American Defense Priorities After Ukraine
Russia’s war against Ukraine has peeled back the veneer and revealed the rot within Moscow’s military machine. Kyiv’s impressive battlefield successes imposed major losses on Russia in terms of territory, manpower, and materiel. The tide has turned in a brutal war of attrition. Russia’s gains are being reversed ever so slowly and at significant cost to all sides. But Ukraine has not won yet, and it still has far to go in terms of regaining control of its territory as winter approaches. There are a variety of scenarios about when and how the war ends. Overall, based on the counter-offensives this past fall, one should be more optimistic than some senior U.S. military officials are about Ukraine’s prospects for greater success early next year.
Even though the war will continue into next year, and perhaps beyond, it is time to begin assessing longer-term implications for modern warfare, especially in Europe. It is not too early in this age to draw inferences about how the character of warfare is changing. How can NATO and the United States adapt to best ensure Europe’s stability and advance U.S. interests?
There are two major issues in answering this question. The first is the ongoing debate about how shifts in military technology impact the balance between offense and defense. This debate has obvious implications for force structures across the West that should inform NATO’s security posture and investments. The second issue involves the overall balance of power in Europe and how NATO and the United States should be postured to best preserve stability. The implications of these shifts argue against increases in heavy tanks for the U.S. force structure and favor a posture along NATO’s frontier that is defensively oriented. This “hedgehog” approach is part of NATO’s past. An offensive posture that fails to take into account the changing character of warfare is counterproductive to regional stability and U.S. strategic priorities, which are increasingly at risk in Asia.
A number of military scholars, such as my late friend David Johnson, have written about how emerging technologies have made the defense dominant and complicated offensive maneuver. The strategic importance of this issue should be underscored, and it should influence defense strategy and budgetary allocations beyond Europe. As T. X. Hammes put it:
Investing in the wrong side of the competition is a rich nation’s game that the United States may no longer be able to afford. Against peer competition at scale, misguided investment could lead to strategic defeat.
This question should guide force development and overseas posture as part of the national security discussion.
What does it mean when it is claimed that some new technology produces an offensive or defensive advantage to a degree of dominance? Some clarification will help readers not familiar with this longstanding theory and its critics. The more common term in literature is the offense-defense balance, which relates to military technology favoring one mode over the other. If the balance favors the defense because of some technological development like the rifled musket or machine gun, then it is considered easier to be successful on the defense, and thus wars are less likely. By contrast, if the offense is dominant, as the late Robert Jervis put it, “it is easier to destroy the other’s army and take its territory than it is to defend one’s own.”
What is the utility of thinking in terms of offensive and defensive advantages in the state of military technology? Some scholars argue there is limited utility in categorizing weapons as offensive or defensive. Some weapons such as the tank can abet either an offensive campaign or a defensive mode of operations. One can easily imagine swarming drones as either offensive systems destroying an integrated air defense system or as a lethal defense against an armored force bearing down on friendly forces, as seen in Ukraine.
Second, “dominance” may be the wrong term to capture the ever-evolving shifts in the character of warfare, or the perpetual interaction of tactics, technology, and human creativity that occurs in war. It may be better to conceive of offensive and defensive superiority along a continuum and think in terms of how changes in military technology produce shifts in the balance. Conceivably, there are technological innovations (e.g., armed drones) that can achieve a truly dominating position in either offensive or defensive operations. Dominance would constitute the extremes of the continuum, and arguably there are few such occurrences. Nuclear weapons would be the most notable example of offensive dominance given the state of ballistic missile defense.
Third, it is not clear how emerging technologies impact each domain and whether policy makers and force planners we can generalize the current state of military technology across all domains as “defense dominant.” In space, offense seems dominant since satellites are fragile and easily tracked. Both China and Russia are focusing on counterspace capabilities that reflect that trend. Some cyber strategists challenge the idea of defensive dominance in the cyber realm entirely. Other technologies, including artificial intelligence, may generate decisive advantages in that domain, but it is not clear that they would only benefit defensive operations.
Finally, it should be noted that military technology is applied in a particular context. Black and white distinctions may be counterproductive. Surely the ubiquity and relative low cost of surveillance and targeting technologies is going to favor fires and attrition over maneuver for the foreseeable future. This would support the defensive dominance line of thinking. But the ongoing maneuver-attrition debate should not be a binary choice. Both offense and defense require combinations of firepower and movement.
In short, technology is changing the character of conflict and at present gives an edge in many situations to the defense. At this time, a shift in favor of the defender is evident in ground warfare just as it was in the days of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder when the firepower revolution of the late 19th century made massed formations and maneuver prohibitively difficult. The underlying technologies of the current revolution will have the same impact and are offered not just by the United States, but also by smaller powers like Turkey and Israel. However, prudent planners realize that countermeasures will inevitably arise. A continuous cycle of action and reaction will alter the offense-defense balance over time in each domain.
Europe’s Balance of Power
The second issue that requires reflection is the balance of power in Europe vis-à-vis Russia and NATO’s capacity for collective defense. While it would be a mistake to ignore Russia’s reckless leadership and its ingrained sense of grievance, overestimating its combat power and ability to reconstitute itself is not appropriate either.
In economic terms, the European Union’s gross domestic product is 10 times that of Russia. That gap is only going to grow larger. The Russian economy is on the brink of ruin as it struggles to sustain its war effort, and its recovery could last a decade or beyond. Demographically, Europe’s population is over three times the size of Russia’s. Moscow’s human capital is in decline, qualitatively but not quantitatively, and the prospects for restoration are diminished by the war. Assessments of Russia’s demographic decline focus too much on population size and avoid critical questions about the quality of human capital (e.g., health care, education, etc.).
Moscow’s limitations include available resources for defense. No matter how you measure it, NATO outspends Russia on defense. Moscow does well with converting its resources into effective weapons. Yet, the Russian military is not designed for sustained offensive operations or the grinding war of attrition that it has now been employed in. The U.S. government concludes that Moscow has absorbed grievous losses, with as many as 100,000 Russian troops killed or wounded in Ukraine. Independent sources document Russian losses of 1,420 tanks, 2,314 armored and infantry fighting vehicles, and 262 aircraft. This has forced Russia to issue dated legacy weapons and conduct a “stealth mobilization” to offset its casualties. Sources from Europe assess that Russia has expended 80 percent of its missile inventory and is improvising by applying aged nuclear missile components to offset its depleted stock of weapons.
Regenerating new forces and combat power is going to be an uphill climb for Moscow. Russia has been reduced to using 30-year-old chips from Texas Instruments to sustain its operations. Any country forced to steal computer chips from refrigerators and dishwashers is both adaptive and desperate. The economic sanctions applied against Moscow will further degrade its industry and military-related production. Sanctions are not magic weapons, but they clearly delay and depress a Russian reconstitution and impose higher costs. Still, Moscow will seek workarounds. It is already looking to Iran for missiles and drones and to North Korea for ammunition. It is unclear if China will come to Russia’s aid in terms of military supply.
The combination of an improved position of relative combat power vis-à-vis Russia, and Moscow’s limited ability to reconstitute its forces, suggests that NATO will remain in a strong position in the short to medium term. Adding to the ledger are the contributions that Sweden and Finland bring to enhance NATO’s capacity and bolster deterrence and European stability. As NATO consolidates the accession of Finland and Sweden into the alliance, and if Germany, the “sleeping giant,” can ever achieve its promised security transformation, the alliance will hold a favorable balance of power. Germany remains a big “if” in my mind.
Overall, the threat from Russia is manifestly less challenging today than perceived. The conclusion that “the threat from Russia has returned to Cold War levels” does not stand up. In terms of its overall military power, Russia is a shadow of the 1970s Soviet threat and has been significantly degraded in the last nine months. As Jack Watling has observed, Russia’s poor performance and manifest shortfalls in Ukraine are notable and extend well beyond just materiel shortages. Russia does maintain a large force and has selected military capabilities (i.e., integrated air defense and long-range strike) that cannot be ignored, but its combat power is much diminished for the foreseeable future. Russian efforts to restore its military muscle are not “doomed to failure,” but it will be an uphill slog.
This argues against substantial increases in U.S. force presence on the continent. The current policy of temporary and modest increases in U.S. presence will do much to signal American commitment for the alliance from the Biden administration. Given the doubt that many Europeans have about American staying power after the Trump-era bashing of NATO, it is a prudent adjustment as a temporary measure. But research surveys suggest that it may also result in Europeans continuing to free ride or to feel more vulnerable due to the presence of robust U.S. force levels. Moreover, resources are limited and there are other critical gaps of higher priority to fund. The opportunity costs of further increasing force levels at the expense of other missions in Asia should be considered. All of this augurs against calls for significant increases in permanent U.S. armor formations on NATO’s frontier.
At the same time, Western observers should avoid hubristic assessments about Russia’s powers of reconstitution. While Moscow may no longer be a full-spectrum superpower, it retains geopolitical tools and a willingness to take risks. As a report from the Center for a New American Security shows, Russia retains a sizable but not agile industrial base for reconstituting its military power. That said, it will face challenges in acquiring modern technology from the West except through indirect means like from Iran to help build drones.
Russia will remain dangerous even in decline during the next decade and retain many tools to frustrate European stability. It is down but not out of business as a challenge to the West.
All told, the West holds many systemic advantages over Russia: demographics, education, military staff expertise in complex operations, advanced military technology, access to capital, and a relative lack of corruption. Russia’s economic potential is severely constrained, but it has not (sorry for the pun) tanked yet. Given the stark scale of its losses and evident internal decay, whatever resources Russia will have to invest will be needed to repair its present inventory, restock a depleted supply of munitions, and recruit tomorrow’s armed forces. Russia’s defense industry will be severely hampered by sanctions and lost fiscal and intellectual capital for some time. Its ambitious plans for fifth-generation fighters and peer-level combat aviation procurement are predicted to be deferred until it regains its missile production capacity and inventory, which is not likely to occur in this decade. Nor will Beijing offset Moscow’s manifest deficiencies in operational planning, manpower, and personnel development. As suggested by ten authors writing for the NATO Defense College, there are no scenarios in the offing in which the Russian economy is not heavily and negatively impacted by the war against Ukraine regardless of its outcome.
While arguing for a strengthened NATO defense posture, Michael O’Hanlon has come to the same conclusion:
The 2022 Ukraine conflict has underscored the limitations of Russian military power and in fact it has dramatically weakened the Russian armed forces. With sanctions and export controls likely to remain in place for some time to come, that reality is likely to persist.
As Stephen Kotkin has noted, Russia’s aspirations vis-à-vis the West routinely outrun its capabilities. This cycle of “weakness and grandeur” is playing out again. Reconstituting its forces back to their 2020 level is going to take up much of the Russian Ministry of Defense’s attention and budget over the rest of this decade, even though President Vladimir Putin has promised that there will be “no limitations” on military spending. Bringing its forces up to NATO’s level in qualitative terms may be near impossible when non-materiel elements are factored in. It is Russian weakness juxtaposed against Putin’s recklessness with the military power he has that makes Russia dangerous. While wounded, Russia will remain a persistent problem.
This conclusion needs to be factored into adaptations for U.S. overseas base posture in Europe. These outposts are a requisite for American power projection and reassurance, while supporting deterrence. But that does support the conclusion drawn by one recent paper that argued that current U.S. forward-deployed forces in the Middle East and Indo-Pacific should be held at their present levels and that the American posture in Europe should “increase and expand eastward.” That conclusion fails to address the imbalances in Asia and the strong position of NATO in Europe. This does not suggest that Europe should be left to fend for itself. It is difficult to imagine a case of outright Russian military aggression against a NATO ally that did not involve U.S. forces in combat on the battlefield.
However, Europe can and ought to become more competitive in terms of its military modernization programs and enhance its readiness levels. NATO, while improving, remains far from meeting the 2014 Wales Summit standards for both budgeting levels (2 percent of GDP) and modernization (20 percent of the defense budget). The alliance should quickly move to operationalize its Strategic Concept and make smart investments in command and control, air- and ground-delivered munitions, and adequate logistics for sustained conflict.
The massive employment of guided weapons, including rocket and missile artillery, in Ukraine is instructive. The combination of pervasive surveillance and deeper strike systems afford a defensive but operationally relevant advantage that NATO should base its defensive strategy around. Similar lessons should be carefully drawn with regard to mobile surface-to-air systems to meet air defense requirements and deny Russia the use of its fighter-bomber and helicopter assets.
Buying enhanced (mobile) air defenses, aerial drones, and tactical attack missiles (per Hammes) is a smart procurement priority. Even before this conflict, people saw the age of smart loitering munitions coming. The results from contemporary conflict reinforce arguments for greater standoff and precision, increased use of drones and loitering munitions, and fewer manned helicopters. As noted in these pages, the lower barriers to entry in the drone competition “make cheap but effective robotic airpower available to a much broader range of states.” Yet, while drones and loitering munitions are making combined arms more effective it is not yet clear that they have revolutionized warfare. Predictably the race for counter-drone capabilities is now ongoing and could offset the apparent advantages offered by more agile unmanned systems. My money is on the continued expansion of these in numbers and at increasingly lower cost compared to existing systems.
A prioritized program for both Europe and the United States would suggest that a substantial investment in both land force ammunition and precision-guided missile stocks, including aviation ordnance, is needed as a first order of business. The conflict in Ukraine demonstrates that protagonists should expect nearly insatiable consumption rates. As Sir Lawrence Freedman has assessed:
A huge lesson from the war in Ukraine is that the intensity of modern warfare means you go through material and supplies very quickly. The stockpiles are never sufficient. The NATO countries have greatly depleted their supplies supporting Ukraine.
The U.S. Army seems to appreciate this priority and is now seeking to double or triple production for some of these weapons. NATO countries, including the United States, have limited industrial base capacity and need to rebuild their inventories and rethink the risks involved in limited production capacity to offset large-scale attrition. A shift away from trip-wire forces offset by more robust munition stocks may do more to deter Moscow. At present, the “arsenal of democracy” will have empty shelves for some time.
Combat operations in Ukraine offer evidence for systems like the Javelin, the Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (more commonly known as the NLAW), and the Switchblade 600 that warrant consideration in the debate about more effective investment strategies. For one modern Western tank, one can buy 10 launchers and 100 missiles. The lifecycle costs of the tank — training, equipment transport, refuelers, and maintenance — compound this comparison much further. NATO should seek to impose such costs upon adversaries, not itself.
These weapon systems will be increasingly common and are already widely fielded around the world. The Israelis field a family of anti-tank missile systems, the Spike system, which is being marketed for export as a less expensive alternative to the Javelin and has been sold to numerous countries. The Chinese have the HJ-12 anti-tank guided missile, which closely resembles the Javelin and comes with air-launched options. Such systems will undoubtedly continue to proliferate.
These systems will surely alter how Western maneuver and armor systems are employed. Although tanks are not completely obsolete, they are increasingly vulnerable to modern anti-tank munitions, whether fired from the ground or the air. These new systems have more range, lethality, and maneuverability than the last generation. The advantages offered by these systems against maneuver platforms, including the once-potent tank, are unlikely to be offset by merely using better camouflage or better tactics than Russian forces to screen armor advances.
There are surely potential contingencies where offensive maneuver is needed to support counterattacks or to seize or deny ground that confers a position of advantage. Armored mobility will remain useful in these instances. There are scenarios where the terrain and the rival’s force design make tanks useful. Yet, in other scenarios, what constitutes “combined arms” will have to be refined to reflect changes in the character of warfare. Clearly, unmanned aerial systems are having an impact beyond just intelligence and targeting. The shibboleth that only a 72-ton tank can provide the protection, firepower, and mobility required for operational success will be severely tested in a future war.
Certainly, tanks afford protection against small arms and shrapnel, but only modern active protection systems can hope to thwart modern munitions, and the tank’s logistics train is easily identified and even more vulnerable. This degrades the operational value of the total system. It is comforting to have them advance as the force maneuvers into the adversary’s weapons-engagement range. Unfortunately, that danger zone is now much larger and more lethal, exposing maneuver forces to precise fires at far greater ranges, and while taking losses the entire time when competing against an opponent capable of modern combined arms.
Clearly, Steve Biddle disagrees. While he and I agree about the enduring need for offensive maneuver, he does not seem to accept that it is far harder to maneuver in an age of persistent surveillance coupled with proliferating armor-killing weapons. It is, in my view, unhelpful to compare Ukraine’s advances into Kharkiv in September to “the German conquest of France in 1940, or the Six Day War of 1967, or Operation Desert Storm in 1991,” as Biddle does. The different scales and methods of fighting hobble such comparisons. To be useful, historical analogies must survive discontinuities, which include in this case loitering munitions and other low-cost, hand-held, easy-to-operate, unmanned aerial systems and anti-tank missiles. Biddle does not account for the increasing costs involved in maneuver, which are now intimately and painfully familiar to Russia. Nor does he project the impact of improved munitions and the air-launched options that military analysts expect to evolve and proliferate. Both sides in Ukraine are using existing 20th century assets with improvised enhancements. Neither is fielding a force designed to exploit combined arms to enhance a defense with a weapons-engagement zone of longer ranges. The U.S. armed services need to anticipate competition with adversaries who learn from this conflict and not assume that they will only fight opponents that repeat the woeful command-and-control flaws of the Russian military. The U.S. military cannot be “future-proofed” with false comparisons.
To be sure, the tank is not dead. U.S. forces have and will continue to employ armor. Clearly Ukraine is making good use of its tanks and could use more advanced models. But for the United States, it’s just not a priority investment for fighting sophisticated peers in high-intensity combat going forward. As Chris Dougherty has noted, the value of marginal investments in this platform over other deficiencies — secure command and control, unmanned aviation, munitions stocks, etc. — is the key question for U.S. force planning. The issue goes beyond bad Russian tactics or tank design, given the proven cost effectiveness of increasingly lethal systems designed to defeat modern armor with top-down munitions or precision fires. Despite their limitations, cuts in armor in Europe or the U.S. Army are not warranted. That said, increased numbers of heavy armor or an expanded permanent U.S. force presence in Europe are not strategically warranted either.
Rather than threatening Russia with armor forces up to its border, a more defensive orientation is best suited for a strategy of denial in this age. Shifting to a strategy of denial does not require tank-heavy maneuver formations or large numbers of lumbering towed artillery systems. Instead, it relies upon significant precision fires including High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and self-propelled precision artillery. In addition to markedly bolstering deterrence, an investment package that deters but does not exacerbate Putin’s security dilemma has more merit than replaying World War II tank battles.
At the strategic level, there is a transformational opportunity here to support a smarter, sustainable, and more cooperative defense of Europe. This opportunity should not be lost, especially as NATO’s “New Force Model” is being developed. Analysts in Europe have assessed the stark changes in the region’s security environment and recognize the necessity to assume “a greater role in maintaining peace and stability in its own region and neighborhood.” NATO’s European members should be able to take the lead in many areas, including more and better ground combat forces, and not require major U.S. contributions or augmentation for every combat function. Ukraine offers a compelling example of where the United States has an arsenal for allies or partners to draw upon. Security assistance is a valuable component of U.S. strategy, but it is not a universal template or a future American way of warfare.
NATO ought to revitalize its modernization plans and reintroduce what Sean Monaghan reminds us was once known as the “hedgehog defense.” Such an approach calls for extensive investment in long-range precision strike systems — including artillery, munitions, unmanned aerial systems, and missile defenses — which favors NATO’s strengths. This should guide NATO’s transformation and the implementation of the Strategic Concept issued in Madrid in 2022, as well as how the U.S. military contributes to the alliance with its unique strengths. This may not reduce Washington’s defense expenditures on the continent much, but it will shape how these resources are allocated. It should also shape the Department of Defense’s design and development priorities beyond this theater for conflict in Asia as well.
The shift between offense and defense has both operational and strategic implications. These implications need greater study, including differentiation over a wider range of domains. The balance is rarely static, and tomorrow’s opponents are undoubtedly already at work on their counter-revolution. Russia is going to learn and adapt, as no doubt others will. The first implication is the need to recognize the signposts from recent conflicts. The implications of exploiting emerging technologies and implementing a reinvigorated national innovation strategy will be evident to those willing to rigorously evaluate their potential. Many legacy systems, including heavy armor, will have value in other contexts. So do not melt down any tanks just yet, but do appreciate the implications of modern, low-cost, anti-armor, and unmanned aerial systems that require limited training. Ukraine’s small but successful naval actions could also be significant as portents, especially in unconventional applications in contested littoral regions.
Second, Europe’s systemic advantages versus Moscow provide a favorable balance of power. Admittedly, the argument is based on resource inputs instead of real capability outcomes, and those are divided over 30 allies (hopefully 32 in the near future). Arguments for Western force planners to invest less in the ideology of the offense should be heeded, especially in regard to land forces dedicated to deterring Russia. Instead, the ideology of collective defense in Europe should be retained and strengthened as NATO consolidates after the war in Ukraine. This will require continued attention to Europe’s military modernization. Europe should focus on operational credibility as a necessary stepping stone if it truly seeks strategic autonomy — and that focus needs to start with Germany, which needs to put more emphasis on actually delivering on its words.
Third, it is time for U.S. strategists to consider the larger global picture and the reality that choices involve tradeoffs. American policymakers understandably want to aid Ukraine’s embattled democracy. Ensuring that Moscow does not succeed is important. However, policymakers cannot lose sight of strategic priorities and risk continued investment shortfalls in Asia either. The next few years will pose severe challenges to U.S. technological competitiveness and military security. It’s long past time to get serious in the Pacific. China’s diplomatic behavior and military modernization have not become more benign, although its economy has slowed sharply. Some argue that it may be more aggressive as its economic power declines, which is worrisome. Others fear that the United States is moving too slowly and running out of time to deter aggression against Taiwan.
Less symbolism and more substance are needed to stabilize the Indo-Pacific region. As Luis Simon has noted in these pages, “The existence of strategic tradeoffs between Europe and the Indo-Pacific is very real. What the United States does in one region impinges on its ability to resource deterrence in the other region.”
Grasping the larger strategic context and applying scarce resources in a disciplined manner is what separates good and bad strategy. Washington is often accused of responding to the crisis du jour rather than hewing to a disciplined strategy that matches ends with means. With respect to Asia, it is time to align words with action. As stated at the opening, misguided investments, in either theater, could lead to strategic defeat.
Balancing risk and making such tradeoffs is the essence of strategy, and these essential choices should be reflected in future U.S. grand strategy.
Frank Hoffman, Ph.D., is a retired marine and former senior Department of Defense official who currently serves at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. He is the author of Mars Adapting: Military Change During War. The contents of this article reflect the research and views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.