Defense Strategy and the Empire State of Mind: How Preparing for the Best Can Leave Washington Vulnerable to the Rest

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Editors note: This essay is the first in a series of eight articles, “Maritime Strategy on the Rocks,” that examines different aspects and implications of the recently released tri-service maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power. Be sure to read the second, thirdfourth, fifthsixth, and seventh essays in the series. We thank Prof. Jon Caverley of the U.S. Naval War College for his assistance in coordinating this series.


Is it really possible for the United States to maintain its extensive global security commitments while dealing with four serious rivals across three separate regions? During the administration of Donald Trump, senior officials made it clear that although competing with China and Russia was their top priority, countering North Korea and containing Iran were not far behind. Indeed, over the past four years, maximum pressure campaigns against minor powers consumed the attention of U.S. policymakers and drew military resources away from more serious threats. Even if Joe Biden’s administration is more restrained when it comes to the Pyongyangs and Tehrans of the world, it is still inheriting the same set of rivals and will still struggle to manage them all.

One familiar method for addressing this challenge involves concentrating on the strongest opponents and assuming those efforts will pay off against weaker adversaries — in other words, focusing on a small set of “pacing threats” and treating other problems as “lesser-included cases.” The recently released tri-service maritime strategy embraces this approach, which is not surprising. Just as making it in New York means someone can make it anywhere, being prepared for China and Russia means the sea services should be ready for North Korea and Iran. That is only half the story, however. In reality, dividing up rivals in this way introduces potential vulnerabilities that hostile states can exploit. For instance, a clash with a great-power competitor could open the door wide to opportunistic aggression by a minor-power opponent, while a campaign against a minor power opponent could leave Washington far worse off relative to its great-power competitors.



Of course, some commonality in the platforms, personnel, and munitions needed for different rivals is inevitable, particularly when it comes to landpower-centric contingencies (such as conflicts with Russia or North Korea) and scenarios that would unfold at sea (such as conflicts with China or Iran). Nevertheless, the more the United States relies on the same capabilities to address different threats, the bigger the risk that deterring or fighting one of those threats will weaken its position relative to others. Therefore, as the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard adapt to a world in which Russia and especially China loom large as the pacing threats in their plans, they should be cautious about one-size-fits-all approaches and avoid focusing solely on denial when preparing for lesser-included cases.

From Three-Front Problem to Three-Theater Problem

During the early 1980s, a heated debate unfolded over the best way to fight the Soviet Union, particularly in and from the maritime domain. Reflecting on the various military options being discussed at the time, Robert Komer observed that Washington’s biggest challenge was the “three front problem.” Up to that point, it had been able to focus mainly on Europe and East Asia, while treating the Middle East as an economy-of-force theater. That changed following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian Revolution, which cleared the path for Moscow to make a move against the Persian Gulf, or so it seemed. Even amid the defense buildup under Ronald Reagan, the potential cost of confronting the Soviet Union in so many places created a serious mismatch between strategic objectives and available resources.

Thankfully, Washington no longer needs to worry about a three-front war against a peer competitor, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, it still has a three-theater problem, which raises the prospect of multiple high-end contingencies that could occur alone, sequentially, or simultaneously. This problem has grown worse as the United States has become more deeply involved in each of the world’s most strategically important areas.

In Europe, for example, the United States has steadily enhanced its military posture since Russia’s assault on Ukraine. In the Asia-Pacific, it not only pivoted to the region in response to China’s rise, but also escalated its efforts to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. And, in the Middle East, it provided public security assurances to Gulf Cooperation Council members before signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, only to withdraw from that agreement and ramp up pressure on Iran.

With so many rivals in so many places, current fears of overstretch echo concerns from a generation ago. Yet avoiding overstretch is difficult today, for two reasons. First, when it comes to competing with great-power rivals, the Pentagon has adopted denial as the guiding principle of conventional defense. That is, it intends to stop aggressors from achieving their objectives rather than roll back their gains or punish them into surrendering. This places a heavy burden on U.S. forces to respond promptly to threats and prevail against unfavorable odds at the outset of a conflict. Second, the most obvious ways to close a gap between ends and means — shedding secondary commitments or spending more on defense — seem to be off the table. To date, there have been few tangible signs that the United States will pull back from key regions. Meanwhile, the tri-service maritime strategy acknowledges that “budget pressures, including the economic impact of COVID-19, may constrain resources available for defense.” 

Force Planning and Pacing Threats

How can the Pentagon juggle all of these commitments? To date, it has tried to bring resources and requirements into closer alignment by setting its sights on great-power rivals to avoid spreading itself too thin.

For instance, the 2018 National Defense Strategy adopted a great-power-centric approach to force planning. For nearly three decades, the United States adhered to variants of the two-war standard, which held that the Pentagon should maintain forces sufficient to wage a pair of near-simultaneous campaigns. Traditionally, the yardstick for the two-war standard has been the ability to fight overlapping conflicts with hostile regional powers that are far weaker than either of the great-power competitors that Washington now worries about. Consequently, the National Defense Strategy declared the United States would size and shape its forces for “defeating aggression by a major power” and “deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere.”

Closely related, service efforts to modernize the joint force have divided up rivals into pacing threats and lesser-included cases. This practice is based on an assumption that the ability to deter or defeat the former conveys the ability to deter or defeat the latter, albeit with some modifications. Today, Russia and especially China are the pacing threats that will most influence how the services envision future warfare and invest their resources. By contrast, Iran and North Korea, among others, are the lesser-included cases that remain. As former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein explained, for example, if the Air Force can develop the capabilities necessary to win wars against great-power rivals, “we’ll have everything we need to handle Iran.”

The tri-service maritime strategy makes a similar bet by focusing squarely on China and wagering that the organizational, material, conceptual, and personnel changes needed to manage this emerging threat are highly fungible. According to the document, the sea services will “prioritize competition with China due to its growing economic and military strength, increasing aggressiveness, and demonstrated intent to dominate its regional waters and remake the international order in its favor.” As for other rivals, they will “address these challengers in a coordinated, multinational manner with forces developed to address more significant military threats.”

This approach makes sense on paper. Not only does it allow the sea services to devote their attention to the most capable rival they could face, but it also simplifies acquisition, sustainment, and training for other threats. In practice, however, it introduces a significant risk.

Commitment Crossfire

The central problem with the pacing threat/lesser-included case approach to force planning and force design is that it exacerbates America’s interdependent commitment problem. Traditionally, the interdependence of commitments has been linked to reputations for resolve: To avoid doubts about their willingness to keep their word, especially when the stakes are high, states will often stand firm during crises and respond vigorously to provocations, even when their intrinsic interests are low. Yet it has an obvious material dimension as well. Simply put, military personnel and platforms cannot be present in multiple locations at the same time, while losses incurred in one contingency can limit the forces that are available for other contingencies. When the United States relies on similar operational concepts and the same capabilities to manage multiple adversaries, the tradeoffs are even more stark.

Consider Washington’s responses to recent provocation by Iran, which relied on assets that could be needed in other, more important theaters. Following reports of a potential Iranian threat to U.S. forces in May 2019, the United States expedited the planned deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf region, returned a Patriot missile defense battery after having withdrawn several from the area, dispatched a B-52 task force to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and conducted show of force operations with F-15C and F-35A combat aircraft. Several months later, after an alleged Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities, the United States sent an additional Patriot battery to the desert kingdom and signaled its willingness to send two more, along with a battery of the more sophisticated Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. And just this past December, the U.S. Navy revealed that one of its four Ohio-class guided-missile submarines transited the Strait of Hormuz in a clear signal to Iran using an extremely scarce strike platform.

These are all capabilities that could play a role in deterring or denying aggression by a rival great power. Indeed, during his confirmation hearing to serve as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley was asked about the possible effects that a war with Iran would have on the Pentagon’s ability to compete with China and Russia. In his view, it “would obviously have a significant impact on the distribution of the force relative to those other priorities.”

Applying similar approaches to several competitors can also be destabilizing before a fight even breaks out, especially when adversaries recognize these limitations. Before World War I, for example, Germany expanded its blue-water navy to compete with Britain, the world’s dominant maritime power. Berlin could not match London ship-for-ship or win a decisive battle at sea. However, it could build a “risk fleet” capable of inflicting significant damage on the Royal Navy and increasing Britain’s vulnerability to other rivals, namely France and Russia. That, in turn, was expected to discourage British intervention in a European conflict and give Germany more freedom to engage in revisionist behavior. In the end, Berlin’s gambit failed due to London’s military and diplomatic countermeasures. But contemporary U.S. adversaries might be tempted to make a similar calculation: that the prospect of wasting resources in a fight and becoming more vulnerable to other challengers is scary enough to keep Washington on the sidelines.

If You Can’t Divest, Then Diversify

At a time when the United States is on the hook to deter four rivals across three theaters, all of its military services, including the sea services, are busy refocusing their attention on great-power competitors and reorienting their concepts, equipment, and operating patterns to deny aggression. Unless the United States scales back commitments or spends enough on defense to enjoy a surplus of power, overstretch is a very real possibility under these conditions. Moreover, that possibility can be magnified by dividing rivals into pacing threats and lesser-included cases — an understandable way to accelerate service reorientation, but one that comes at a steep price and can be exploited by opponents.

This suggests the services should not dismiss alternatives to denial like rolling back aggression after it occurs or punishing opponents by gradually imposing costs on them. Although these options have drawbacks and might not make sense against great-power competitors that threaten close allies, over the long run they could prove to be a better fit against second-tier threats, especially if they can be implemented primarily with forces that are unlikely to be on the front lines of a great-power fight.

Today, for instance, the Navy and Marine Corps are concentrating on the challenges associated with operating inside highly contested environments and preventing a fait accompli by China. That means investing heavily in advanced sensors, long-range munitions, undersea warfare platforms, and unmanned systems of all stripes. But they should also be cautious not to sacrifice the capabilities and the skills necessary for scenarios other than a high-end fight against an emerging military peer, such as a maritime blockade against a weaker resource-exporting rival like Iran. Although forces designed with a great power in mind might allow Washington to overmatch a comparatively minor opponent, successfully employing them against the latter could result in a strategic setback vis-à-vis the former.

In the end, introducing more diversification into defense strategy could increase Washington’s freedom of action in peacetime, enhance the credibility of its threats, and, if necessary, enable it to conduct operations against second-tier opponents without burning through the capabilities it needs to deter its main competitors.



Evan Braden Montgomery is the director of research and studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and the author of In the Hegemon’s Shadow: Leading States and the Rise of Regional Powers. This piece draws on his recent Security Studies article, “Primacy and Punishment: US Grand Strategy, Maritime Power, and Military Options to Manage Decline,” which is part of a special issue on security studies in a new era of maritime competition.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communications Spc. Seaman Jeremy R. Boan)