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.

This is precisely where a major source of our problem lies. The unfortunate fact is that American defense spending, investment, and procurement do not adequately reflect a focus on maintaining our upper hand against the most serious, technologically challenging competitors. Indeed, one can see this simply by looking at the broad U.S. defense budget, which continues to be divvied up among the services through an artificial and nonstrategic “fair share” approach. This approach is irresponsible in an era in which the United States faces severe challenges to its military superiority in the crucial air, sea, space, and cyberspace domains. Going forward, the budget should be allocated based on strategic requirements. We need to prioritize effort, money, and time towards the programs and capabilities that we need—and let the resources fall where they may—rather than simply placate service and bureaucratic interests.

So how should these dollars be spent? To answer this we need to understand the nature of the problem posed to our defense posture by China’s developing military capabilities. At the fundamental level, China’s buildup is a challenge to the U.S. military’s ability to project forces in and through “the global commons,” which is in itself critical to achieving U.S. political-military objectives in the areas that have traditionally been part of our defense umbrella. This is the case most notably in the Western Pacific, a region home to U.S. allies and partners like Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Taiwan and Singapore. China’s buildup is specifically designed to deny our military the ability to effectively project and employ forces into this crucial region. And unless we take countervailing action, it will enable the PRC to do just that—with tremendous strategic consequences.

Therefore, a core element of our defense strategy must be to counter China’s effort to deny our forces the ability to effectively project power into the Western Pacific. This is a daunting task but fortunately a plausibly achievable one. The PRC’s counterintervention strategy does not drop an impenetrable iron dome across the Western Pacific, as some allege. It is permeable. In reality, China’s A2/AD effort more closely resembles a block of Swiss cheese, with holes on its outer edges and greater density towards the center. Beijing’s investments and deployments are closing and narrowing these holes, in turn limiting our options and raising the level of risk to and uncertainty about the efficacy of our power-projection forces. Defending the huge territory China seeks to cover with its A2/AD umbrella is also a titanic challenge, however, and one that we can and must push back on. This means that our task must be to keep open some of these traditional holes through which we have been able to operate and project power, while finding innovative ways to generate new ones.

How can we achieve this? First, such an effort will require new doctrines and operational concepts like AirSea Battle that will help enable our current and future forces to operate more collaboratively, efficiently and ultimately effectively in contested environments, and which will also provide solid strategic grounds for determining what kinds of future systems we need. Alongside these concepts, we also need to think creatively about how we can use the legacy capabilities we currently have in innovative ways. For instance, the electronic warfare capabilities offered by the EA-18G Growler and Next-Generation Jammer offer a way to enhance the lethality of 4th-generation fighters into the next decade, even as those fighters become less useful in more challenging warfighting environments.

Second, based on these concepts and doctrines, we will need to make focused and sustained investments in areas crucial to sustaining our continued advantage in the Western Pacific. In particular, we will need to focus on:

- Sustaining our undersea-warfare advantage: The Navy's undersea-warfare capabilities give the nation a unique competitive advantage, and these will be a vital cornerstone of any successful U.S. effort to maintain the military upper hand in contested environments. We will especially need to continue constructing Virginia-class attack submarines at a rate of two each year to help offset projected shortfalls in the 2020s. Moreover, the development of a Virginia Payload Module (VPM) to enhance strike power will be essential to maintaining our undersea strike capacity, especially as the Navy’s four cruise-missile submarines (SSGNs) will not be replaced when they retire in the 2020s. VPM would add four additional launch tubes that could carry a total of twenty-eight additional land-attack cruise missiles (seven per tube), which would increase the total number of missiles carried from about thirty-seven to about sixty-five—a material increase of about 76 percent. In addition, the Navy must remain decidedly ahead of the technology curve on the development of unmanned underwater vehicles, a capability that promises to radically change the nature of the future undersea competition, and that provides exactly the kind of innovative capabilities needed to attack the “Swiss cheese” problem posed by formidable A2/AD networks.

- Extend the range and capabilities of the Carrier Air Wing (CVW): Carriers have long been the centerpiece of U.S. power projection, yet advances in China’s A2/AD capabilities will force them to operate either from farther afield or at greater and possibly unacceptable risk. Since carriers will continue to be crucial to our ability to strike at the time and place of our choosing for the foreseeable future, their air wings must be adapted to the more contested environments created by China’s development of its A2/AD assets. Integrating a modernized combination of manned and unmanned aircraft able to operate in contested airspace into the air wing is a critical part of this effort. The future air wing’s manned and unmanned aircraft must provide capabilities for extended-range operations, persistence, stealth, payload, and electronic warfare; the carrier air wing must also be able to operate at both the high and low ends of the threat spectrum. While the Navy is well along in proving the feasibility of a carrier-based unmanned combat air system, to be effective in emerging threat environments in the Western Pacific and other regions, such a system should have broadband, all-aspect stealth, be capable of automated aerial refueling, and have integrated surveillance and strike functionality. In contrast, developing a new carrier-based unmanned aircraft that is primarily another flying sensor would be a missed opportunity with profound consequences for the practical utility of the carrier and thus for the nation.

- Keep the Long-Range Bomber on track: The ability to strike deep into adversary territory has been and will be critical to America’s military posture. Crucial to this ability are aircraft that can penetrate even the most heavily defended airspace and deliver meaningful strike packages against an adversary’s most valued assets. The problem is that the bombers currently in the U.S. air fleet are rapidly aging, with many now considerably older than the crews who man them. While the twenty B-2s in our inventory will continue to make vital contributions to the Air Force's long-range strike mission in contested environments, there is clearly a need for new aircraft with the capabilities to operate in the more dangerous air defense environment being formed by the systems that U.S. competitors are and will be deploying. Accordingly, the Air Force is developing the Long Range Strike-Bomber (or LRS-B). This aircraft is intended to serve as the service’s principal conventional and nuclear-capable bomber for the remainder of the century and is expected to fulfill the Air Force's need for a long-range strike aircraft with the speed, stealth, range and payload capacity needed to operate in nonpermissive environments. This aircraft and its set of associated capabilities are absolutely essential for a meaningful U.S. defense posture in a more contested Western Pacific. For this reason, the long-range bomber program must be kept on track. It is therefore vital that the Air Force manage the program so that costs can be kept reasonable and that the Congress provide consistent and full support for this crucial program so that a full complement of such bombers can ultimately be fielded.

- Preserve access to the space domain: The United States relies fundamentally on access to and the use of assets in space, especially in its power projection missions. The United States must therefore preserve the ability to use space while also mitigating its reliance on vulnerable assets. In the decade ahead, the United States will need to enhance the resiliency, affordability, command and control, and diversity (commercial and international) of its space architecture while developing a host of credible kinetic and nonkinetic means to deter potential adversaries from extending a conflict into space.

- Procure the right munitions: We will need to invest in a new generation of offensive munitions that can keep pace with the demands of the maturing guided-munitions regime. Both the quality and quantity of our munitions deserve attention, especially during periods of pressure on the defense budget, when weapons procurement and development unwisely become DOD bill payers for other higher priority, programmatic priorities. One munitions class of particular importance is the development of a new anti-surface weapon. Today, we are technically “out-sticked” by Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). The Navy’s own ASCM, the Harpoon, was designed in the 1970s and no longer has the range or survivability to operate against the kind of more sophisticated surface threats now being developed by the Chinese PLA Navy. In short, we must retain sufficient munition capacities across the force in the years ahead while considering the range of options for the development of a new Offensive Anti-Surface Weapon (OASuW) and a Next-Generation Land Attack Weapon (NGLAW).

- Invest in cutting-edge and next-generation technologies: For decades, we have maintained our military edge in large part through relying on the effective exploitation of technology. This must be as true going forward as it has been in the past. The United States will therefore need to continue investing in new technologies that will help us keep our advantage in “game-changing” capabilities. This is not simply a “should do,” but rather a must-do, especially given the potentially radical changes in the military regime warfighting environment in which U.S. forces will need to operate in the coming decades. Thus, even though in today’s budget environment slashing future innovation has become a tempting area from which to cut, defense research and development must be protected and, where appropriate, expanded. These R&D dollars are critical to advances in key areas of future competition such as robotics, directed-energy weapons, next-generation radar, electromagnetics and hypersonics.

The United States is facing a geopolitical reality to which we have become unaccustomed over the last generation: the growing presence of another great power with a military that can challenge us at the higher levels of conflict. We have lived without such a competitors for almost thirty years, leading many to be lulled into the complacent sense that holding the military upper hand in such a relationship is not so important, that a favorable stability can emerge organically or through a “win-win approach” to international politics. Certainly we can hope for that, but China’s assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas suggests such an assumption would be imprudent at least and foolhardy at worst. Indeed, such an assumption seems particularly unwise when one recalls that this behavior has transpired when China is still considerably weaker than the United States. Consider, then, what might happen once the PRC is stronger. One need not ascribe to China any motives not usually imputed to rising great powers to see this as a cause for serious concern.

China is now standing up and seeking to take a place among the world’s most powerful nations. There are continued avenues for cooperation between our nations. However, we remain seriously concerned by significant trends in its international behavior, and we are deeply worried that the temptation towards considerably less palatable behavior will be much greater if China were able to gain the military upper hand in the twenty-first century’s most dynamic region. It is to prevent this prospect from coming to pass that we recommend this ambitious but focused and reasonable defense modernization program.

Representative J. Randy Forbes (R-VA) is Chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. Elbridge Colby is the Robert M. Gates Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.