Table 1: Costs and Quantities of Selected Precision Munitions
Eventually, however, precision-strike will proliferate into the hands of prospective American adversaries both large and small. Since 1942, the U.S. military has enjoyed an unrivaled capability to fight the nation’s wars overseas, either operating from preexisting forward bases and ports or seizing them. Once in theater, U.S. forces have increasingly depended on short-range aircraft, high-signature mechanized ground forces, and logistical “iron mountains” to defeat the adversary. The eventual spread of precision strike raises the possibility that countries such as China and Iran will one day manage to exploit precision strike to create “no-go” zones into which it would be too difficult and too costly for the United States to project military power using today’s overseas bases and expeditionary forces. This outcome could potentially constrain the United States’ ability to project power overseas to the point of forcing a fundamental rethinking of America’s role in the world. Either new ways of projecting power around the globe from long ranges would have to be developed or else America’s ability to protect its global interests, intervene around the globe militarily, and reassure allies would shrink. How soon U.S. leaders may have to face this choice is anyone’s guess given how slowly precision strike has proliferated since Desert Storm. Nonetheless it is one possible result of a mature precision-strike regime in which the U.S. military no longer holds most of the trump cards. Especially since 9/11, the U.S. defense establishment has given little thought to this possibility. As Andrew Marshall lamented some two decades ago, “a lot of people sign up to the notion that a military revolution is underway, but very few draw the significant consequences that should flow from that belief.”
Barry D. Watts is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.