The United States military has been preparing for the wrong conflicts with China and Russia, according to a new report by an influential think tank.
The report, entitled “Force Planning for the Era of Great Power Competition,” was published earlier this month by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), which I have previously called a “think tank’s think tank.” Its main conclusion is that while the U.S. military has focused on preparing for high-end conventional conflicts like the First Gulf War, China and Russia have been crafting strategies to achieve their ends without fighting those wars.
Beijing, for instance, has pursued an “Informationized Warfare” strategy where the “primary target” is an adversary’s political decisionmakers. Moscow’s New Generation Warfare similarly “uses propaganda, proxy and paramilitary troops, and material support to create pro-Russian movements in its near abroad.” Both approaches are similar in that their primary objective is not destroying an adversary’s armed forces, the traditional focus of Western military strategy. Relatedly, both strategies rely on using peacetime actions to achieve their strategic ends.
As the report puts it: “Informationized Warfare and New Generation Warfare combine nonmilitary diplomatic, information, and economic actions with low-intensity gray zone military operations supported by high-end military capabilities to gain influence and territory without having to escalate to a major conflict.” The last part is especially crucial: both China and Russia have put their faith in Sun Tsu’s maxim that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
The issue is that the Pentagon has continued to prepare for a high-end conventional conflict that might never materialize, while failing to come up with a way to deal with low-level aggression. This is a challenge that I identified in two articles in the National Interest back in 2014. The first article argued that the two most popular U.S. warfighting strategies for China—AirSea Battle and Offshore Control—shared a major flaw: they were both based on the assumption that there would be a decisive moment when the United States and China transition from a state of tense peace to a state of war. The problem is that China appears to be taking a “gradualist” approach towards achieving hegemony over the Asia-Pacific. Unlike Napoleonic France or twentieth-century Germany, Beijing is not preparing for an all out conquest of neighboring countries. Instead, Beijing is taking an approach similar to the one America used in the nineteenth century, when Washington gradually chipped away at European influence in the Western Hemisphere.
As I explained at the time, “It’s increasingly difficult to ignore that the entire debate is taking place inside a strategic vacuum; that is, as U.S. defense circles have been debating these options for the past few years, China has been expanding its presence and influence in places like the Scarborough Shoal, the Second Thomas Shoal, and the East China Sea. In each of these instances, both ASB and a blockade would be wildly inappropriate for dealing with China’s actions.” As long as China continues to achieve its objectives using salami-slicing tactics, there is no reason to think it will risk the high-level conventional war that the U.S. defense community is fixated on. Yet the U.S. military does not seem to have a plan for how to deal with Beijing’s salami-slicing tactics. In fact, in response to my article, one of America’s most brilliant strategists suggested that it is not the job of the U.S. military to deal with Chinese salami slicing.
The CSBA report disagrees, calling on the Department of Defense “to develop concepts and capabilities that could better prepare the U.S. military to operate in the gray zone without escalating to a major conflict.” That isn’t to say it can neglect high-end conflict scenarios. “The need to plan for long-term competitions and gray zone aggression,” the report states, “does not obviate the need for DoD to organize, train, and equip its forces for large-scale combat operations.” If the United States did that, China and Russia would simply choose to escalate conflicts rather than pursue their current approaches.
Thus, the challenge is how to be able to thwart low-end conflicts while still being prepared for all-out war. As I noted in my 2014 articles, these two very different scenarios are often in tension when it comes to force planning and weapons procurement. The CSBA report should be commended for identifying the challenge of needing to be able to simultaneously deal with both of these kinds of threats. It also takes some preliminary steps in trying to find solutions. For instance, it notes that having a larger forward deployed presence in Europe and Asia, as America did during the Cold War, would alleviate the need to try and gain access once a high-end conflict began. At the same time, these “postures to defend forward would increase U.S. options to escalate horizontally relative to current postures that require significant reinforcements from the U.S. homeland, which could be escalatory in a vertical sense.”
Still, for the most part the report’s concrete recommendations focus on actions for high-level warfare, while calling for more concepts to deal with the lesser aggressions. This is a good start, and a debate that will have huge implications for the United States moving forward.
Zachary Keck (@ZacharyKeck) is a former managing editor of the National Interest.
Image: U.S. Air Force Col. Mike Manning, the commander of the 169th Fighter Wing, and Col. David Meyer, the commander of the 169th Operations Group, both with the South Carolina Air National Guard, receive fuel from a KC-135R Stratotanker aircraft assigned to the 134th Air Refueling Wing, Tennessee Air National Guard while flying an F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft over Eastover, S.C., Nov. 12, 2013. / Flickr / U.S. Department of Defense