What Washington Gets Wrong About Deterrence

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Ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine almost 15 months ago, two camps have consistently opposed American military aid. Unsurprisingly, there are the traditional anti-war activists and “restraint” advocates who opposed most American military involvement in foreign wars. While these groups generally condemn Russian aggression, they note that Russia did not directly attack the United States. As such, the costs of long war with Russia and the risks of escalation outweigh the benefits of backing Ukraine. 

A second but perhaps more interesting group, though, is the China hawks. While much public attention has been focused on Ukraine, China has ramped up its military pressure on Taiwan and engaged in increasingly caustic rhetoric toward the United States. As a result, some Republican politicians, commentators, and conservative voters have drawn a causal relationship between the two stories. This grafted narrative goes something like this: America’s provision of thousands of pieces of equipment, millions of rounds of ammunition, and tens of billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine has wound up undermining its deterrence vis-à-vis China. A deterrence chit, proponents of this story claim, that has been spent on one region has come at the direct expense of another.

 

 

Deterrence, however, is not a tangible object. It is instead a psychological state. While deterrence is not entirely divorced from the tangible things like the deployment of platforms and stockpiles of munitions, perceptions tend to matter more than action itself. This basic insight should help us better understand the perceived “trade-off” between deterring China and fighting Russia. From a purely military perspective, Ukraine aid has not harmed efforts to protect Taiwan as much as its critics claim. More importantly, on a psychological dimension, the Ukraine War — and the robust response of the United States and its allies to the challenge — has strengthened the perception of America and its deterrence capabilities.

A Detriment to Deterrence?

Whether America’s aid to Ukraine actually comes at the expense of its ability to defend Taiwan if necessary is, at best, murky. True, the United States has already obligated over $100 billion in aid to Ukraine. But as high as that number sounds, it is about one-eighth of the Pentagon’s total defense budget, and less than half of the $100 billion comes from military assistance; the rest is humanitarian. Moreover, Congress voted that Ukraine aid would come from supplemental funding, which means that the money spent on supporting Ukraine did not come at the expense of other Defense Department efforts, which include deterring China.

Operationally, the Ukraine war has depleted the Army’s arsenal. The United States has sent thousands of Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger air defense missiles, 155 mm artillery rounds, and scores of HIMARS rocket artillery, howitzers, Bradley fighting vehicles, Abrams tanks, and other weapons systems to Ukraine. It will take the defense industrial base some time to replace these losses.

But these “losses” must be taken in context. Despite the war, the Army has doubled down on the capabilities needed for the Pacific fight, including long-range missiles and multi-domain task forces. Much of what the Army supplied to Ukraine has been older weaponry, which will eventually be backfilled with a newer, and presumably better, kit. That, admittedly, will take time given the atrophy in the Western defense industrial base, but the process is slowly under way. The Ukraine War, for example, has prompted the United States to correct a decades-old systemic shortfall in its ability to produce its munitions. And it is not just the Defense Department that recognizes the shortfalls; Congress is seized with correcting the munitions problem, too. Over the long term, the United States could well be in a better position than before the conflict began.

More importantly, geography dictates that stopping a Taiwan invasion would fall mostly to air and maritime forces, neither of which have been impacted much, if at all, by U.S. assistance to Ukraine. The Air Force’s most recent budget request grew the F-35 stealth fighter fleet and the number of KC-46 tankers in order to operate at range in the Indo-Pacific. In December, the service unrolled its new long-range B-21 stealth bomber to much fanfare. Perhaps most importantly, the Air Force continues to buy more long-range munitions meant to dominate the air and sink ships.

 

 

The Navy offers a similar story. Like the Air Force, the Navy’s budget request for the coming fiscal year grew by over $11 billion. The service is continuing to buy more Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, Virginia-class attack submarines, and a host of other manned and unmanned naval and air systems — all of which are designed with the Indo-Pacific in mind. As with the Air Force, few if any of these capabilities have been sent to Ukraine. And while the Navy needs more of these capabilities, the defense industrial base suffers from a series of constraints, and so even if resources were redirected from Ukraine, it would not solve the naval shortfalls overnight.

Adding to the already robust growth in the Air Force and Navy is the dramatic growth in allied military capabilities caused by the Ukraine War. While these do directly count toward the Defense Department’s goals, they also factor into the deterrence equation versus China. For example, despite the Ukraine War, a series of allies — including France and, for the first time, Germany — joined air exercises in the Indo-Pacific, as Europe has grown more wary of the threat posed by China.

Ultimately, it is not clear just how much the Ukraine War hurts America’s ability to respond to aggression in the Indo-Pacific. In the short term, the Ukraine War might have taken a toll on the U.S. ability to wage a ground war in the region, but as Secretary Robert Gates quipped, “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia … should have his head examined.” Over the long term, the U.S. military — ground forces included — may come back stronger because of the conflict in Ukraine.

Don’t Sweat the Details

The Ukraine War has depleted American stockpiles, particularly of ground munitions, in the short term. But this raises an interesting question: Does such a shortfall affect deterrence? Perhaps not.

Policymakers too often think about military power in its crudest forms. Case in point: no number of Russian hypersonic missile strikes has deterred the United States and its allies from aiding Ukraine. Similarly, China vastly expanded both its nuclear and conventional military arsenals over the years, but that seemingly has not dampened American willingness to defend Taiwan. Time and again, it’s the bigger picture — such as the likely toll of the conflict in national blood and treasure — that matters to deterrence, rather than how many munitions or platforms are in the arsenal. And so the emphasis should not be on stockpiles, but rather on how the war in Ukraine has shaped the broader strategic narrative of U.S. capabilities and defense.

What, then, might those “big” impressions coming out of Ukraine be? There are at least three of them. First, on the technical level, Western weaponry — even relatively old systems — still work well. One need only look at the hundreds of thousands of Russian casualties and the nearly 10,000 pieces of Russian equipment damaged, destroyed, or captured — including some state-of-the-art systems — to see the tangible effects of American military assistance. Given that Taiwan already receives billions of dollars in U.S. military hardware, that’s got to give Beijing pause.

Strategically, the Ukraine War underscores that the West is neither as weak nor as divided as many presumed. Prior to the Ukraine War, it was an open question as to whether the United States and its allies would fight. After all, the United States was mired in internal strife from a contested election and had just suffered an ignominious defeat in Afghanistan. Polls showed rising isolationism among the American population, pushed by “American First” sentiments on the right and anti-war progressives on the left. Two years ago, a slim majority of Americans supported defending Taiwan if it was attacked — not particularly robust support, especially given that a war with China would almost certainly be long and bloody.

Despite its typical apathy to foreign policy, the American public has shown remarkable and sustained interest in Ukraine a year on. That interest and support are important, as military capability is only half of the deterrence equation. The other — and in some ways more challenging — aspect of the deterrence equation is demonstrating the will to use force.

Critics often note deterrence is context-dependent, and a response to one crisis certainly does not preordain a similar response to another. That is true. But in this case, recent history reinforces Taiwan-specific military investments and less tangible no less important pledges. The Biden administration repeatedly promised an even more robust response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan than it has mounted to Russia in Ukraine, and polls suggest that significant numbers of Americans would support such a move. It’s the cumulative deterrence effect, then, that should be the goal.

Above all, the Ukraine conflict shows that wars are fundamentally unpredictable. In Ukraine, a war that nearly everyone thought would be over in a matter of days and offer a relatively clean Russian victory has ended up dragging on for well over a year and put the Vladimir Putin regime on increasingly shaky ground. That’s an uncomfortable implication for all leaders thinking about using force in the future — no matter whether they are sitting in Moscow, Beijing, or Washington.

Avoiding Strategic Reductionism

At some level, the critics of U.S. support for Ukraine have a point. Deterrence vis-à vis China is eroding. Unlike the American-Russian military balance, at least some military trends are going in China’s favor. As a result, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, unlike President Vladimir Putin, can afford to be patient. No matter what the United States does in Ukraine, in the long run, China will be more difficult to deter as its power and ambition grow.

As a matter of policy, however, the key question is how the United States will use the tools it has today to maximize its deterrent effects. From an operational perspective, the Ukraine War has not hurt the military balance versus China. In fact, the United States has demonstrated that it can continue to pursue its Indo-Pacific-focused capabilities while still aiding Ukraine. Moreover, the Ukraine War may even help in the long run if it spurs both the United States and its allies to understand that industrial warfare is not just a topic for the history books and to prepare accordingly. 

More importantly, if indeed deterrence is primarily a psychological effect, then another key question is, what packs more of a punch: a few extra Javelins and HIMARs sitting in Taiwan, or seeing a fellow authoritarian regime with whom you have a friendship that knows “no limits” impale itself invading a smaller, weaker neighbor?

In an increasingly precarious world, there is an understandable draw toward strategic reductionism — to focus on China as “pacing threat” to the exclusion of everything else. Giving in to this temptation is a mistake. As a global power, the United States faces multiple challenges; it simply lacks the luxury of getting to choose one adversary in one region. But even if it did get to choose, deterrence is an elastic commodity. While the United States does face some binary strategic choices, deterring China versus fighting Russia in Ukraine is not one of them.

 

 

Raphael S. Cohen is the director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program at the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corporation’s Project AIR FORCE.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Russ Scalf

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