Being well-prepared to fight this kind of war has a number of implications for the kind of military the United States should be building as well as the kinds of strategies and doctrines it should be developing and adopting, In particular, it means having a military that can prevail in a limited context—that does not rely on escalation that would be foolhardy or ineffective—while retaining substantial advantages should a conflict escalate to higher, wider or more intense levels. This does not only have implications for the kind of hardware the Pentagon buys. Perhaps more importantly, it means that the Defense Department needs to develop and integrate capabilities, strategies and doctrines for effectively fighting limited wars. This won’t come easily. The Pentagon and much of the American policy community have become accustomed to the United States being able to wage wars in which it alone can set the parameters of conflict. A full generation after the collapse of the Soviet threat and after a period in which most U.S. military attention went towards “rogue” states and terrorist or insurgent groups, many in the U.S. military and the American defense-policy world have lost mastery of or even much familiarity with what it means to face a highly capable opponent able to seriously contest U.S. dominance of the battlespace. This must change—or else the nation’s deterrent power will be considerably weakened.
THE UNITED STATES must therefore ready itself to fight a limited war. Yet doing so would be no panacea. By its very nature, indeed, fighting a limited war would be an imperfect, uncertain, frustrating and perhaps extraordinarily painful endeavor. But America must prepare to do so—and do so well—if it is resolved to maintain the international order it has built and sustained in the face of increasingly powerful rivals with formidable conventional militaries and survivable nuclear forces. Refusing to prepare to fight a limited war well out of fear that escalation could not confidently be controlled would be to risk abandoning much of the world to those less scrupulous and bolder in their willingness to manipulate and bear risk. War is, after all, as Clausewitz observed, “the realm of uncertainty . . . of chance.” Refusing to prepare for limited war out of an inability to let go of the dominance America once enjoyed, on the other hand, would either court nuclear use by an opponent or risk Washington balking in the event its resolve was really tested. Few steps, then, would more persuasively demonstrate the durability and permanence of America’s commitment to continuing to play its traditional stabilizing primate role than readying itself to fight and prevail in a limited war against the likes of China and Russia.
Ultimately, the strategy of preparing for limited war reflects the wise adage that the perfect should not be allowed to be the enemy of the good. If dominance and hegemony represent perfection, then effective defense and vindication of one’s own important interests and those of one’s allies through the ability to fight limited wars well represent the good—and the latter should be an ample definition of success in an increasingly contested and perilous world. This latter criterion may not promise the ability to transform the globe through force of arms, for in limited war forswearing triumph is the price of tolerable victory. But it can promise stability, peace and space for free mores to demonstrate their superiority in an era when the nations pledged to them will no longer clearly enjoy the preponderant power they once did. For a nation predicated on the enduring appeal of liberty and the conviction that it will deepen and spread if stoutly defended, that should be a great deal.
Elbridge Colby is the Robert M. Gates Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.