Those close to Russian president Vladimir Putin may say that Russia is at war with NATO, but Putin would never dare attack a U.S. treaty ally. Unfortunately, unlike those allies, partner states like Taiwan, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are at much greater risk of aggression because it is unclear if the American people will support a direct intervention on their behalf. If a peer competitor attacks a non-treaty partner, the United States will likely find itself acting in a similar role to the Ukraine conflict: supporting a partner but not directly at war on its behalf.
Rather than resist these constraints, the United States should plan for them. Although Russia has had designs on Ukrainian territory since 2014, the United States and its NATO allies did little to prepare a response to further Russian aggression. The United States and NATO have provided vast sums of armaments, ammunition, and aid, but in a piecemeal incremental fashion.
What has happened in Ukraine will happen again. The United States will not always have the domestic political will to intervene on behalf of non-treaty partners. Even states like Taiwan, which the United States has a moral but non-legal obligation to defend, may find themselves fighting alone. Instead of hoping that domestic politics allow for a direct intervention similar to Operation Desert Storm, the United States must proactively plan to support its partners before, during, and after hostilities so they can deter adversaries or triumph in combat without active U.S. participation.
By supplying our partners with logistics, financial support, select technologies, and weapon systems, and utilizing the mobility of the joint force, the United States can deter and defeat foreign aggression while avoiding the costs of a direct conflict.
Political Will and Direct Intervention
Unlike the Soviet Union, which threatened European sovereignty, Americans realize that China and Russia pose a long-term threat to U.S. control of the international order but not to the security of themselves or their allies. Countries lacking mutual defense treaties with the United States cannot rely on it to risk direct conflict on their behalf. Popular opinion may forbid it or the political considerations of the party in power may preclude it.
Americans have never sustained strong support for an expeditionary war in which they were not the victims of aggression. Enthusiasm for fighting in Iraq and Vietnam quickly faded as the spurious nature of their respective casus belli came to light. Unless an adversary attacks American forces or interests directly, the United States may not respond with force. Any war plan that assumes a direct intervention by the United States on behalf of a non-treaty partner is specious at best.
Equally importantly, Russia and China will always possess a greater interest in the outcome of conflicts with states on their periphery than the United States. Preventing Ukraine from joining NATO satisfies a vital Russian national interest but, at best, Russia’s actions against Ukraine only indirectly threaten U.S. interests. Similar assessments apply to Taiwan, Moldova, and Georgia.
Planning to Enable
If the United States does not possess the same interest as its adversaries in the outcome of a conflict, it will not invest as much blood and treasure to prevail. For the United States to succeed, partners must bear the majority of defense costs.
However, proactively planning and preparing to support another country during a conflict is rarely done. In most circumstances, foreign governments only consider providing conventional support after partners have achieved battlefield success, like the American colonists at Saratoga or the Ukrainians at Kyiv. Furthermore, it is often hard to predict where, when, and how opportunities to support partners against adversaries will arise. However, scenarios such as a Chinese attack against Taiwan or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are easy to forecast. In these situations, the United States and any interested allies should analyze partner needs and use this information to prepare a support plan for them well before the fighting begins.
War Plans for Support
Assume that the United States has a partnership with an island country threatened by a strategic competitor. How could the U.S. government plan to support that partner against aggression? What weapon systems would the country need to deter its adversary? What imports, business relationships, and trade relationships do the partner’s economy rely on? What material or skill shortages are likely to arise during the conflict? What vital goods and services does the United States import from that partner? Does the United States need to stand up additional production lines for critical equipment or munitions to continue the flow of defense articles before or during combat?
How long can the partner’s currency stay stable before government intervention and how will the United States and its allies act to shore it up? Can the United States share information and intelligence with its partner during the conflict while garnering international support in its favor? What agreements must the director of national intelligence and partner intelligence agencies make in advance? How will the United States maintain communications with the island if networks are jammed or send supplies if there is a naval blockade?
These are the kinds of questions that planners will need to answer to support non-treaty partners. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States should have already sourced military equipment to provide to Ukrainian forces and planned for transporting and training Ukrainians on their use. After the breakout of hostilities, the Department of Defense should have invoked pre-negotiated contracts to increase the production of critical war stocks like javelins, stingers, artillery munitions, and fires platforms that are now in short supply.
Instead, after eight months of conflict, the United States and its allies are just beginning to seriously discuss increasing the production of war stocks to support Ukraine. That is far too late; weakened defense industrial bases could leave Ukraine short of munitions and materials at a critical point during the war. Better analysis prior to the conflict would have revealed these deficits and allowed for them to be corrected. The United States and NATO can throw all the money they want at buying munitions and weapon systems but industry partners will still need at least six months to restart closed production lines. Establishing new production lines will take even longer.
Planning must go beyond military materials. The United States and NATO should have prearranged troop movements in response to Russian aggression, drafted economic and humanitarian assistance plans, and prepared for material and resource shortages likely to occur during a Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
Combatant commands are the natural hubs for this kind of preparation since they contain large numbers of regionally focused logistics personnel and are responsible for generating war plans. Unfortunately, no entity short of the National Security Council has sufficient interagency personnel to carry out this task. A broad range of federal agencies would need to embed employees inside combatant commands as planners, not mere liaisons, for this approach to work.
Practicing this kind of planning would pay dividends across a range of contingencies and reduce friction in the U.S. response. If the United States failed to foresee aggression against a partner nation, it could make use of policies, agreements, forces, and resources aligned against a similar scenario. As President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “plans are useless, planning is indispensable.”
None of this relieves the U.S. military of the task of maintaining readiness to wage war directly on behalf of the national interest. Situations may arise that require rapid intervention against Russia or China but they are unlikely given the current balance of power.
Further aggression against U.S. non-treaty partners, however, is much more likely. The United States and its allies should prioritize planning and allocating resources for these scenarios. For relatively small investments in interagency planning, technology and weapons transfers, enlarged war stocks, and pre-negotiated production agreements with foreign governments and industry, the United States can make its non-treaty partners significantly harder targets.
Instead of exerting effort to penetrate an adversary’s anti-access and area denial bubble, the United States should help partners establish bubbles of their own and prepare to provide them with the logistical, economic, and financial support they need to sustain the fight. U.S. planners cannot guarantee that political will allow for a direct U.S. intervention but they can prepare to support partners at risk of attack. As the United States learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, those with the most to lose must willingly bear the burden or victory will prove elusive.
Jules “Jay” Hurst is an Army Strategist. He currently serves as an Army Congressional Fellow and has deployed to Afghanistan four times as a Senior Intelligence Officer in a Joint Special Operations Task Force. He holds a master’s degree from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.