America's 'Third Offset' Isn't Enough to Stop a Future Major War

A test flight of Norway's first F-35​. Flickr/Norwegian Ministry of Defense

America is willing and able to fight a short, clean war—but not a long one.

U.S. defense planners hope that the Pentagon’s “Third Offset” will deter nations like China and Russia from risking war with the United States by expanding our narrowing technological lead. Superficially, the United States’ pursuit of a decisive technological advantage sends a signal to the world: America will remain ready to deter aggression abroad, now and in the future. Unfortunately, the weakness of the U.S. fiscal situation, loss of national manufacturing capacity and vulnerable global supply chains make this advantage hard to achieve and difficult to maintain during a conflict. Even worse, China and Russia may see the United States’ pursuit of a decisive technological advantage and acquisition of smaller numbers of expensive weapon systems as evidence of U.S. willingness and ability to fight a short, clean war—but not a long one.

A Different Kind of War Than Desert Storm

Many defense professionals cite Desert Storm as an example of a victory won by technology, but technological superiority had less to do with victory than the weakness of the Iraqi military. When coalition forces crossed into Iraq in 1991, they invaded a country with a GDP of $50 billion (2016 dollars), an economy roughly the size of Montana. The Iraqi paper tiger fielded a poorly trained and unmotivated army, outclassed in every aspect by the U.S.-led coalition.

A U.S. expeditionary war against China or Russia would present many difficulties absent in the 1991 Gulf War, and would result in much higher casualty rates. For one, U.S. forces would be unable to build combat power in the region unmolested. After Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the United States and its allies spent six months forming a million-man force on Iraq’s border. Outside of the threat of SCUD-launched chemical missiles, Saddam lacked the naval, air or asymmetric abilities to disrupt the growing U.S. presence in the region. Both China and Russia have invested heavily in strategies and systems that aim to deny U.S. forces close assembly areas. Naval and air forces moving into the Baltic or South China Seas could find themselves assailed by dozens of long-range antiship ballistic missiles, manned and unmanned submarines, mobile air defenses, and cruise missiles. Ground forces staged in the region would be subject to a full range of threats, from commando raids to strategic bombardment. U.S. military leaders would need to prepare to deal with setbacks rivaling the 1941 Pacific theater in World War II, and would fight a costly air and naval campaign to gain full access to the battlespace.

Once there, U.S. efforts to decisively win the conflict could be frustrated by Russia and China’s land mass, respectively the first and fourth largest on earth, and their large nationalist populations. U.S. forces could successfully stop a conventional war in Iraq by occupying it and terminating its means to regenerate its forces. Occupying Russia or China would be exponentially more difficult and costly. Like World War II–era Japan, China and Russia could lose a naval and air war, but refuse to concede defeat, forcing the U.S. to choose between costly escalation or acceptance of an underwhelming peace.

Aside from geographic disadvantages, China and, to a much lesser extent, Russia possess the purchasing power to field comparable forces to the United States. China’s economy may be equal in size to the United States’ by 2021, meaning that the United States could face an opponent with equal or greater economic strength for the first time since the War of 1812. Economic parity could allow China to pace or exceed U.S. technological gains and successful espionage programs could lower their development costs. The United States could face a peer competitor for the first time since World War II, the costliest conflict in U.S. history.

Mass Mobilization and U.S. Fiscal Weakness

A conventional conflict with Russia or China would likely follow the pattern of past U.S. contests against comparable forces, far exceeding the estimated $1.6 trillion spent on Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, the United States currently is in a poorer financial position than at any time preceding a modern conflict.