Inflection Point: How to Reverse the Erosion of U.S. and Allied Military Power and Influence


As diplomatic efforts in Europe and Asia intensify, so too should U.S. military planning and preparations for a world that is drastically different and more dangerous than it was just a decade ago.

For the past decade and a half, wargaming and analysis have pointed to the conclusion that the U.S. defense strategy and posture have become insolvent. The tasks that the U.S. government and its citizens expect their military forces and other elements of national power to do internationally greatly exceed the means available to accomplish those tasks. We address this problem in our new report, Inflection Point: How to Reverse the Erosion of U.S. and Allied Military Power and Influence. As we wrote, the causes of this are many and varied but the fact is that U.S. military forces no longer enjoy the kind of comprehensive superiority that was the foundation of victories over adversary states such as Iraq and Serbia in the post-Cold War era. As a result, in realistic wargames that we have been a part of, when current and programmed U.S. forces face those of China — America’s most capable state adversary — “Blue” teams playing the United States often fail in their assigned mission to prevent “Red” from overrunning Taiwan’s defense forces. And U.S. forces pay a high price for that failure, losing scores of modern aircraft and ships and incurring thousands of casualties in the opening days of the war. The forces of adversaries less capable than China, including Russia, North Korea, and Iran, are also fielding capabilities that can significantly increase the costs and risks of military intervention, compared to the operations undertaken by U.S. forces since the end of the Cold War.

This does not necessarily mean that the United States will lose the wars that it may have to fight in the future, but it does mean that the ability to deter those wars has seriously eroded. If the essence of deterrence is confronting one’s adversaries with the real prospect of failure, there is a great deal to be done to restore the credibility of America’s deterrent. 



Re-establishing a credible posture against aggression by highly capable adversaries will call for sustained, coordinated efforts by the United States, its allies, and its key partners to rethink their approaches to defeating aggression and to recast important elements of their military forces and postures. Fortunately, wargames testing the viability of new operational concepts, postures, and capabilities show a way ahead that can support robust defenses against aggression even when U.S. and allied forces lack superiority in key domains.

Projecting Military Power Without Dominance

It is time for the United States to recast the basic approach to projecting military power that has been in place since the end of the Cold War. That strategy, which we characterize as decisive expeditionary force, held that, when confronted with a major aggressor somewhere in the world threatening U.S. interests, the United States would marshal overwhelming conventional force; project that power to the region and, perhaps, the homeland of the enemy; and impose its will on that country, producing decisive victory. The strategy was predicated on U.S. military forces that were superior in all domains to those of any adversary — land, air, sea, space, and cyber.

Much of that superiority is gone — surely with respect to China but in significant ways with respect to the forces of other, less powerful adversaries as well — and it is not coming back. At its root, the problem is that the United States and its allies no longer have a virtual monopoly on the technologies and capabilities that made them so dominant against the forces of nations like Iraq, Serbia, Libya, and Afghanistan — near-real-time sensing, high-capacity communications links, precision guidance via miniaturized electronics, and advanced software being primary among these. 

The good news is that U.S. and allied forces do not require superiority to defeat aggression by even their most powerful foes. If these forces are properly postured and equipped and if they learn to fight in new ways, they can impose robust obstacles to any adversary’s invasion force and, having thwarted the attack, degrade and destroy other elements of the enemy’s national power, providing strong incentives to end the conflict. The new approach to large-scale military operations that we advocate calls for major changes in three dimensions of U.S. and allied military planning and operations: force posture, sensing and targeting, and strike capabilities.  

First, the posture of U.S. forces based in Europe and, especially, in the Western Pacific today is inadequate in two ways. Those forces lack sufficient combat power to seize the initiative from China or a reconstituted Russia. And U.S. and allied bases are too vulnerable to attacks by salvos of accurate ballistic and cruise missiles. Planners should find ways to bring combat power to bear in highly contested battlespaces much more quickly than was the case in the post-Cold War era — that is, without a lengthy period of mobilization and reinforcement. They should also reduce the exposure of forward-based forces to precision attacks. 

Secondly, sensing and targeting — the ability to locate the enemy, understand the broader military situation, and orchestrate operations accordingly remains central to success on the battlefield. Understanding this, America’s most capable adversaries have fielded a welter of capabilities, including multilayered air defenses, counterspace weapons, cyber warfare, and electronic jamming, intended to deny these abilities to U.S. forces. Too many of the systems that U.S. forces currently rely on to build a picture of the dynamic battlespace will be unable to function effectively in this new environment. New approaches are therefore needed to enable defending forces to reach into highly contested battlespaces and observe, identify, and track enemy forces from the very outset of hostilities to enable effective attacks on the enemy. 

Thirdly, strike capabilities — for Operation Desert Storm, the coalition deployed on the order of 2,000 combat aircraft at land and sea bases within 1,000 kilometers of enemy territory. That worked because Iraq’s air force was no match for America’s, and Iraq at that time had only a few hundred short- and medium-range missiles, all of which were highly inaccurate. Doing that in a conflict against an adversary like China, which fields thousands of highly accurate missiles, would be a recipe for disaster, yet U.S. forces have made little progress in developing and fielding viable alternatives. Ways should be found to generate and deliver combat power against the enemy’s invasion force from the outset of hostilities without risking the loss of excessive numbers of forces. 

If U.S. and allied forces can perform these functions effectively, even in the highly contested environments that advanced adversaries will create, the prospects for deterrence and a successful initial defense will be greatly enhanced. But while being able to prevent enemy forces from achieving their principal territorial objectives is necessary for a successful campaign, it may not be sufficient to compel a termination of hostilities. U.S. and allied forces should, therefore, also be able to defend their homelands and, over time, to hunt down and destroy enemy forces that were not attrited during the counter-invasion phase of the war, and do so at manageable cost and risk. 

This emerging approach is quite different from the operations undertaken by U.S. forces since the end of the Cold War, but something akin to it will be necessary to defeat aggression by powerful states that have the ability in a conflict to seize the initiative and move quickly to secure their principal objectives. U.S. and coalition forces simply cannot count on having the time they would need to deploy to the theater and fight to gain dominance in key domains before attacking the enemy’s invasion force at scale. And herein lies the nub of the problem: Neither today’s force nor forces currently programmed by the U.S. Department of Defense appear to have the capabilities needed to execute this new approach. Significant changes to the U.S. defense program and to the forces of key allies and partners will be needed to ensure that those forces can, in combination, respond promptly to threats of an invasion, establish robust means for finding and targeting the enemy invasion force, rapidly damage and contain that force, and conduct sustained follow-on operations. 

Especially in the case of China, speed is of the essence. It is not known whether China’s military and political leaders yet have confidence in the ability of their forces to prevail in a major conflict with Taiwan and the United States, but the U.S. defense establishment has surely not done enough to deny them that confidence. U.S. forces, posture, and operational concepts over the past two decades have remained an essentially static and predictable target against which China has developed increasingly potent threats. 

Decisive action is needed to solidify a new operational concept for joint and combined forces; select key investment priorities; produce game-changing systems at scale; and field these in new, resilient postures in both the Indo-Pacific and European regions. 

Priorities for Force Modernization 

Fortunately, numerous opportunities exist that can allow U.S. and allied force planners to field forces that can execute all four elements of the new approach. 

First, with regard to posture, the United States should deploy additional forces and support assets in the Western Pacific and in Europe, ensuring that they can be operated during wartime in ways that make them difficult for the enemy to locate, track, and attack. When possible, priority should be accorded to systems that can be deployed in large numbers and that are less reliant than current systems on elaborate base infrastructures and logistics tails. Promising candidates include unmanned undersea vehicles; runway-independent unmanned aerial vehicles; and, in Europe, mobile artillery, rocket, and missile systems. For forces, such as manned aircraft, that need runways and other fixed infrastructure, cost-effective passive measures, such as expedient aircraft shelters, fuel bladders, runway repair assets, and force dispersal, can significantly increase survivability. 

Second, the United States, its allies, and its partners should jointly develop and deploy systems that can be used to create robust sensing and targeting grids in contested battlespaces. New technologies for sensors, autonomy, and automatic target recognition make it possible for small air, space, land, and maritime platforms to collect and share data and to process those data onboard, generating the information that joint and combined forces need to target moving enemy forces. Key attributes of these sensing grids should be affordability and mass. The sensors and the platforms carrying them should be inexpensive enough that the defending force can feed them into the battlespace in large numbers and do so quickly enough to overwhelm or exhaust enemy defenses. Promising candidates for this include maritime drones; unattended ground sensors; small unmanned aerial vehicles; and small satellites, including civil-sector constellations. Examples of all of these exist today, albeit at varying levels of maturity. 

Third, in order to be confident of defeating invasions by China or a reconstituted Russia, American, allied, and partner forces need much larger quantities of specialized weapons and munitions than they have heretofore fielded. Weapons that can engage moving forces — ships, armored columns, and aircraft — from stand-off deserve special emphasis because they can enable effective attacks on the invasion force without requiring that the enemy’s air defenses first be suppressed or dismantled. Promising candidates include stand-off antiship cruise missiles and antiarmor weapons that can be delivered by long-range bombers, mobile missile launchers, and large-displacement unmanned underwater vehicles. Hypersonic weapons, although not a panacea, can make important contributions to denying a fait accompli by destroying the invader’s surface-to-air missile systems, thus increasing the survivability of subsonic weapons. The war in Ukraine is also highlighting the value of small, “killer” drones, also known as loitering munitions, for locating and attacking moving vehicles, even in the face of conventional air defenses. 

The table below summarizes the sorts of capabilities that wargaming and associated analysis show are called for in order to enable the new approach to power projection described here.  


The United States cannot and should not on its own attempt to develop the requisite operational concepts, postures, and capabilities required to realize this new approach to defeating aggression. The imperative for allied and partner participation is about more than just generating the resources needed for a credible combined defense. Because deterrence is about more than raw military power, solidarity among the leading democratically governed nations is required in diplomatic and economic dimensions as well. And closer cooperation and interdependence in the defense arena will have beneficial spillover effects in other areas, helping facilitate coordinated action to meet common challenges. 

To decision-makers with already-full plates, this may seem like a rather daunting to-do list. Accomplishing it will require sustained focus and the commitment of substantial resources. But the changes in strategy, posture, and operational concepts advocated here do not require wholesale changes to military force structures and platforms. The innovations that are called for are focused mainly on what the Department of Defense calls enablers — sensors, software, munitions, base infrastructure, pre-positioning, and sustainment assets. Many of the needed types of munitions are already in production, albeit in insufficient quantities. To the extent that new platforms, such as unmanned underwater vehicles and runway-independent drones, are part of the answer, they can be built using mature technologies and should be engineered for affordability rather than for high levels of survivability. Aggressively pursuing innovations along these lines does not seem like a high price to pay to meet the challenges posed by states that seek to upend the international order that has served the causes of peace and prosperity for more than 70 years. 



David Ochmanek is a senior international/defense researcher at the RAND Corporation. From 2009 until 2014, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development. Prior to joining the Office of the Secretary of Defense, he was a senior defense analyst and director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program for Project AIR FORCE at RAND. He has also served in the U.S. Air Force and the Foreign Service of the United States.

Andrew Hoehn is senior vice president and director of research and analysis at RAND Corporation. He is the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy where he was responsible for developing and implementing U.S. force planning and assessments in addition to long-range policy planning.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Matthew J. Bragg