Toward a New Theory of Power Projection

April 15, 2020

Now that the pandemic crisis is hammering America’s finances, U.S. strategy risks veering even further into permanent insolvency. Even before the crisis, the military demands of an intense global competition with China, Russia, and secondary competitors like Iran and North Korea were becoming financially untenable. Now, the costs of the current crisis — in both the short and long term — are likely to lead to further cuts from the defense budget and may call into question the sustainability of major U.S. commitments. The United States is likely to soon be engaged in a painful exercise: undertaking a truly fundamental prioritization, identifying defense capabilities and commitments that can be abandoned, or pursued in more efficient ways, without undue risk. One item that needs to be on that list of priorities is expeditionary power projection.

Long-distance power projection — the ability to transport overwhelming air, sea, and land power to far-off places like Taiwan, Korea, or the Baltics and win decisively in major combat — exercises a predominant influence on U.S. defense policy. It generates the most demanding requirements for military capacity and capabilities, determines many systems the services buy, and shapes the concepts the services develop. It is no exaggeration to say that the U.S. military of today is largely built to project power in this way.



Yet, even before the current crisis, several powerful trends called for a fundamental reassessment of the way in which the United States projects power. The conventional method could be termed “expeditionary power projection— the strategy of stationing the bulk of the joint force in the United States and deploying them to distant locales to decisively defeat aggression. This approach is rapidly becoming obsolete. Picking up thousands of tons of mass and carrying it to a location on the other side of the world where an opponent has decisive operational advantages proved successful against second-tier powers like Iraq; it will not be effective against either near-peer militaries like Russia and China or even a nuclear-armed North Korea. But that approach is only one way of solving the problem of long-distance deterrence and defense, and it is time for the United States to seek other ways of doing so. This essay briefly outlines several powerful and interconnected flaws in expeditionary power projectionand then articulates principles of a possible alternative concept.

We’ll Lose When We Get There

The most well-known and widely discussed operational flaw in expeditionary power projection is the so-called “anti-access/area denial problem” — the idea that Russian and Chinese anti-access and area denial capabilities can blunt the effects of U.S. military operations. Dozens of studies have argued that U.S. forces will be hard-pressed to operate effectively anywhere near the forward edge of the battle and will sustain significant losses in the attempt to get there. Meanwhile, North Korea has its own version of anti-access and area denial capabilities — an increasingly sophisticated missile force and nuclear deterrent. This situation is partly a function of new precision strike and sensing technologies being deployed by U.S. competitors but also of basic physics: Potential adversaries will be fighting very close to home and have decisive geographic advantages in any of these contingencies.

To be sure, America’s view of the anti-access/area denial problem may be disconnected from the actual strategy of U.S. rivals. Some analyses have questioned how effective some of these denial capabilities would be in practice. There are at least partial remedies to the anti-access/area denial challenge in terms of posture, concepts, and capabilities. If the anti-access/area denial problem poses the sole barrier to U.S. expeditionary power projection ambitions, the United States just might be able to surmount it. But it does not.

We Don’t Have the Lift to Get There

A second challenge is that the United States does not have nearly enough strategic lift to transport land forces — and the sustainment foundation for air units — to far-off fights in a timely manner. Airlift cannot haul enough weight while and most major sealift ships are in a reserve status and generally old, short of spare parts, and potentially unreliable. Without major recapitalization investments, sealift capacity will sharply decline after 2020. A devastating analysis contended that the U.S. sealift fleet could be a “single point of failure” for power projection missions.

In theory, the United States could buy itself out of this shortcoming. But, given increasing fiscal constraints, massive new investments in strategic lift seem unlikely. The United States will need months, therefore, to build up necessary forces in any threatened theater — and potential adversaries, who have closely studied U.S. operations in the Gulf and Iraq Wars, now aim to achieve their local objectives as quickly as possible. Lift shortfalls alone mean that an expeditionary approach to power projection, which assumes a long period of amassing forces in the region, is no longer a credible way of threatening responses to many cases of major aggression.

Forces in Transit Will Be Stymied or Wrecked

Units in transit to a distant war will also face an increasingly devastating gauntlet of attacks, fueled in part by the emerging revolution in unmanned and swarming systems, pervasive sensing, and artificial intelligence. The full maturation of the precision-weapons revolution — alongside the emergence of related technologies such as autonomy and artificial intelligence — is creating an unprecedentedly lethal battlefield environment. These trends apply to movement across oceans and even airways: As James Lacey recently argued in War on the Rocks, “The oceans, never a hospitable environment, are increasingly deadly, to the point where the survivability of independently operating naval task forces are in question.”

In a future regional conflict as U.S. forces steam or fly toward a battle, an adversary could employ semi-autonomous unmanned aircraft, drone submersibles, small vessels, and smart mines to hammer the air and sea convoys. Attack submarines could decimate them with torpedoes and cruise missiles while bombers shoot long-range fire-and-forget weapons from hundreds of miles away. Clouds of swarming, tiny unmanned aerial systems could emerge from surfaced submarines or passing aircraft and descend on transport ships and their escorts — or even intercept slow-moving transport aircraft. Cyber operations will scramble the information systems and controls of U.S. vessels and create logistical chaos in ports. An aggressor could use direct attacks on space assets and cyber operations to disrupt communications and navigation, including GPS guidance. Forces that make it to their destination will then face crippling logistics shortfalls and disruptive attacks within theaters. Meanwhile, aggressors will surely threaten allies and partners with economic, cyber, or military attacks to ensure that they deny U.S. forces access to critical bases, staging facilities, and even airspace.

In the perpetual contest between offense and defense, the United States will develop answers to some of these risks. Directed energy weapons, for example, are being investigated as a possible answer to drone swarms. But, the emerging era of massed strikes will inescapably boost an aggressor’s ability to degrade U.S. forces in transit.

Meddling in the U.S. Homeland Will Disrupt Mobilization

Those flaws in power projection are joined by a newer challenge associated with emerging information tools and technologies that have the potential to stymie the domestic foundation for projecting power — a danger partly embodied by what a new RAND report calls “virtual societal warfare.” As advanced societies become increasingly dependent on information networks, algorithmic decision-making and a super-integrated “Internet of Things,” and as the ability to manipulate truth becomes more prevalent and powerful, the potential for an outside actor to create mischief will be very great. An aggressor could generate widespread confusion and chaos in ways that would be especially problematic for strategies of expeditionary power projection, including targeting mobilization and logistics systems in the United States.

Such a campaign might begin with an effort to prevent power projection from happening in the first place. Over social media and via “deep fake” video and audio, aggressors will seek to muddy the facts at issue and weaken the basis for a response. The resulting ambiguity could create a window of uncertainty — from a few days to a week or more — in which the United States and others might hesitate to respond. Such hesitation is especially problematic regarding expeditionary forms of power projection that demand that the United States start and sustain force flow in a timely manner.

If the United States goes ahead with plans to deploy forces, the aggressor could then undertake more hostile forms of disruption. The aggressor could launch ransomware attacks on U.S. municipalities like the attack that recently caused New Orleans to declare a state of emergency, dislocating the delivery of public services. It could use social media tools to foment protests and opposition to the war.

If those efforts failed to deter a U.S. president from beginning force flow, escalating attacks could focus more precisely on U.S. mobilization and logistics capabilities, including the disruption of military units as they leave a garrison or base. Some of these attacks would focus on traditional critical infrastructure targets such as energy and telecommunications networks. However, in a new era of more personalized and generalized virtual societal warfare, an aggressor could become more precise, emptying the bank accounts of service members and their families, issuing fake warrants for the arrest of their children, bringing havoc to the “Internet of Things” in their homes, and broadcasting verbal warnings from their Alexa or Siri speakers.

We cannot know in advance just how crippling these virtual attacks would be. Societies and militaries are resilient. Even today, in the midst of the pandemic, the United States military could — with significant risk — undertake large-scale power projection missions. But, even partly effective homeland-disrupting campaigns pose challenges for expeditionary models of power projection: The time, domestic logistical effort, and political will needed to gather forces and deploy them thousands of miles all provide time for an aggressor to weaken the national consensus behind such a response as well as the physical processes needed to accomplish it.

In fact, the risk of such attacks extends beyond the direct adversary in any future conflict. Multiple U.S. rivals could gang up in a crisis or war to impose even greater levels of disruption. In a war with China, for example, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and others — even individuals or non-governmental networks — might see a golden opportunity to unleash cyber and information warriors to impede the U.S. response and deal a decisive blow to the U.S. reputation for military primacy. The primary aggressor could also employ such actors as surrogates. A future U.S. effort to dispatch a classic expeditionary power projection effort could trigger a whole range of disruptive attacks.

Toward a New Approach

These threats to expeditionary power projection are not new. In fact, U.S. military services and other parts of the U.S. government are working on ways to mitigate them. Yet, given the unavoidable geographic asymmetry and current trends in precision weaponry, unmanned systems, and information networks, it seems increasingly dangerous to assume that the United States can credibly threaten to project expeditionary power over trans-oceanic distances to the doorstep of other major powers and “win” extended, large-scale conflicts at an acceptable cost. The question of what promises the United States continues to make in the most demanding power projection cases is beyond the scope of this essay. But, if it does intend to continue serving as a backstop deterrent to major aggression in far-off contingencies, it will need a new approach. Such an alternative could have three primary elements: forward-deployed or long-distance strike capabilities to degrade invading forces; concepts for creating the prospect of a prolonged resistance even if the aggression achieves some goals; and ways of imposing costs on an aggressor across multiple domains beyond military operations.

An initial step would be to threaten credible local military effects without transporting large U.S. forces to the battle area. This step could include helping potential targets of aggression make themselves less vulnerable in part by taking advantage of the same sorts of emerging technologies that threaten expeditionary models of power projection. The United States could help partners and allies develop autonomous swarming systems, smart mines, and cheap, anti-armor and anti-ship missiles to disrupt and wear down an invasion force. T.X. Hammes has made a compelling argument for the value of such technologies in the hands of U.S. allies and partners. The United States could also conduct train-and-advise missions to help build effective reserve forces capable of operating these systems. Additionally, it could aid allies and partners in developing powerful cyber capabilities to disrupt the homeland of an aggressor and its own power projection activities — including the sort of comprehensive virtual societal warfare attacks discussed above.

In terms of its own military role in the initial fight, the United States could focus on ways to impose costs on an initial attack without relying on the long-distance deployment of major combat elements. This path would not presume an ability to forward-deploy a significant number of additional heavy combat units — which is both politically infeasible and strategically provocative in most cases— but would, instead, mark an effort to use innovative approaches to dispersed firepower to achieve deterrent effects. The sinews of such a revised approach are emerging in embryonic form in a range of widely-discussed concepts that envision resilient networks of somewhat self-organizing nodes of mostly forward-deployed fighting power to bring firepower to bear on aggressive forces. Such a network could be supported by select types of long-range strike systems, including cyber, space, long-range bombers and missiles, and limited, stealthy maritime and air assets.

In support of this emerging vision of distributed firepower, a modified U.S. approach to power projection would invest in larger numbers of various precision weapons capable of penetrating contested airspace. It would accelerate the research and deployment of swarming and unmanned systems that do not rely on airfields for operation. In a maritime theater like the Pacific, it would focus in part on stealthy and submersible platforms on regular local patrol. It would experiment with multiple new force designs similar to but well beyond what the Army is beginning to do with its Multi-Domain Task Forces.

Having laid the groundwork to be able to impose costs on aggression without large-scale force movement, the United States would then work with allies and partners on the second element of a revised approach: ensuring that any resistance would be prolonged, confronting an aggressor with the potential of an extended fight. The United States could help partner nations build the capabilities for long-term resistance, including well-equipped reserves trained for insurgency; large magazines of cheap, simple rockets and missiles as well as hidden 3D printing facilities to churn more out; stealthy underground reservoirs capable of releasing swarms of attacking drones on time-delayed schedules; and cyber units based around the world that are capable of launching crippling attacks even if their homeland was overrun. The United States could also pre-set, and then directly support, a potent civil resistance to complement a military insurgency.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the United States declared the attack illegitimate and sought to reverse it — in part with economic and political penalties but without any military “power projection” beyond aid to the Afghan resistance. The analogy is not exact, but a new approach could search for supercharged versions of a very similar strategy — one that threatens an aggressor with a long and debilitating campaign rather than a quick and painless fait accompli.

Finally, the third component of a revised strategy for power projection would involve a comprehensive global campaign to harass an aggressor’s world-wide interests. This third component — a cross-domain, holistic, non-kinetic, or “unrestricted” approach to power projection — would not involve U.S. attacks on aggressor military forces far from the area of aggression, but would employ non-military, often non-kinetic means to impose economic, political, and social costs. The aggressor state’s companies would see their activities embargoed or disrupted with electronic or regulatory means; movements protesting or launching political harassment of the aggressor’s local activities could be funded and empowered. More ambitiously, the United States could threaten forms of economic strangulation, employing elements of what T.X. Hammes has called “offshore control” and Mike Pietrucha has termed a “strategic interdiction strategy” — taking advantage of an aggressor’s dependence on important exports of materials, energy, and supply chains to interdict its maritime shipping and potentially other sources of trade. Such large-scale interdiction efforts would have to be planned in advance, including agreements from other nations to play roles in the effort, but neither the threats nor the agreements would need to be made public.

Such a campaign would also incorporate a multilateral effort to wreck the aggressor’s geopolitical legitimacy and influence. This effort could comprise everything from U.N. resolutions to expelling ambassadors to a coordinated multilateral campaign to encourage nations to clamp down on its political and cultural influence tools to global bans on broadcasting by the attacker’s state media. On its own, such reputational punishment cannot be expected to deter military action. Yet, Russia and especially China care deeply about being accepted as legitimate great powers, and the prospect of a far more fundamental expulsion from the world community would not be treated lightly.

Taken together, these three components would add up to a new concept of projecting power and, by extension, achieving deterrence in distant locations. Its objective would be to demonstrate to a potential attacker that large-scale aggression would be ruinously costly to their society as well as indirectly threatening to the stability of their regime. This perspective would have clear implications for defense policy and investment — for example, encouraging a partial shift in the balance between emphasis on heavy, contiguous U.S.-based joint forces and more dispersed, forward-based, cutting-edge technologies and unit types as well as funds to support allied and partner acquisition of capabilities central to this approach. The U.S. Marine Corps’ new force design guidance provides a good example of the scale of rethinking that will be required.

The era of expeditionary power projection dominance is gone, at least as assumed by the traditional model. Pretending otherwise will continue to waste resources, skew the investments and concepts of the services, and, if war does occur, risk early defeat and/or catastrophic escalation. The U.S. effort to support the deterrence of a major war has played an important role in sustaining peace since 1945 and can continue to do so — but it is time for a major shift in how the United States plans to fulfill this critical military mission.



Michael J. Mazarr is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: U.S. Air Force