is weak and relies heavily on joint action by the U.S., British, and French air forces. But recent NATO air force activity suggests we shouldn’t bank on success.
China’s People’s Liberation Army also has its own innovations.
One standout concern is Beijing’s new naval air defense networks. Its new Type 055 destroyers give Xi Jinping’s military the ability to prevent U.S. fighter and bomber aircraft from getting through to attack the Chinese fleet. China would seek to hold U.S. forces at long range, allowing time and space for its forces to seize control over, say, Taiwan or the South China Sea. Adding to this “range” strategy, China has deployed a potent anti-ship ballistic missile force. Centered on the DF-21/26 class of missiles, China could strike American aircraft carriers from 2,000 miles away. Like Russia, China would follow a successful hit on a U.S. carrier with a cease-fire on their terms. China would hope that its first blow against what was once regarded as an indestructible manifestation of U.S. global supremacy would weaken American resolve and prevent retaliation.
The U.S. Navy doesn’t admit this growing vulnerability. It focuses too much on its carrier strike groups and claims that they are highly defensible. Admirals say these floating cities of 6,000 military personnel are shielded by new anti-ballistic missile and anti-satellite weapons. They also like to point out the technical complexity in persistently targeting a maneuvering ship in a vast ocean thousands of miles from a missile launcher’s position. But they neglect the fact that China would launch dozens of anti-ship missiles at each carrier from dozens of independent satellites. And China’s targeting systems are improving all the time.
America’s attention to these threats must reach beyond simple military-to-military balances of power at any given moment.
The battle for the future of war is well underway. As Steve Blank recently observed for War on the Rocks, the United States faces a serious national security vulnerability because it depends on Taiwan’s computer chip industry. This is crucial in thinking about conflict over Taiwan. No military can keep its long-term credibility unless it controls access to cutting-edge technology. Consider the potential of adding artificial intelligence to unmanned drones. Now think about packing missiles on hundreds of such drones and then deploying them deep behind enemy lines. China is particularly focused on being able to do this, which is one reason why Beijing invests so heavily in stealing American research secrets.
And, sadly, the Pentagon lives with a degree of absurdity even in this area of American superiority. The Defense Department’s otherwise exceptional research and development brain trust, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, inadvertently helps foreign intelligence efforts by putting much of its research online. Go to DARPA’s website, and you’ll easily be able to find the contact details of those running these research programs! China only need look at that information and bingo, it knows who and what email to hack!
So, what should the U.S. do to retain its deterrence-defeat supremacy?
The answers are varied, expensive, and complicated.
Washington must first wake up from the casual expectation that U.S. military dominance can be maintained without continuous, substantial investment. The Democratic Party keeps saying spending can be cut “because the U.S. spends X times more than the next X nations combined.” This is an idiotic assessment measure, not least because $150 billion goes on personnel costs.
More broadly, we must recognize that defense investments don’t simply deter and defeat enemies but create safe space for stable economic, diplomatic, and political activity. Efficient military spending should be seen as an extension of government policy to foster national prosperity.
Still, the U.S. military must invest more wisely.
The Pentagon should double down on strategic strike capabilities. Missile defenses are very expensive but not very useful unless the prospective enemy is North Korea or Iran, which have, or are likely to have, only a dozen or so nuclear warheads. America must deter those adversaries partly by making them doubt whether their nuclear weapons could reach their targets. But there’s little point in spending massively on missile defense against China and Russia, which would launch saturation strikes capable of breaking through any shield. That’s even before considering how to deal with hypersonic vehicles. Instead, the U.S. should be spending money on new nuclear warheads and delivery systems, which offer the best means of deterring war by reinforcing enemy expectations that they will lose. The Trump administration has excelled in this area, but, unfortunately, Biden says he’ll roll back nuclear investments. This would be a gift to our adversaries, and it should form a focal point of Republican Party scrutiny of future defense legislation.
Another area of opportunity is reform of allied defenses.
Washington should push European allies to spend more on systems capable of defeating Russia’s stronghold strategy. Armor and air power stand out. The U.S. Army has 16 heavy armored brigades, but the French Army has just two. The U.S. Marine Corps adds to the mismatch. But where, as now, the U.S. has to provide the armor foundation for Europe’s defense, there’s a clear opportunity cost against China.
Armored units would have limited utility in a war with China, which is almost certain to be fought in cyberspace, in the East China Sea or South China Sea, or with nukes, and heavy armor would have little or no use in any of these areas of conflict. In the South China Sea, the U.S. warfighting effort would center on Air Force bombers, Navy warships, and efforts by the Marine Corps to capture and fortify China’s artificial islands. So, the Pentagon should divert money from armor to forces most likely to be involved in any fight with China.
In the cyber domain, research and development are vital and must be tied to a new strategic doctrine. The big four anti-U.S. cyber actors, China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, are attacking our civilian infrastructure (including hospitals), and the U.S. must spend more to take them on. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency remain reluctant to use their best tools in this area because they don’t want our enemies to find ways to defend against them or replicate them. But our adversaries know they can inflict damage on American civilian infrastructure at no cost, so they have incentive to do so and integrate this form of hostility into their war planning. If Washington responded to big cyberattacks by shutting down the mainframe computers used by the Russian GRU or Chinese People’s Liberation Army, or wiped their data cores, for example, a new balance of deterrence would be established.
Then there’s the Air Force. It needs more investment in drone warfare and long-range unmanned strike assets, including hypersonic vehicles. It is problematic that the Air Force continues to view manned fighter and bomber aircraft as its operational cornerstones. Those planes will struggle to get into range of Chinese forces in the South China Sea. And building out these air fleets is anyway unaffordable. It is equally concerning that the Air Force is reluctant to give greater prestige and promotion to its drone warfare personnel. If young officers believe that flying an F-15, F-35, F-22, or B-2 is the best way of getting a star on their uniform, the best and brightest are going to focus on areas of warfighting that no longer suit America’s needs.
Yet it is the Navy where most change is needed.
The Navy has belatedly prioritized undersea warfare and has some revolutionary drone capabilities,but it still loves its aircraft carriers, which will become ever more vulnerable. The Navy should be forced to reduce its carrier fleet. Money saved should be spent on undersea sensor nets, more submarine and air drones, and long-range anti-ship missiles such as the LRASM system. The Navy should also triple down on its innovative “Nemesis” ghost fleet system, which involves tricking enemy radar, sonar, communications, and satellite intelligence systems into seeing U.S. Navy assets where none exist. Burying actual warships and planes amid the ghosts, the Navy can preserve its forces better against enemy attack, and divert the enemy into fruitless missions. This will be critical if the Navy ever fights a war against thousands of Chinese warships, planes, and missiles.
Where does this leave us?
Well, one hopes it leaves us with recognition that this is a challenge that the president, Congress, and the Pentagon must embrace in common cause. Ensuring that the post-Second World War international order is preserved will be neither cheap nor easy. But much rests on America’s ability to deter China and Russia. Absent that ability, these tyrannies will reshape the global order and make America and its allies less prosperous, less secure, and less free.
Tom Rogan is a foreign policy-focused commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.