Can America Defeat So Many Simultaneous Military Threats?

U.S. Marines Tanks
January 4, 2024 Topic: Deterrence Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: DeterrenceMilitaryNuclear WeaponsRussiaChina

Can America Defeat So Many Simultaneous Military Threats?

The Biden Administration’s fear of nuclear war is matched only by its aversion to the idea that nuclear escalation must be deterred by nuclear firepower.

Former Secretary of Defense and former Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates recently observed in the pages of Foreign Affairs that, “The United States now confronts graver threats to its security than it has in decades, perhaps ever. Never before has it faced four allied antagonists at the same time—Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran—whose collective nuclear arsenal could within a few years be nearly double the size of its own. Not since the Korean War has the United States had to contend with powerful military rivals in both Europe and Asia. And no one alive can remember a time when an adversary had as much economic, scientific, technological, and military power as China does today.” Worse yet, he accurately noted that there was a great deal of similarity between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin with regard to their imperialist agenda and in their conviction that the United States was in decline. Even more significant is that both Xi and Putin have “…already made major miscalculations at home and abroad and seem likely to make even bigger ones in the future,” and these could result in “catastrophic consequences for themselves—and for the United States.”

According to Gates, “The problem…is that at the very moment that events demand a strong and coherent response from the United States, the country cannot provide one. Its fractured political leadership—Republican and Democratic, in the White House and in Congress—has failed to convince enough Americans that developments in China and Russia matter. Political leaders have failed to explain how the threats posed by these countries are interconnected. They have failed to articulate a long-term strategy to ensure that the United States, and democratic values more broadly, will prevail.”

Secretary Gates is hardly an alarmist. Indeed, he has historically played down the Russian threat, and he is ironically at least partially responsible for the situation he so well describes. Gates served as Secretary of Defense in both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations. During the Bush Administration he attacked “…Next-War-itis—the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict.” This is very much the mentality that resulted in the current crisis situation that Gates accurately assesses. The U.S. military power and the industrial base that supports it has been reduced to the point that the United States has difficulty in supplying a single medium-sized war in Ukraine. Unless the United States takes action, the shortage of munitions problem could continue to deteriorate.

Congressman Mike Gallaher (R.-Wis) has recently pointed out that in a conflict with China the United States would run out of long-range precision missiles and bombs in less than a week. The situation is probably a little better with regard to Russia because of its expenditure of weapons in its war against Ukraine and the poor performance of its long-range strike missiles. In a simultaneous conflict with Russia and China, a threat that the United States Strategic Commission detailed, the situation would be even more dire. In light of the fact that a high percentage of U.S. fighters and bombers are pre-stealth, a large number of long-range precision strike missiles is critically important.

The United States is even short of short-range precision munitions. In the war against ISIS, “…the Air Force was using up Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) so quickly that they were being loaded onto combat aircraft in the Middle East a scant 24 hours after being crated up and shipped from Boeing’s St. Louis factory.” In FY2021, bomb production was about cut in half. Reportedly, by mid-2023, “America’s arsenal is running dangerously low.” The empty arsenal problem also applies to much of NATO. This is the result of decades of inadequate defense spending.

The situation the United States faces regarding the Russian and Chinese nuclear threat is likely even worse than what Secretary Gates has outlined. Some of Gates’ assumptions such as Russian compliance with the New START Treaty are clearly more than a best-case scenario in light of the reports indicating Russian treaty violations and the lack of New START Treaty on-site inspections for almost four years. Secretary Gates’ assessment that the combined Russian and Chinese nuclear threat could “be nearly double the size of its [the United States] own” is likely to be a substantial underestimation of what the Chinese and the Russians may actually have. Indeed, in 2020, noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer wrote that, “Indeed, taking into account non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons, which no one has ever verifiably counted, Russia may have more (maybe twice as many overall) than all the other official or unofficial nuclear powers taken together.”

When he was Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates certainly supported the nuclear Triad and took action to remedy the catastrophic decline in Air Force nuclear weapons proficiency. This included the firing of the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff over issues involving Air Force nuclear weapons security. Still, Secretary Gates did a poor job of defending Defense Department interests during the New START Treaty negotiations. This included the dramatic decline in the substance of the limitations and verification regime in the New START Treaty compared to the original START Treaty. Moreover, his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review was based upon unrealistic optimistic assumptions concerning the threats the United States faces and the nature of the world. The U.S. nuclear modernization program during Gates’ tenure as Secretary of Defense did not include either a new ICBM or a new bomber. Indeed, in 2009, Secretary Gates cancelled the Next Generation Bomber program claiming that its capabilities were too expensive and unnecessary. He also ended production of the F-22 at a fraction of the number that the Air Force said was required. During Gates’ tenure as Secretary of Defense (and both before and after) Army procurement focused upon low-intensity conflict. This began under George W. Bush with the conversion of many Army heavy brigades to “medium” Striker brigades which are inadequate to fight heavy enemy units equipped with tanks. Indeed, the Striker proved vulnerable even in the low-intensity Iraq conflict. For more than two decades there was no modernization of Army heavy tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. In 2023, Army strength was lower than at any other time since 1940.

Secretary Gates notes that, “Xi has directed the Chinese military to be ready by 2027 to successfully invade Taiwan.” In 2023, reportedly, “Chinese President Xi Jinping bluntly told President Joe Biden during their recent summit in San Francisco that Beijing will reunify Taiwan with mainland China but that the timing has not yet been decided, according to three current and former U.S. officials.” Gates certainly takes the threat seriously; however, he is too optimistic about the current situation. According to Gates, “The U.S. military has been healthily funded in recent years, and modernization programs are underway in all three legs of the nuclear triad—intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, and submarines.” His claim about the “healthy funding” of the U.S. military in the last several years is not credible. In light of the multiple threats, current defense funding is clearly inadequate. The Biden Administration attempted to cut defense spending compared to that planned by the Trump Administration before the world changed as a result of the Russian December 2021 ultimatum to NATO which sought to get NATO to acquiesce to Russian domination of the states of the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact and its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The two are very closely connected.

The Biden Administration’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, which cut some nuclear weapons programs, did not fully take into account the new security situation that was created by the blatant Russian aggression unleashed by President Putin in his 2022 invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s intent to restore Soviet imperial dominance. The Biden Administration’s proposed FY2023 defense budget involved Army troop cuts, substantial cuts in aircraft production, erosion of Air Force readiness and ship construction. The first two Biden Administration proposed defense budgets contained a very large reduction in the already inadequate production level of U.S. precision conventional munitions. Inadequate precision conventional weapons procurement is continued in the Biden administration’s proposed FY2024 budget. The funding situation with regard to the rest of NATO is considerably worse. This is a significant part of the security problem faced by the United States.

The purchasing power of the U.S. defense budget has been negatively affected by the Biden Administration’s inflationary policies. For the last four years the Army budget has grown less than inflation. This is very important because the focus of the Army on low-intensity conflict for the last two decades has reduced its combat capability in high-intensity conflict. While the Congress after the Russian invasion of Ukraine blocked most but not all of the Biden Administration’s cuts, the programmatic effort is still less than what was planned by the Trump Administration before the current threat had been made obvious by Putin’s aggression not to mention Chinese preparation for a war in the Far East in the near future.