Military Superiority: More Than Meets the Eye


Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Policy Roundtable: The Pursuit of Military Superiority,” from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

Like the American Express commercials of yore, debates over U.S. military superiority too often render the same unhelpful assessment: It’s priceless. Even if true, such a claim invariably squelches dialogue, particularly the voices of anyone who might advocate shifting resources away from defense or reallocating funds within the defense budget. One should therefore be wary of putting the concept of superiority on so high a pedestal as to render real debate meaningless. Fortunately, the contributors to this roundtable manage to avoid making that mistake, raising a number of problems with public discussions about military superiority.

Arguments about military superiority absent a specific threat are worth little, as Evan Montgomery of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments emphasizes. Montgomery notes that superiority is increasingly complicated to define, given the plethora of bad actors the U.S. military confronts in world affairs, the varied domains in which confrontation occurs, and the potentially short-lived nature of military advantages. The recently released National Defense Strategy is blunter and pithier than its predecessors in tackling this issue head-on. In one brief paragraph, it explains that the U.S. military must focus on five major challenges that cut across the spectrum of conflict: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and terrorism. Similarly, the National Intelligence Council has warned about the increasing risk of interstate conflict. As I have argued previously, while “countering China and Russia is the preeminent theme of the NDS, the strategy subtly conveys that these two challengers are different, with China appearing to be the first among equals.”

Even a cursory examination of recent U.S. history raises questions about what military superiority should look like, given that the U.S. military’s last victory in conflict was against a third-rate power in a quick fight with extremely limited aims. The 1991 Persian Gulf War is frequently trotted out in the defense community as the example to emulate, yet it may offer less guidance for future state-on-state conflict than one might hope. The U.S. military at that time had been built to counter an advanced threat — the Soviet military — and those capabilities proved useful against the less-sophisticated Iraqi military. The fight against terrorists and insurgents since 9/11 has created the opposite situation: It has optimized the U.S. military for fighting low-end threats from violent non-state actors, which makes the U.S. military ill-prepared to face China and Russia. Worse, U.S. military superiority — for the present, at least — has pushed opponents like China and Russia to exploit vacuums and uncertainties in the so-called “gray zone” in recent years.

Paul Macdonald of Wellesley College shares Montgomery’s view that the merits of military superiority have to be considered within a specified context. Yet while Montgomery benchmarks the value of military advantages relative to the adversaries in question, Macdonald does so against the higher order concept of grand strategy. The merits of military superiority depend on how policymakers make use of it to achieve the nation’s highest ends, which is best evaluated in the context of specific models of grand strategy. The problem, Macdonald argues, is that grand strategy scholars fundamentally distort the ability to evaluate military superiority accurately in several ways: by overemphasizing the U.S. role in global affairs, focusing on states rather than on other power constructs, obsessing over events that bleed into one another, and judging the utility of allies and partners ideologically rather than analytically. These shortcomings of the grand strategy literature give reason for skepticism of polemical claims about the merits of military superiority, whether its centrality or its uselessness. Macdonald is right to urge greater analytical modesty when it comes to “trends in U.S. relative military and economic power.”

But the question of how and when military superiority makes sense is moot if it can’t be funded. The U.S. defense community is famous for its delusions of budgetary grandeur. The case for investing in the U.S. military is obvious to those who spend their days viewing Chinese and Russian military modernization with a wary eye. Yet, it is not clear if those cases resonate with an American public whose knowledge of, interest in, and sacrifice for conflicts abroad over the last 17 years have been superficial at best.

Rosella Cappella Zielinski and Kaija Schilde, both of Boston University, warn readers about a downturn in the defense budget and make the counterintuitive argument that reduced defense spending can actually sustain U.S. military superiority if driven by strategic need rather than politics. Drawing on a number of historic examples during and after the Cold War, they expect that blunt cuts to defense spending are all but inevitable given the “increasingly diverse threat environment.”

Zielinski and Schilde argue that how budget cuts affect military superiority comes down to who does the cutting. They imply, though do not explicitly say, that congressional efforts to reduce or redirect investments are often based on parochial political interests, whereas military-driven reductions are more likely to be informed by strategy. For the Department of Defense, the budget is like an art gallery or a tasting menu at a fancy restaurant: each piece or dish arranged (and justified) logically and thoughtfully (but please do ignore the hideous painting in the corner or the dirty glasses and plates). But to Congress, the budget instead resembles the carts at a rowdy dim sum restaurant on Sunday afternoon: brimming with options and opportunities, but lacking vision — why are the sesame doughnuts arranged next to the shrimp dumplings?

Yet there is more blame to go around than Zielinksi and Schilde imply, and that includes inside the Pentagon. The gap between the Trump administration’s bold and forward-leaning National Defense Strategy, released in January, and the bloated “everybody is a winner” Defense Department budget request for fiscal year 2019 is a reminder that parochial interests are prominent in the Pentagon too. Defense analyst Susanna Blume notes two examples of that gap: First, the Army is modernizing much too slowly to cope with global threats to U.S. interests. Second, the Navy is underinvested in readiness and high-end capabilities. Simply put, the current budget request “missed a rare opportunity to provide the future force with the capabilities it will need to execute” the National Defense Strategy’s focus on China and Russia. Empowering the Pentagon with determining defense spending in times of fiscal austerity just might produce an endless wish list of unfunded “requirements” rather than a lean but capable military.

The four contributors to this roundtable bring different, complementary, and nuanced voices to a debate about military superiority that tends toward the simplistic, when it takes place at all. Yet, beyond the defense budget itself, the contributors only briefly touch on what goes into building a superior military, including personnel training and readiness, civil-military relations and potential tradeoffs between civilian oversight and delegated authority, organizational structure, and, of course, other tools in the national security toolbox, including diplomacy. More than a few of these are currently in short supply or under real threat. Take, for example, the gutting of the State Department, which will only add to the Pentagon’s already long to-do list. As RAND analyst Paula Thornhill has observed, the expansion of modern conflict into a larger number of domains will also surely shift the fundamental contours of what makes a superior military — from who counts as a warfighter to what counts as a weapon.

Just before the Peloponnesian War started, Pericles warned: “I hope that none of you think that we shall be going to war for a trifle.” Athens had a superior military, but managed to squander it on a foe that was not worth the price. In looking to the future, one can only hope the U.S. military will not make the same mistake.


Mara Karlin is Associate Professor of the Practice of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development. 

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brittany Y. Auld