Defense Strategy for a Post-Trump World
In a recent piece warning about an emerging arms race in hypersonic missiles, The New York Times quoted Will Roper, the Air Force’s senior acquisition and technology official, saying that the United States needed to invest more in such advanced weapons “if we want to dominate this new domain of fast flight.” This kind of statement is emblematic of a defense establishment that thinks in terms of military superiority — a paradigm that requires the United States to be capable of overmatching anyone at any time.
Not long ago, I argued in an essay for the Texas National Security Review that military superiority is politically unsustainable. American progressives make somewhat different wagers and accept different risks than the defense establishment when it comes to national security, which includes rejecting the principle of military superiority that has guided U.S. force structure and defense strategy since the end of the Cold War. They instead seek no more than what I described as “military sufficiency.” That argument proved controversial. As Robert Farley commented (sympathetically) about the essay, “the term ‘sufficiency’ is laden with all manner of disputed meanings.”
Farley’s not wrong. For a generation, U.S. defense strategists have treated nothing less than military superiority — that is, the ability to overmatch plausible adversaries in large-scale conventional wars — as sufficient for force planning. And I should have foreseen that leaving even the smallest rhetorical space for conventional thinking would permit defenders of the status quo to evade calls for doing defense differently —What’s “sufficiency” anyway, am I right?
But the goal of military superiority is intellectually bankrupt. A strategy of forward balancing should instead be the basis for defense strategy and force structure.
Why Military Superiority Is a Problem
America’s offset strategies in the 1950s, 1970s, and today have been, and still are, attempts to secure military superiority over the nation’s most militarily advanced adversaries. Conceptually, this rejects an equilibrium of power with adversaries and instead tries to achieve a favorable imbalance of power.
But military superiority is no longer a sound basis for either war planning or determining defense budgets to man, train and equip the joint force — if it ever was. This is not only because the requirement of superiority over advanced adversaries is too expensive, or because it encourages the United States to make reckless foreign policy decisions, or because it robs the American people of domestic welfare spending, or even because it causes greater insecurity in the world. All that may be true, but the more strategic reason is that military superiority is not conceptually fit for purpose.
In an age of proliferating nuclear weapons and complex interdependence, all wars must be substantially limited. That’s not a new insight, but taken seriously it makes the concept of coercion — threat-making to deter or compel a target of something — central to all conceivable forms of battlefield victory against other states, especially those with nuclear weapons. And if success hinges on coercion, then the ability to out-attrite your enemy in a toe-to-toe slug match is irrelevant unless you believe such escalation dominance is how you coerce. But military superiority is neither necessary nor sufficient for coercion to work. History has repeatedly shown that possessing superior capabilities over an adversary has little, if anything, to do with the favorable resolution of crises and conflicts short of unrestricted war.
Forward Balancing: A Realistic Alternative Strategy
Rather than trying to escape the imperative of power-balancing, as it has for a generation, the Pentagon ought to embrace it. U.S. defense strategy should seek security not through overmatch or a pathological faith in the virtue of high technology but rather by maintaining regional balances of power and attending to underlying causes of insecurity.
This is different from “offshore balancing,” which seeks to minimize international commitments and U.S. forward presence whenever possible. Contra the presumptions of offshore balancers, timing and position matter a great deal in the ability to use or credibly threaten force. It is unrealistic to think one can maintain a regional balance of power without a meaningful presence in said region.
An Ounce of Prevention…
A forward-based balance of power strategy seeks to prevent undemocratic actors from exercising dominance of key regions by embedding and enmeshing American forces in regions of concern in ways that make the United States take on greater risks in exchange for greater solidarity with democratic allies and partners. It would differ from both military superiority and offshore balancing in several ways.
First, it would elevate to an art form the concept of preventive defense — military diplomacy, exchanges, multinational training, and capacity-building. Rather than viewing preventive defense as activities that the military does when it’s not fighting wars, it should be a central mission of the Department of Defense. If, as Bernard Brodie intoned in 1946, the main purpose of the military is to avert (rather than pyrrhicly win) wars, then U.S. operations that shape the international security environment should be a much greater priority.
Second, a forward balancing strategy would invest heavily in ally and partner militaries to partially substitute for and complement American capabilities. This is both more dramatic and more practical than it sounds. For instance, rather than the United States expending great cost and political capital to develop and eventually deploy ground-based, intermediate-range missiles in Asia to counter China, it could instead facilitate trusted Asian allies developing them. In Europe, rather than being the forever guarantor of NATO, it could be more sensible to facilitate the latent ambitions of a European Defense Union in the long run. Rather than having the Air Force invest in more than 100 B-21 bombers at the price of more than $500 million each, the United States might instead explore whether friends already looking at conventional long-range bomber capabilities might absorb some of that capacity — assuming it’s needed at all. These kinds of changes would, in turn, create greater need for not just joint (inter-service) doctrine and force structure decisions but combined (multinational) doctrine and force structure decisions.
As radical as that may seem, it would reform America’s most crucial alliance relationships in a much healthier direction — from paternalistic patron-client structures to something more mutual and egalitarian. In conventional thinking, relying more on allies and partners to offset some U.S. warfighting capabilities involves risk — specifically it could hinder America’s ability to unilaterally project large amounts of force around the world.
But that’s a risk worth taking. The world is becoming more multipolar whether Washington likes it or not. Enmeshing U.S. power so that it becomes harder to wage unilateral wars of choice — because U.S. friends would possess some of the capabilities and capacity needed to fight — might actually prevent future strategic blunders. And given the issues in dispute, America’s friends would have a greater stake in the outcome of any war worth fighting than the United States itself, particularly in Asia — the region where a forward balancing strategy is most salient. From Vietnam to Iraq, there is no victory where there is no collective will.
Taking Statecraft Seriously
Third, forward balancing, despite being a defense strategy per se, cannot work without astute statecraft. The phrase “whole of government” is usually a dismissive way of referencing things not germane to security strategy, but it is the political, economic, and institutional forms of statecraft that offset the risks accepted with changes in force structure. In the Trump era, we have seen the U.S. and Chinese economies drift toward decoupling. The United States has failed to take seriously Asia’s regional institutions. And time after time, the Trump administration has signaled abandonment of the very idea of arms control.
If you really want peace, you can’t be trapped into thinking that preparing for war — especially in a way that seeks dominance rather than defense — is the only thing that matters. National security decisions outside the domain of defense affect the likelihood and severity of future challenges the U.S. military may have to face. Arms control, regional institutions, economic partnerships, transnational civil society-building — these areas of statecraft strengthen security by broadening its basis and generating sources of stability that complement the narrow rationale of deterrence and risk manipulation. And as I discovered in recent conversations with South Korean policy officials, the willingness of allies to entertain your strategic needs depends on their perception that you’re managing prudent statecraft overall.
Imagining Different Force Structure Requirements
Fourth, with a forward balancing strategy, the United States does not need to set wartime goals of air superiority or sea control in areas of the globe close to the enemy and far from U.S. territory. The United States can plausibly coerce even advanced adversaries using operational concepts that have existed in the blind spots of the unipolar mindset, including: amphibious and land-based coastal defense; sea denial operations; distant blockades; and air raids against soft or weakly defended targets. And that’s just for conflict scenarios involving advanced adversaries.
This would be a much less expensive force in the long run because these kinds of operations don’t require unrestricted development of hypersonic missiles, a trillion-dollar nuclear modernization plan, or still more F-35s. Adapting U.S. force structure to perform these operations rather than equipping for a fictional unilateral mega-struggle will require a joint force with a different size and shape from the military of today.
Admittedly, it is difficult to prefigure in the limited space I have here what that force structure will be because there is no single way to implement a strategy to preserve balances of power. But the future force should not be designed for unilateral war-winning in a traditional sense, sustained counter-insurgency operations on the scale of Afghanistan, or the political objective of regime change. Rather, it should be capable of defense in-depth operations that are limited, timely, and presumptively multilateral.
The concept of forward balancing presupposes safe harbors abroad. As a strategy it lives and dies on America’s friends and allies. That’s as it should be if the United States is ever to shed the unceasing requirement to dominate in ways that politics will not permit forever.
Van Jackson, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies. He previously served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as a defense strategist and policy adviser (2009-2014).