While on his way to the African Land Forces Summit in Tanzania last weekend, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, complained that "Today, a Major in the Army knows nothing but fighting terrorists and guerrillas, because he came into the Army after 9/11. But as we get into the higher-end threats, our skills have atrophied over 15 years." According to the New York Times, the Army's top commander expressed concern over whether his forces could fight a large land war where an "established adversary" (meaning a rival national power) could bring sophisticated air defenses, tanks, infantry, naval power and even cyber-weapons into battle. He apparently left out the threat of enemy air power, though both Russia and China are capable of challenging the U.S. and its allies in that arena as well.
In this interview, Gen. Milley was merely repeating what he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in more detail last month, "My military risk refers specifically to what I see as emerging threats and potential for great power conflict and I am specifically talking about the time it takes to execute the task ... and the cost in terms of casualties." Milley told the politicians that he had already submitted a classified assessment to Marine General Joseph Dunford, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and to Defense Secretary Ash Carter characterizing the military's risk as "high."
Budget cuts have reduced the Army to 980,000 total soldiers, including Reserve and National Guard. Only 450,000 are Active duty, and that could fall to 430,000 if sequestration (across the board budget caps imposed without the slightest bit of rational thought) is continued next year. Yet, with the emerging and current threats in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, Gen. Milley believes as many as 1.2 million soldiers are needed in the Total Force to meet requirements. And these troops will need more training and newer weapons, as Milley expressed concern that the resurgent Russian army can match U.S. units in tanks and artillery--- assuming the U.S. can even deploy its units. Milley testified that only one-third of the Army's brigades are ready for combat. Unwise budget moves, pushed by the White House and adopted by Congress, have hollowed out the American military even as troops are being sent off to war.
While Milley argued that Russia is the number one foreign threat, given its aggression in Ukraine and intervention in league with Iran in Syria, Moscow is not the only danger. And the U.S. Army is not the only service at risk. The rise of China and its expansionist claims all along the Pacific Rim are breeding a confrontation that could turn violent at any time and require an American air and naval response.
On May 13, the Pentagon released its annual report to Congress on Chinese Military and Security Developments. It states,
Chinese leaders have characterized modernization of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) as essential to achieving great power status and what Chinese President Xi Jinping calls the "China Dream" of national rejuvenation. They portray a strong military as critical to advancing Chinese interests, preventing other countries from taking steps that would damage those interests, and ensuring that China can defend itself and its sovereignty claims.
Those sovereignty claims have centered on its construction of "outposts" in the South China Sea which can serve as military bases for naval, air and missile units that could control vital sealanes and access to vast underwater mineral wealth, in violation of international law and in contention with the claims of neighboring states. According to the report, China added 3,200 acres to its eight outposts in the Spratly islands in the last two years. It has not only built airfields, it has deployed warplanes to them, along with air defense missiles. Anti-ship missiles cannot be far behind, given the priority Beijing has given to "anti-access" weapons development.
The PLA Air Force is the third largest in the world, with 2,100 combat aircraft. The PLAAF is replacing older aircraft with new ones, thereby "rapidly closing the gap" with the U.S. in quality. It is doing the same with its Navy, which now has more than 300 surface ships (which is more than the U.S. Navy has). Though the USN has more advanced ships, not to mention its aircraft carrier fleet, China is building "larger, multi-mission ships equipped with advanced anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors" to upgrade its capabilities and close the gap. Aircraft carriers will be part of this mix. The PLAN will also deploy more submarines than possessed by the USN, though America will still have a large edge in nuclear powered subs. Still, advanced electric subs have come a long way in all dimensions of naval warfare. Armed with cruise missiles, these submarines are not just a threat to surface ships but to ports and airbases. Of course, Beijing's vast arsenal of land-based missiles already has brought U.S. and allied bases into range across Asia.
It should be noted that while Beijing (in concert with Moscow) continues to protest any creation of a U.S. anti-missile defense system, the Pentagon reports that China's construction of an air defense screen extending 300 nautical miles out from its coast includes an anti-missile capability. Beijing is also working hard to knock out the space-based surveillance and communications systems upon which the U.S. depends for its global operations. The report notes that directed energy weapons, satellite jammers, and kinetic kill vehicles are all in the works.
Meanwhile, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Frank Kendall has warned that America is losing its technological advantage vis-à-vis China (and Russia) in the air, space and at sea, and in electronics, surveillance and communications. No wonder Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John M. Richardson told the "Future of War" conference in March that "While we still enjoy a margin of superiority right now, I would argue that if we don't pick up the pace we will certainly not meet our potential and, worse, may fall behind our competitors."
Beijing's reaction to the Pentagon report was critical as expected; but also showed confidence in its growing strength. An editorial in Global Times, the official voice of the ruling Communist Party, argued "the buildup of the Chinese military has not gone beyond the need of a major power's strategic defense and coordinates with the thriving Chinese economy, it has won wide support from society." It concludes "The US will continue its war of words toward China. But it is most important for China to know that they cannot forcibly disrupt China's development. The biggest insurance for China's national security and independence comes from its overall strength. The military buildup is a must, especially nowadays."
If only there were such assurances about U.S. national security and independence being given on the campaign trail by this year's presidential candidates. Instead, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are more focused on offering "free stuff" to voting blocks. Whether tax cuts from the Republicans or social programs from the Democrats, the fiscal priorities of both parties will only increase budget deficits and, inevitably, further starve the Pentagon of essential funding (to be fair, Trump has pledged to rebuild the military but has not said where the money would come from). House and Senate Republicans cannot agree how best to provide money to overcome what House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) calls "a readiness crisis" in the face of a veto threat from President Barack Obama.
And while everyone wants to destroy Islamic State terrorism, there is little enthusiasm for committing the forces to do it (especially ground troops)----and no interest in expanding the high-end units (armor, warships, aircraft) needed to meet the concerns of Gen. Milley and Adm. Richardson about the rising challenges from Russia, China and the proxies they arm and train (like Iran). If American politicians are befuddled at the low end of the conflict spectrum, there is little hope they can provide competent leadership when enemies decide to escalate to gain victories that can truly change the balance of power in the world.
William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.
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