We're Losing Our Military Edge Over China. Here's How to Get It Back.

A plan for defense.

A flurry of recent statements by senior Defense Department officials has thrown a bright but cold light on a reality that Washington has yet to grapple with: that America’s edge in military technology and the balance of military power in the Asia-Pacific writ large is under serious and growing pressure from China’s military-modernization efforts. Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Command, observed at a conference in January that “our historic dominance...is diminishing” in the Pacific. Meanwhile, Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, has been even more pointed, telling the House Armed Services Committee that, when it comes to “technological superiority, the Department of Defense is being challenged in ways that I have not seen for decades, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.” And Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey soberly warned in his “Chairman’s Assessment” of the QDR that in the coming decade, he expects “the risk of interstate conflict in Asia to rise, the vulnerability of our platforms and basing to increase, [and] our technology edge to erode…Nearly any future conflict will occur on a much faster pace and on a more technically challenging battlefield.” And this, he notes, is the good case—if the United States does not spend its defense resources more wisely and make the “dramatic changes” required to upgrade our defense posture, the situation will likely be considerably worse.

Some might criticize these officials for their candor. We believe Admiral Locklear, Under Secretary Kendall, and General Dempsey should be commended for sounding the alarm because they are right that the military balance in the Asia-Pacific—and especially our edge in technology and its exploitation, the true source of our military advantage in recent decades—is eroding.

While China’s buildup is a leading reason for this challenge to our military superiority, it is not the only one. Rather, we also find ourselves at this juncture through a combination of a foolishly constricting approaches to defense planning manifested by five years of defense cuts, including sequestration; a two-decade sanguinity about the true challenge to our military edge posed by China’s impressive military modernization; and, a refusal to ensure that our capabilities within the U.S. defense portfolio are militarily sufficient in quantity and diversity to maintain asymmetric superiority for full-spectrum warfare. Together, this lack of focus and indiscipline has helped allow countries like China to begin materially closing the once-yawning gap in military capability.

We do not write to counsel despair. Rather, the fact that much of our eroding advantage has come through self-inflicted wounds means that we also have it in our power to rectify the situation. Thus, what we should take from the warnings of these senior defense officials and military leaders is a renewed need to focus on maintaining and extending our traditional U.S. military advantages. Why? Because whatever the future holds and whatever strategy America charts, we are better off if we maintain the military upper hand. Holding such an advantage deters potential adversaries from aggression and coercion by making it clear that squaring off against us won’t be worth the candle. Our deterrent assures allies; but it also makes for a more stable world order, as other countries are likely to judge military adventures and investments not advisable or useful.

Maintaining this edge is not just desirable—it is also feasible. The truth is that there are substantial constraints that China faces to unseating us as the military leader in the Asia-Pacific—and, at the same time, enduring advantages we enjoy. Thus, while Locklear, Kendall, and Dempsey are right to point to the severe challenges posed to our defense posture by China’s growing antiaccess/area-denial (A2/AD) network, we must also be careful not to conclude all is lost. China is not a fifteen-foot panda. On the one hand, it is clear that Beijing faces enormous challenges translating its economic growth into the kind of highly capable military force that can defeat the U.S. military. More broadly, China faces profound obstacles to continuing its pace of growth in light of major distortions in its economy. At the same time, the United States has the capability to mount the kind of defense effort needed to stay in the lead. Given our productive and innovative economy, our culture that embraces disruptive change, and a peerless and superbly professional military and defense-industrial base, there is substantial reason for confidence that the United States can compete to maintain our military edge.

This confidence is not a license for profligacy or lack of focus. Our confidence is wholly contingent on our making diligent efforts to tackle this severe challenge. Indeed, the scale of the Chinese buildup and the realities of a rapidly changing military-technological environment means we will not be able to effectively compete if we fail to concentrate on both addressing the most significant challenges to our military superiority and exploiting the most promising opportunities to extend it.

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