war on the rocks

Unpacking Overmatch: Three Crucial Questions About U.S. Military Superiority

July 6, 2018

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.

How much military power does the United States need for its national security? Should it amass as much as it can to address emerging challenges and meet longstanding commitments? Or is the pursuit of superiority unnecessary and unachievable? These questions lie at the heart of current debates over U.S. grand strategy, military strategy, and defense investments. And they are increasingly relevant now that the dominance the United States once enjoyed is in decline. The Trump administration’s National Security StrategyNational Defense Strategy, and Nuclear Posture Review all acknowledge that adversaries have narrowed Washington’s lead in some areas and developed countermeasures in others. These documents also express the United States’ determination to arrest this erosion of power and develop new advantages if possible, ensuring, as senior officials often put it, that no soldier, sailor, airman, or marine will ever find him or herself in a “fair fight.” But what will it take for the United States to recapture a large military lead over competitors, and how feasible is that goal? Three schools of thought answer these questions differently, based on the value they attach to U.S. military superiority and the barriers they identify to restoring it. Existing approaches overlook several unique challenges to gaining and maintaining superiority in the current security environment, however, and underemphasize a number of key factors that could determine whether the United States achieves the goal it has set for itself.

Overmatch, Overkill, or Overstretch?

For nearly three decades, U.S. military superiority has been a fact of international politics rather than an aspiration for policymakers. Washington entered the post-Cold War era in an incredibly powerful position and continued to spend more on defense than any other nation, sustain an unprecedented network of alliances, and field the world’s best trained, best equipped, and most experienced armed forces. Yet America’s competitors were not overawed by its military superiority, and did not abandon balancing because Washington’s advantages appeared insurmountable. Instead, competitors large and small worked to mitigate their capability gaps through a combination of military reform, emulation, and innovation — efforts that many observers overlooked or underplayed because they were focused on the global distribution of power rather than local distributions of power. It is increasingly apparent, however, that rivals do not need to match the United States’ unique ability to project force throughout the world if they want to challenge its grand strategy or chip away at unipolarity. They only need to pursue the much easier task of making it harder for Washington to project force into their regions — a goal they have already begun to achieve.

Because U.S. military superiority has come into doubt, it is also now up for debate. And as that debate unfolds, it is likely to be dominated by three schools of thought: overmatch, overkill, and overstretch. Although these approaches are often implicit in the current literature, can overlap in policy discussions, and sometimes blur the value of superiority with the viability of maintaining it, distinguishing between them is a useful way to highlight some of the benefits and drawbacks of trying to restore U.S. dominance.

The overmatch school holds that a significant margin of military advantage is critical for national security. For more than 70 years, U.S. grand strategy has been guided by three goals: preventing hostile nations from controlling key areas, protecting allies and partners from external threats, and promoting freedom of the commons. Consequently, the United States has adhered to a military strategy of denial, which, in the broadest terms, entails stopping adversaries from using force to achieve their objectives rather than relying on economic coercion and peripheral campaigns to punish an opponent after the fact or mobilizing over time and eventually rolling back any changes to the status quo ante. From this perspective, the erosion of superiority could encourage rivals to engage in revisionist behavior, either through probing actions or open aggression, and might cause allies and partners to doubt U.S. security guarantees. That, in turn, could enable conflicts to break out or spheres of influence to emerge. In sum, military superiority underpins U.S. grand strategy, U.S. grand strategy underpins regional security, and regional instability endangers U.S. interests. Regaining superiority, therefore, merits considerable effort and expense.

By contrast, the overkill school maintains that, although superiority confers some benefits, Washington can still make due with much less. To put this more sanguine view into context, proponents might note that although the United States’ role in the world has long rested on a foundation of military power, for many decades genuine military superiority was the exception rather than the rule. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States was left with a homeland that was largely unscathed, clear dominance on the seas and in the sky, and a monopoly on nuclear weapons. Then, at the end of the Cold War, the United States was in the rare position of watching its only peer competitor collapse just as its “offset” investments in conventional precision strike were coming to fruition. The decades between these bookends were filled with vulnerabilities, setbacks, and stalemates, however, and the United States still managed to contain the most powerful opponent it has ever faced. Today, despite experiencing relative decline, Washington has considerable advantages it can lean on. These include its allies and security partners, some of whom might take on a greater role in preserving regional stability as power projection becomes more difficult, as well as its dominant position in the global commons, which could allow Washington to blockade rivals from a safe distance in times of war rather than fight them up close. Therefore, the United States does not need to shoulder major financial burdens or make drastic changes to its armed forces in a quest for renewed dominance since it will quickly reach a point of diminishing marginal returns.

Lastly, the overstretch school cautions that military superiority is not only unnecessary but can also be self-defeating. The United States, according to this perspective, is insulated from geopolitical competition due to its remote location, remains safe from major attacks thanks to its nuclear deterrent, and can resort to buck-passing behavior to avoiding paying the price of containment when great power threats do emerge. Pursuing military superiority also has the potential to be ruinously expensive and extremely provocative. In the end, no margin of advantage will ever be adequate because rivals will always try to catch up, and no self-interested nation will ever view a U.S. arms buildup as purely defensive because it knows that intentions can change quickly. Moreover, should the United States manage to restore its superiority, the unintended consequences of unchecked dominance could end up harming its security. For instance, a large margin of advantage can be a barrier to innovation by encouraging officials to emphasize legacy capabilities and concepts that become increasingly outmoded over time. Even more important, without the structural pressure imposed by power parity or something close to it, Washington might be tempted once again to engage in costly interventions against comparatively minor threats that sap its strength and create opportunities for rivals to catch up.

Superiority Against Whom, in What, and for How Long?

Although the United States is unlikely to recreate the highpoint of its primacy, it does appear determined to recapture some of its lost advantages. Senior officials generally do not share the optimistic conclusion of the overkill perspective that decline is easily manageable, nor do they adopt the pessimistic outlook of the overstretch school that dominance has downsides. There are, of course, many barriers that stand in the way of regaining military advantages, from fiscal constraints and budgetary uncertainty to the demands of ongoing operations and the costs of any future conflicts. But even with greater resources and greater restraint, efforts to restore superiority will need to wrestle with three key questions.

First, against whom is the United States trying to achieve overmatch? During the Cold War, Washington was able to concentrate its efforts against a single threat, the Soviet Union, although that threat came in many forms. For much of the post-Cold War era, defense planning has been geared toward hostile regional powers, which, compared with the Soviet Union, posed less severe but broadly similar challenges. But the situation today is more complicated. China and Russia are each far more dangerous than any rival the United States has faced in nearly three decades. North Korea poses a unique set of dilemmas and its challenge to U.S. superiority cannot be taken for granted, even in an era of renewed great power competition. Add Iran into the mix and Washington is contending with the presence of increasingly capable revisionist powers in each key region along the Eurasian Rimland — a situation that it has rarely had to grapple with in the past. Finally, although the threat from violent extremist groups might decline, there is no indication it will go away. Collectively, the scope and scale of these challenges make the difficult task of achieving superiority that much harder and sharpen several tradeoffs at the heart of defense strategy and defense spending: between devoting resources to new capabilities or additional capacity, between tailoring investments toward specific adversaries and scenarios or developing options that have utility across many contingencies, and between maintaining forces in critical locations overseas or maximizing the flexibility to shift them between theaters.

Second, in what arena is the United States trying to achieve overmatch? Just as the number of serious rivals has multiplied, so too have the types of competitions that the United States is actively engaged in, as well as the domains in which conflicts might unfold. For instance, while U.S. superiority has given adversaries incentives to identify vulnerabilities in the American style of expeditionary warfare and develop the conventional military tools to exploit them, it has also given them reasons to respond in other ways. At one end of the spectrum, U.S. adversaries can operate in the so-called “gray zone,” where the use of non-military and paramilitary tools allows opponents to avoid attribution or shift the burden of escalation onto the United States and its allies. At the other end of the spectrum, opponents can place greater emphasis on nuclear forces, which radically increase the potential costs of any clash. Consequently, the United States is attempting to deter or manage threats across the spectrum of conflict, often at the same time and against the same rival. Meanwhile, conventional military competitions are becoming more complex as the increasing volume and vulnerability of information suggest that future wars will be fought — and could perhaps be won or lost — in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum. As the plane of competition between rivals expands into new and different areas, the demands of overmatch expand too.

Third, how long can the United States sustain overmatch if it succeeds? There is a growing consensus that emerging technologies like additive manufacturing, robotics, and artificial intelligence will have a major impact on the characteristics of power and the character of conflict, even if their specific impact remains speculative. Notably, some of the most important emerging technologies with potential military applications are being developed and advanced in the civilian commercial sector rather than by the U.S. government or U.S. defense industry, which opens the door to rapid diffusion through a variety of licit and illicit means. As a result, it could be more difficult for the United States to monopolize new technologies, assuming that it gains access to them before its adversaries do and leverages them in ways that enhance military effectiveness. It also means that any advantages it does achieve could be ephemeral.

The Softer Side of Military Superiority

Given these challenges, how can the United States make its pursuit of military superiority more successful? To start, it must set realistic expectations about what it can accomplish against the capable rivals that it faces. Washington is unlikely to enjoy a large margin of advantage over all its opponents and in all circumstances, especially because those opponents will often have the initiative, at least at the outset of a conflict, and will frequently be fighting closer to home, which can offer many benefits. Instead, superiority is likely, in most cases, to be limited geographically and temporally, and to certain domains or types of operations. It is therefore critical for the United States to more clearly assess which advantages will yield the greatest payoff against the most serious threats and in the most important scenarios, better understand which advantages are within reach given available resources and the countervailing efforts of rivals, and be ready to exploit these advantages for maximum effect before they expire.

In addition, the United States must focus on the non-material components of military power. Significant warfighting advantages are often gained through the combination of new weapons systems, concepts, and organizations. It is tempting to emphasize hardware alone, especially at a time when so many emerging technologies seem to have such great potential. But operational concepts are critical for innovation and adaptation: They influence how new technologies are integrated with one another, how they are combined with legacy platforms and existing styles of warfare, how they contribute to novel methods of employing and sustaining forces, and how they are repurposed when adversaries also acquire them. In short, concepts are critical to innovation and adaptation. Likewise, the appropriate organizational structures are required to fully exploit the benefits that new capabilities promise while managing the challenges they can introduce for decision-making, command and control, and execution.

Lastly, it is important to appreciate and emphasize the diplomatic adjuncts to military power, including both alliance management and adversary manipulation. For instance, one area where subscribers to the overmatch and overkill schools would agree is that allies are an enormous source of advantage for the United States, one that it will need to exploit even more as security competitions intensify. That could require new divisions of labor with partners to reflect changing threats, increased collaboration on technology development to pool human capital and material resources, and better combined planning mechanisms to manage crises and conflicts. U.S. policymakers need to be aware, however, that the structural constraints on managing alliances in an era of great power competition will only grow because some allies will have multiple patrons to choose from, giving them a degree of leverage that they have not had for decades. In addition to collaborating more closely with allies, Washington must look for ways to distract its opponents so they cannot single-mindedly concentrate their efforts on undermining its strategic objectives. Perhaps most important of all, in addition to worrying about rivals arming themselves more heavily, the United States should attempt to create or expand divisions between those rivals to ensure that they do not align with one another more closely.

Debates over the merits of U.S. military superiority are not new and are not going away. Although these debates will be shaped by deeply-held assumptions regarding the causes of U.S. security, that should not obscure the nuances of what superiority looks like in a contemporary context or overshadow the challenges of achieving it. In the end, the United States cannot treat superiority as a stand-in for strategy.


Evan Braden Montgomery is Senior Fellow and Director of Research and Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He is the author of numerous CSBA reports, most recently Reinforcing the Front Line: U.S. Defense Strategy and the Rise of China, as well as articles in Foreign AffairsInternational SecuritySecurity Studies, and the Journal of Strategic Studies. His book, In the Hegemon’s Shadow: Leading States and the Rise of Regional Powers, was published by Cornell University Press.

Image: U.S. Navy photo/Dylan M. Kinee