Needless to say, all this wouldn’t be easy even if we were spending our money and focusing our effects optimally. But we aren’t spending our dollars and our attention anywhere near optimally. U.S. military forces continue to be called on to intervene in conflicts in the Middle East that, while plausibly important, are far less consequential for long-term U.S. interests than the competition in Asia. Meanwhile, U.S. defense spending remains plagued by the enormous indirect overhead of labor and facility costs, a continuing commitment to fund capabilities (for instance for counterinsurgency and stabilization operations) of distinctly secondary value, a sequester policy that prevents the Pentagon from making rational allocation decisions, and an unwillingness to break and revise existing bureaucratic deals—for instance the longstanding practice of allocating the three major services’ budgets about equally among them—in order to dedicate resources to the programs and capabilities that really need them.
This situation might have been tolerable in an era in which no one could remotely challenge U.S. military predominance. But what the Taiwan MND report should tell us is that that era may, if we’re not resolved to do something about it, be coming to an end in the Western Pacific. However we decide to deal with this reality, and the broader reality of a rising China that is feeling its oats and can be bet upon to do so increasingly in the coming years, we will be better off if we have the military capabilities to dissuade Beijing from seeing a military option as an attractive solution to its problems. But if we’re going to do this, we need more strategic discipline, clearer focus, greater efficiency, and the willingness to break grooved ways of doing business. If not, we might one day in the not too distant future find ourselves in the distinctly unfamiliar position of not only lacking the military capabilities to dictate terms, but in the even more unfamiliar—and decidedly uncomfortable—position of finding that our opponent has the capabilities to dictate terms to us.
Elbridge Colby is a principal analyst at CNA.
Image: Flickr/Al Jazeera English. CC BY-SA 2.0.