U.S. defense planners hope that the Pentagon’s “Third Offset” will deter nations like China and Russia from risking war with the United States by expanding our narrowing technological lead. Superficially, the United States’ pursuit of a decisive technological advantage sends a signal to the world: America will remain ready to deter aggression abroad, now and in the future. Unfortunately, the weakness of the U.S. fiscal situation, loss of national manufacturing capacity and vulnerable global supply chains make this advantage hard to achieve and difficult to maintain during a conflict. Even worse, China and Russia may see the United States’ pursuit of a decisive technological advantage and acquisition of smaller numbers of expensive weapon systems as evidence of U.S. willingness and ability to fight a short, clean war—but not a long one.
A Different Kind of War Than Desert Storm
Many defense professionals cite Desert Storm as an example of a victory won by technology, but technological superiority had less to do with victory than the weakness of the Iraqi military. When coalition forces crossed into Iraq in 1991, they invaded a country with a GDP of $50 billion (2016 dollars), an economy roughly the size of Montana. The Iraqi paper tiger fielded a poorly trained and unmotivated army, outclassed in every aspect by the U.S.-led coalition.
A U.S. expeditionary war against China or Russia would present many difficulties absent in the 1991 Gulf War, and would result in much higher casualty rates. For one, U.S. forces would be unable to build combat power in the region unmolested. After Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the United States and its allies spent six months forming a million-man force on Iraq’s border. Outside of the threat of SCUD-launched chemical missiles, Saddam lacked the naval, air or asymmetric abilities to disrupt the growing U.S. presence in the region. Both China and Russia have invested heavily in strategies and systems that aim to deny U.S. forces close assembly areas. Naval and air forces moving into the Baltic or South China Seas could find themselves assailed by dozens of long-range antiship ballistic missiles, manned and unmanned submarines, mobile air defenses, and cruise missiles. Ground forces staged in the region would be subject to a full range of threats, from commando raids to strategic bombardment. U.S. military leaders would need to prepare to deal with setbacks rivaling the 1941 Pacific theater in World War II, and would fight a costly air and naval campaign to gain full access to the battlespace.
Once there, U.S. efforts to decisively win the conflict could be frustrated by Russia and China’s land mass, respectively the first and fourth largest on earth, and their large nationalist populations. U.S. forces could successfully stop a conventional war in Iraq by occupying it and terminating its means to regenerate its forces. Occupying Russia or China would be exponentially more difficult and costly. Like World War II–era Japan, China and Russia could lose a naval and air war, but refuse to concede defeat, forcing the U.S. to choose between costly escalation or acceptance of an underwhelming peace.
Aside from geographic disadvantages, China and, to a much lesser extent, Russia possess the purchasing power to field comparable forces to the United States. China’s economy may be equal in size to the United States’ by 2021, meaning that the United States could face an opponent with equal or greater economic strength for the first time since the War of 1812. Economic parity could allow China to pace or exceed U.S. technological gains and successful espionage programs could lower their development costs. The United States could face a peer competitor for the first time since World War II, the costliest conflict in U.S. history.
Mass Mobilization and U.S. Fiscal Weakness
A conventional conflict with Russia or China would likely follow the pattern of past U.S. contests against comparable forces, far exceeding the estimated $1.6 trillion spent on Afghanistan and Iraq. Unfortunately, the United States currently is in a poorer financial position than at any time preceding a modern conflict.
During World War II, the U.S. government borrowed over 70 percent of its GDP and raised federal income taxes to build the 276,000 planes, nearly seven thousand ships and hundreds of thousands of other vehicles that enabled the allies to triumph. During the past seven years, U.S. debt has grown to World War II levels and the United States borrows more than its entire defense budget to meet its obligations. The United States has already heavily leveraged its credit networks.
War has become more expensive as well. In 1944, you could buy over 150 P-51 Mustang fighters (2015 dollars) for the price of a fifth-generation aircraft and nearly eighteen M4 Sherman tanks for the price of one M1 Abrams (2016 dollars). At half of the peak World War II spending rate (18.75 percent of GDP per year), U.S. conflict with Russia or China could cost U.S. taxpayers $3–5 trillion a year, dependent on future U.S. GDP. This additional debt would be financed by the American people, 40 percent of whom carry an average of $15,000 in credit-card debt, and who care little about defending the Baltic NATO members or islands in the South China Sea.
War with China or Russia might also drive interests rates on U.S. debt skyward. Currently, a ten-year treasury note pays less than 2 percent interest, a near record low because of the world’s faith in the United States’ ability to pay its debts. Rapidly rising U.S. debt and war could shake this confidence by driving foreign creditors to seek safer markets and reducing demand for U.S. treasuries. The $223 billion in interest the United States paid last year could easily triple if interest rates rose to the levels of the 1990s, still far short of an all-time high. Even a victorious United States could find itself in a dire financial situation similar to overleveraged European powers after World War I.
The Decline in Manufacturing and Effect of Global Supply Lines
If the United States could afford a large war, it might still have difficulty manufacturing the goods and extracting the raw materials it needs to sustain it. Increasingly, many weapon systems, including the F-35, contain foreign subcomponents and raw materials. Chinese companies supply many of these. Individuals like Brig. Gen. John Adams (retired) have repeatedly pointed out that producing large portions of Department of Defense materials abroad makes the United States susceptible to supply interdictions and industrial espionage, especially in time of war.
The United States, formerly the world’s largest manufacturer, has ceded the title to China, a considerable advantage in a protracted conflict. Cross-ocean logistical burdens are immense. Each infantryman in the Pacific Theater during WWII required forty-five pounds of equipment a day, and even in the Korean War, the U.S. Air Force lost nearly 1,500 planes. U.S. manufacturing could struggle to out produce opponents like China during a conflict, a first for a modern American war. If combat losses exceed production, U.S. technological advantages could erode over time.
Technological advantage remains a key component of military deterrence, but it’s not a silver bullet. Systems from the “second offset” only yielded strategic advantages to the United States because they were supported by an economy almost twice as productive as the Soviet Union’s, an economy that allowed the United States to invest drastically more in research and development over a two-decade period and fiscally permitted an extended war.
China and Russia are not Iraq. Defeating either would require a unified national effort with support from regional partners. Both have cleverly created anti-access and area denial strategies designed to inflict maximum casualties on encroaching U.S. forces. They know that by building comparable forces, numerically and qualitatively, they can force the United States to risk a costly, protracted conflict over territory most of the U.S. populace can’t find on a map. They also know that the United States lacks the financial strength to support a long conflict without sustaining severe economic damage or bringing its population heavily into the war effort. The United States has never fought a major war without mass mobilization, and it’s unreasonable to expect it to now.
To deter foreign aggression, the United States must adopt a national strategy that reinvigorates its economy, enlarging its industrial base and curtailing entitlement growth, already two-thirds of government spending in 2013. For its small part, the Department of Defense should advocate for further force and benefit reductions, combined with requests to narrow overseas obligations to fewer strategic areas. These savings should be used to invest heavily in the exploration of new manufacturing technologies, like 3-D printing, and equipment designs that take advantage of them. The United States needs the ability to quickly and cheaply produce weapon systems (and less exciting equipment) that approach expensive capabilities showcased by the systems like the Independence Class-LCS, F-35, and Hellfire missile. Clever approaches to redesigns, like Raytheon’s upgrade of the M60 tank, should also be explored for the masses of aircraft, ships and vehicles in our aircraft boneyards and ghost fleets.