While the U.S. military is ready for another Iraq War or Syria-like intervention, it is unprepared to fight a war against bigger challengers such as China or Russia, national security experts told House lawmakers last week.
The Pentagon needs to shift its focus away from the smaller regional conflicts it has specialized in to fight terrorism, the experts said, and refocus itself, and U.S. allies, on these potential future wars with larger adversaries.
“We do need to rebalance our forces, but it’s not actually [a shift] from terrorism to great-power conflict. It’s really this middle kind of space, this expeditionary warfare that the military has been focused on. It hasn’t really been terrorism, it’s been basically re-fighting the Iraq war,” said Paul Scharre, director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the future of U.S. warfare.
“So if we need to go overseas and fight a smaller, middle power, where we can have ready access to a nearby land base, or we can bring our aircraft carriers up close, we are well-positioned to do that,” Scharre added. “If we had to fight from a distance, where we don’t have [land] access against a great power, we don’t have the ability to do that.”
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Scharre and other voices from the national security community expressed concern that the U.S. has fallen behind Russia and China in key forward-looking areas of military preparedness.
“The U.S. has fallen behind Russia in investments in long-range precision strike, integrated air defenses, and electronic warfare,” said Scharre.
When the chairman of the committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, asked the other two speakers testifying if they agreed with Scharre’s assessment that the U.S. wasn’t prepared to face its biggest threats, both agreed.
“We have honed our war-fighting enterprise around fighting smaller, regional contingencies,” said Jim Thomas, principal and co-founder of the Telemus Group, a defense forecasting and analytical consulting firm. “Our expeditionary warfare approach is tailor-made for going up against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but it would require a tremendous amount of adaptation to face Russia or China.”
Putting down the mirror
Tom Mahnken, president and chief executive officer at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the military has rested on its laurels for far too long. It’s time to think about how to face a strong nation-state again, he said.
“We’ve taken essentially a quarter-century hiatus from thinking about preparing for these types of contingencies. … We need to re-acculturate to a very different type of situation than we’ve faced in the last 17 years,” he said.
As for what role alliances should play in the future, Thomas said the military needs to use allies for different purposes than it has in recent years.
“I think this is really hard for the United States because in the past we’ve asked our allies to be little Mini-Me’s,” said Thomas. “What we’re talking about now I think is a radical differentiation, where in fact we want our allies to look — in some ways — a lot like our adversaries.”
U.S. allies, he added, should have their own ability to deny a big adversary access to certain areas or facilities so that they can help fend off power projection ambitions.
Budgetary uncertainties in Congress make advance planning harder, the experts agreed.
Mahnken said the U.S. military is the institution most harmed by stop-and-go funding from continuing resolutions, citing the example of bomber or submarine programs. Programs that are ramping up, when they need to be hiring more people as they get ready to move toward production, could be damaged if their funding is frozen at the level of the previous fiscal year.
Scharre made clear that military challenges are caused more by the uncertainty created by constant continuing resolutions than by budget shortfalls.
“It is not for lack of money,” he said. “With sufficient reforms, there’s ample money within a $600 billion defense budget.”
However, Thomas said the challenges facing the U.S. military are not unique, and pointed out that they may be even greater for its adversaries.
One reason is the geopolitical landscape — the United States is lucky to have Canada and Mexico as its neighbors, he said. Russia and China aren’t as fortunate.
A second, Thomas pointed out, is the sheer size of countries such as Russia and China.
“If you’re Russia, you’ve got to govern and you’ve got to maintain security across 11 time zones,” he said. “If you think we have problems with thinking about concurrency and can we fight two nearly simultaneous wars — what does that look like from Russia’s perspective, or China’s for that matter?”