The Myth of American Military Dominance
It is now popular to talk about grand strategy. A variety of media outlets regularly publish articles about it. Think tank panels and papers frequently address it. People even talk about it on television. Loren DeJonge Schulman memorably said that it has become cool to talk about grand strategy at parties and happy hours over $8 PBR. As conversations about America’s strategic choices become more frequent, and hopefully start to have more of an impact, practitioners and academics alike need to begin to question the assumptions they make about the tools at America’s disposal.
One commonly made assumption is that the United States has for decades enjoyed conventional military dominance, the ability to defeat any other actor in a conventional fight. The assumption of historic military dominance, often understood as fact, is almost entirely unsupported by meaningful evidence. While the U.S. military is unquestionably powerful, dominance cannot be measured by defense spending or even training. Dominance can only be measured through performance, and the United States’ history does not support a narrative of conventional military dominance. Because American conventional military dominance is an assumption rather than a fact, strategists need to question its validity and its importance for policy and strategy. If the common narrative proves to be unsupported, it will change America’s strategic variables.
Military Dominance: A Bipartisan Position
Confidence in the U.S. military’s dominance has persisted for decades across a variety of fields, creating what Joseph Nye has referred to as the “golden glow of the past” in discussions of foreign policy. President Barack Obama, in a speech to U.S. Naval Academy graduates, promised to “maintain America’s military dominance and keep you the finest fighting force the world has even seen.” President George W. Bush announced in his 2002 National Security Strategy that “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” President Bill Clinton said in a 1994 speech, “Today our Armed Forces are clearly and without dispute the best trained, the best equipped, the best prepared, and the best motivated military on the face of the Earth.”
Similar declarations have come from foreign policy intellectuals. Writing for the Center for New American Security in June of 2019, Chris Dougherty noted that for “generations of Americans accustomed to U.S. military superiority,” the idea that the United States might be defeated in battle has become “preposterous.” Dan Drezner remarked in 2013 that the “U.S. military hegemony has been a concrete fact of life in world politics.”
Understandably, this discussion seems to have influenced how the American public sees its military as well. Gallup polling shows that over the past three decades a majority of Americans believed that the United States is the world’s preeminent military. Every one of the abovementioned experts and leaders spoke in good faith, but from a shared assumption about the character of global military power. This belief, founded in an underexamined narrative, is worthy of further scrutiny.
The False Narrative of Military Dominance
Most Americans learn a history of U.S. military dominance. Narratives of triumph in two world wars, a one-sided fight in the first Gulf War, and rapid invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan all support the belief that through most of the 20th century and no small amount of what we have seen thus far from the 21st, the United States has been the inevitable victor when its enemies are brave enough, or perhaps foolish enough, to meet it on the field of conventional warfare. On closer examination, however, history provides little obvious support for a narrative of American military dominance.
The United States played a valuable role in World War I and World War II, but was not the primary combatant in either conflict. Americans fought hard, sacrificed, and made a key difference in both wars, but did so as part of large alliances that included other powerful states, not as a military titan crushing its enemies. During the World War I, the U.S. military tipped the balance of power against Germany, but did not dominate, or have the military or industrial power to dominate the Western Front. Instead, the French, British, and Russian militaries each bore a heavier burden. World War II arguably made a much greater impression on the American narrative, whether measured through recent remembrance on the anniversary of D-Day or the number of Call of Duty games the war is featured in. However, the narrative of American efforts during the “good war” often leaves out the efforts of other nations. During World War II, the United States played a major role in North Africa, Italy, France, and the Pacific, but the Soviet Union destroyed the largest portion of the Nazi military and defeated the Army of Manchuria, Japan’s strongest ground force.
The 1950s through the 1970s are less commonly portrayed as a period of military dominance, but still affect how Americans see their military. The Korean War is rarely mentioned. When it is, stories of Chinese human-wave tactics control the narrative rather than depictions of a stalemate against an adversary with occasional small numerical advantages at the theater level. The United States’ struggle to accomplish its objectives in Vietnam is typically described as a dark point in an otherwise bright history. Instead of a reminder of the limits of American military power, Vietnam is often part of a parallel narrative about the hazards and frustrations of fighting unconventional forces. Instead of challenging American conventional dominance, that narrative is used as a demonstration that the American military has so much conventional power that its enemies may choose to avoid it on the field and fight as insurgents.
Defense planners during the 1970s believed that even the combination of America’s powerful nuclear arsenal and conventional military power was unprepared to face increasingly capable Soviet forces. The planners believed Soviet armor could quickly penetrate NATO lines and destroy its tactical nuclear weapons, “and prevent NATO from mounting a nuclear defense entirely.” The resulting technological, doctrinal, and operational reforms, labeled the second offset, created the military that fought in the first Gulf War.
The first Gulf War mostly reversed whatever doubts the Korean and Vietnam Wars created. The United States and its allies outperformed expectations in Kuwait and Iraq. Instead of taking the projected 10-20,000 casualties, the United States and its allies steamrolled the Iraqi military. At the time, the victory seemed to prove both the value of post-Vietnam reforms and emerging information technology capabilities. President George H.W. Bush captured the spirit of the hour when he announced the United States had finally beaten Vietnam.
Unfortunately, the first Gulf War was not a strong indicator of American military power compared to other major powers. The conflict was heavily balanced towards the United States and its allies. The Iraqi military fought mostly in open terrain where the American military could use its technology far more effectively than in cities or forests. The United States led a massive coalition against a much smaller Iraqi military, which was in relatively poor shape from a long war with Iran that had exhausted their military rather than forging a battle-hardened force. Saddam’s purges of his officer corps also degraded his army’s effectiveness. On top of these issues, the Iraqi military was not committed to defending their occupation of Kuwait, an action some Iraqi soldiers found immoral. With all of those factors weighed, it would have been surprising if the United States and its allies had not quickly driven the Iraqis from Kuwait. However, military and political leaders often portray the conflict as an indicator of a revolution in military affairs and a new era of American military dominance.
The same factors were in play during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003. While both campaigns were impressive victories in many ways, they were fought against small, poor states, and are better indicators of the fate of small, poor states that fight against large, wealthy states than indicators of American military prowess.
The United States has not fought many well-trained or well-resourced militaries since the end of World War II. The United States has fought against North Korea, China, North Vietnam, Libya, Iran, Panama, Iraq, groups in the Balkans, the Taliban, the Islamic State, and many insurgent groups. The only well-trained enemies were the Vietnamese, North Koreans, and arguably the Iraqis. During these conflicts, the United States has performed well against much weaker forces, but has a mixed record against even moderately strong adversaries.
In Search of Evidence of American Military Dominance
There are other arguments one can use to claim the United States can dominate adversaries in conventional military conflict. The first and most often referenced reason Americans are confident in their military is defense spending. The United States spent $596 billion on defense annually in 2016, $19 billion more than the $567 billion spent by the seven next most prolific countries. Few people, when asked directly, would argue that better funding ensures military victory. Despite this, the American military’s budget still serves as a source of reassurance to both policymakers and the American people, who somewhat justifiably assume that higher defense spending leads to more effective military forces.
Unfortunately, defense spending does not directly correlate with military effectiveness. Stephen Biddle notes that tactical proficiency is significantly more important than, and not directly related to, defense spending. Operational and strategic proficiency are even more important than tactical proficiency, and even less directly correlated to defense spending. It is also difficult to compare American military spending to other states, as the United States spends a disproportionate amount on personnel costs.
Another, and perhaps better-founded, reason for American confidence is the military’s tough, realistic training. Most of the United States’ potential adversaries do not have training centers and exercises that are as rigorous as the combat training centers, Red Flag, or several of the United States’ large-scale naval exercises. Units depart combat training center rotations more confident and prepared for deployments than when they arrived. Post-Gulf War studies say, “The results of this research, and other research as well, indicate that the realism and intensity of [combat training center] training appears to have prepared soldiers well for the ‘real thing.’” Despite their benefits, even demanding exercises are not a sure recipe for success. To take advantage of the benefits of training, militaries have to predict what combat will look like in the future — a notoriously difficult and unreliable task. Training value can only be truly measured by combat effectiveness, and combat effectiveness in future battles can’t be measured ahead of time.
This is not to say the U.S. military isn’t powerful. Large, well-equipped forces with the ability to project force globally provide a type of power that few states can rival. History, however, provides no evidence that American military power translates into genuine dominance of adversaries, leaving the comparison of conventional military power uncertain. It would be an exaggeration to say that Americans tend to enter wars as part of massive coalitions fighting against weak or exhausted enemies, then remember themselves as world champions of warfare. But it might not be as much of an exaggeration as most Americans would like to admit.
The Effect of Overconfidence
The above arguments do not lead to the conclusion that the United States is weak. Likewise, they do not mean the United States is unprepared for the next war. Military strength is relative, and America’s likely adversaries are no more invincible juggernauts than the United States. Similarly, they do not reduce the substantial skill, sacrifice, and professionalism shown by the American military. Instead, an examination of history shows that Americans should acknowledge that the United States has entered conflicts with its ability to defeat its enemy uncertain, and will do so again. This should cause policymakers to ask three questions as they consider future policies:
Is the concept of military dominance still meaningful in the nuclear age?
In some ways, military dominance is still a valuable concept in the nuclear age. The United States and other countries have and will continue to fight nonnuclear states in limited wars. Within this context, dominance is still a meaningful, if somewhat unrealistic, concept. In other ways, nuclear weapons grossly undermine the concept of military dominance. If the United States cannot guarantee even military victory against adversaries that might use nuclear weapons against American forces and cities, then it cannot claim dominance.
If potential adversaries do not believe in American military superiority, what are the likely results of the United States acting as though it can win any conventional fight?
Much of American foreign policy during and since the Cold War has been based on concepts related to deterrence and coercion. While the Obama administration moved away from basing its policy on credibility, the idea still influences American foreign policy. If the U.S. military has less credibility in foreign capitals than Washington believes, its policies may have foundations built upon sand.
If the United States fails to intimidate adversaries with the threat of conventional force, is its population willing to commit the time, money, and lives needed to engage a near-peer or peer adversary?
The United States has an unquestionably powerful military. There is a vast gap, however, between powerful and dominant. As discussions of dominance, loss of dominance, and grand strategy increase, it is essential that we consider on which side of this gap the United States has historically fallen. The military’s budget and training cannot guarantee dominance, and American history does not provide any evidence that it ever existed. If policymakers and the American people want to conduct foreign policy with an accurate assessment of the risks they take, they need to question the assumptions and reasoning that led to their estimation of the United States’ abilities.
Grand strategy questions how the United States will use its economic, diplomatic, and military tools to protect the national interest in the coming century. If those conversations are to be of value, we must question not just the future of American military dominance, but its past as well.
Justin Lynch is a member of the Army National Guard and of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and wrote this article as a participant in DEF Gutenberg. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone, and do not represent those of any organization with which he is associated.
Image: U.S. Army, Photo courtesy of Sgt. Brendan Seiber