Building a Force to Fail

March 2, 2016

There is mounting fear among Pentagon leaders that the United States will soon lose its distinct military advantage over increasingly capable competitors such as China and Russia. Unfortunately, the measures necessary to safeguard against such sophisticated adversaries come at the expense of a versatile, forward-positioned military with the capacity to rapidly respond to a diverse range of security challenges. The claim is that budgetary realities force severe strategic trade-offs — either prepare a deterrent force for a possible, high-risk future war or maintain capacity to handle a wider range of lower-risk conflicts. Yet, making this false choice is a sure recipe for failure. Our fears of the next “big one” may result in the United States losing the contests in which it is already engaged.

The most recent defense budget proposal continues the perilous trend of disproportionately investing in technologically advanced, high-cost, and high-end strategic systems such as the Ohio-class replacement nuclear submarine, the Ford-class aircraft carrier and the Long-Range Strike Bomber. These new systems are specifically designed to counter the growing high-end military capabilities of China and Russia. The same budget proposal calls for cutting planned purchases of surface ships, reducing the end-strength of U.S. ground forces, and bringing more units home from forward stations abroad. Strategic flexibility and presence are traded for limited high-end capability. The belief is that investing in these high-cost systems will simultaneously deter conflict escalation and enable U.S. victory in the event of full-scale combat.

But, the reality is, the United States is already involved in protracted contests with several strategic competitors. And, while one or more of these contests could eventually escalate to the hostilities of open war, our enemies are achieving their objectives long before the boundary of actual combat is crossed. Our discerning adversaries fear the strengths of America’s technologically advanced force. They make strategic calculations about when and under what conditions the United States may employ its military to deny their objectives. By purposely operating below our strategic threshold, enemies avoid the strengths of our military force by ensuring it is never employed. In essence, they keep America’s greatest war-fighting capabilities off the battlefield by never establishing a true battlefield in the first place.

That is why it is critical U.S. leaders rethink their disproportionate investment in high-cost, high-end solutions that trade away our ability to respond to lower-level challenges. Current postures that favor large-scale conflict — reduced forward presence, limited lower-end and versatile assets, and a lack of strategically mobile forces — leave the U.S. military on the sidelines of the protracted conflicts we are already fighting. The United States will struggle to effectively respond to provocations such as the creation of islands in the disputed regions of the South China Sea and incursions by “little green men’” into territories on Europe’s doorstep.

A reduced naval force can muster only an occasional freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea to register a post-facto complaint against a new reality. It is similarly ineffectual against the placement of anti-access missile batteries in disputed waters. A U.S. force postured in the continental homeland is ill-positioned to respond to a partner’s call for assistance against provocations by an invading force of non-uniformed fighters. Further, limited strategic mobility assets will keep even a robust force from deterring our adversaries. Presence, positioning, and responsiveness all matter for effective deterrence. Being out of theater and slow to respond is hardly threatening to adversaries who operate on a faster timeline.

The United States needs to better invest in a diverse range of dynamic forces and assets to effectively counter adversary challenges along the full spectrum of conflict, particularly in those contests that may occur below our conventional strategic thresholds. Without flexible and forward-deployed U.S. forces to oppose our increasingly capable competitors, America’s adversaries will continue to reshape conditions to their advantage without raising the ire of the feared and technologically advanced U.S. military. The United States must not fall prey to the dangerous choice of posturing for high-end war while overlooking the real challenges we face today. As we contemplate the future design of the U.S. military, we must not build a force to fail.


Peter McAleer is the Marine Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Marine Corps. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: John Whalen, U.S. Navy

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