But simply acknowledging that both the United States and its nuclear-armed adversaries will want to limit any war they engage in leaves open a great deal, indeed almost everything. Broadly conceding that a war will be limited is one thing, but determining how the war will be restrained and how well prepared one is to exploit those arrangements are other things entirely—and indeed may well determine its outcome. That is, while a limited war is by definition limited, it is also by definition a war, and thus remains a contest for, if not victory—since a limited war means that objectives must be made more modest—then at least for which side will more fully achieve its more modest aims. And so, within the necessarily fragile and elastic confines of a limited war, both sides can and will jockey, bluff, coerce and fight to gain advantage.
TAKE, FOR EXAMPLE, a conflict between the United States and NATO on one side and Russia on the other arising out of a controversy involving the Russophile population of a Baltic NATO state. In such a scenario, Moscow might intervene to defend or vindicate the purportedly aggrieved minority using some of the readily deployable conventional forces it has built up in recent years and has been exercising regularly since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. In such a case, Russia would also rely on more sophisticated forces across the border in sovereign Russian territory to provide a range of crucial missions such as air defense, long-range strike and attacks on U.S. space assets. An adequate response by the Atlantic alliance to eject Russian forces and restore the territorial integrity of a NATO member state would require, as a matter of course, the suppression or denial of at least some of these more sophisticated forces that otherwise would menace the crucial Allied—and most importantly American—aerospace and maritime forces that provide the basis for Western military superiority.
Yet, seeking to manipulate the logic of limited war, Moscow could demand that the homelands of the major powers be considered sanctuary and that the conflict be confined to the territory and airspace of the Baltic states. Or it might declare that only a narrow band of Russian territory abutting the invaded Baltic states should be considered legitimate territory for combat. And Moscow could threaten to enforce those limitations with its strategic capabilities, including its large and variegated arsenal of nuclear weapons. If NATO ignored these proposed limitations without offering a compelling basis of limitation of its own and pursued Russian forces well within Russian territory, it might trigger Moscow’s use of nuclear weapons in a way that could look like Russia was simply defending itself, shifting the onus to respond onto NATO in a manner that might make such a response seem unjustified or too risky. But, alternatively, if NATO agreed to Moscow’s proposed terms of restraint, Russia might be able to leverage such limitation to protect and exploit its crucial antiaccess/area denial capabilities. Moscow could, for instance, bring its increasingly lethal and long-range surface-to-air missile systems into and out of the combat zone as needed, removing them for protection upon notice of vulnerability and for resupply. Such stratagems could give Russia a decisive edge in the conflict, as it could use such forces to blunt NATO air attacks, potentially denying the Atlantic alliance vital air superiority over the Baltics.
A SIMILAR dynamic might take hold in the event of a U.S. conflict with China over Taiwan or territories in the East China Sea, where the People’s Liberation Army could seek to shape the boundaries of a limited war to use its increasingly advanced capabilities, including its cutting-edge air defense and antiship systems, on the Chinese mainland to hold aerospace and maritime targets at risk anywhere over or around the island of Taiwan or over the Senkaku Islands. Without suppressing such threats, the United States and its allies or partners would have little realistic hope of reestablishing decisive control over Taiwan or the Senkakus.
This sort of manipulation of the “rules” of a war would hardly be novel—indeed there is ample precedent of the careful exploitation of such constraints even in the specific instance of air defenses. The Serbs during the NATO bombing campaigns and, with more success, the North Vietnamese during the war in Indochina all exploited particular rules to protect and strengthen their defenses against U.S. air power. Indeed, so frustrating and at times effective has this technique been that many Americans have urged simply discarding the concept of limited war entirely and either pursuing total war or abandoning the imperiled interest. The United States, in this view, should only involve itself in wars it can fight without meaningful constraint, bringing to bear the full weight of its military power.
But, as enticing as this approach might seem, the proper U.S. response to an adversary’s cunning exploitation of the rules of a limited war cannot be to insist on fighting wars only in an unrestrained fashion. For this would be to invite U.S. opponents that have formidable conventional militaries and substantial nuclear arsenals to test American resolve actually to follow through on such an all-or-nothing threat by pursuing a classic “salami-slicing” approach, chopping away at U.S. interests in steps small enough to avoid initiating a massive response. Given that few U.S. interests would really justify resort to practically unrestrained warfare, this would mean that U.S. adversaries like China or Russia could slice off increasingly hearty pieces of salami. Put another way, U.S. defense strategy cannot—and certainly should not—long be based on a bluff.
INSTEAD, THE best way to deal with this problem is for the United States to become better at limited war than these potential adversaries. This means that the United States should find effective ways to fight to achieve its political objectives while at the same time trying to constrain the war with these formidable opponents. The way to do this is for the United States to be able to more effectively operate within, manipulate and exploit the boundaries of a war both sides are seeking to limit in order to attain those ends Washington deems vital. That is, the United States should be ready to strive to set or at least substantially influence the formulae of limitation in any war in which it finds itself engaged, and should be prepared to exploit them effectively, as well as any alternative plausible boundaries of a conflict. In other words, the United States should have a clear idea of what it wants the boundaries of constraint to look like in potential conflicts with Russia or China (and likely North Korea as well), and a plan for how it would advance its arguments for those boundaries. It must also have a realistic assessment as to what the limits would actually end up looking like. That is, the United States should be prepared to operate well not only under its preferred but also under the most likely parameters of a limited war. And it should have the military capabilities and, perhaps more importantly, the plans, doctrines and strategies ready to operate effectively and ultimately prevail within these boundaries.
When it comes to the Baltic States, for example, the United States and NATO should have ready their own proposal for how to limit such a war, a proposal that Moscow would find it difficult to reject but which NATO is well-prepared to exploit. NATO should also be ready to deal effectively within the confines of what seem to be the most likely boundaries of the conflict. The same holds true for the United States in the Western Pacific.
At the same time, a limited war does not end with the vanquishing of one combatant. Rather, ending a limited war means that both sides must ultimately agree to stop fighting. This implies that both sides find settlement less distasteful than further escalation, including nuclear escalation. Accordingly, Washington must have a sober and realistic sense of what it really wants and needs to achieve in any such war, for, it is vital to emphasize, prevailing in this context of a limited war of necessity must mean achievement of only some limited goal—for instance ejection of Russian forces from a NATO Baltic state or China’s backing down from an invasion of Taiwan.
This means that the United States should be ready to use these capabilities, plans and strategies to gain military advantages adequate to achieving Washington’s political objectives and then seek to push the onus of escalation—the burden of continuing and expanding the war—onto its opponents’ shoulders. In essence, the point is to be able to overcome an adversary like China or Russia within the confines of a limited, bounded conflict and then force the other side to bear the risk, the opprobrium, and the culpability for expanding or intensifying the war. Given that Moscow and Beijing would each have abundant reason to want to limit any such war with the United States and its allies and partners, shifting the burden of deepening or expanding a conflict onto them would be a very significant strategic gain. Nor would such factors constraining them be confined to perhaps dispensable considerations of international reputation and prestige, for the United States’ own reserve capabilities to counter such escalation—including, in the extreme case, its nuclear forces—would form a powerful deterrent against the opponent seeking to escalate its way out of defeat, especially given that such employment would seem more legitimate and more readily accorded with the logic of limited war if used to respond or retaliate to the other side’s escalation.