Preparing for Great Power Conflict

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS February 5, 2018

 One of the great lessons of history is that all post-war eras become interwar periods as world affairs continue to cycle through their familiar patterns of conflict. Terrorist groups are growing into armies with territorial ambitions. Those insurgents backed by established powers have the advantage as the scale of warfare increases. Middle powers like Iran are spreading their influence while seeking new capabilities. But these developments are happening under the umbrella of the resurgence of Great Powers seeking to supplant the United States. Russia is embarked on a revanchist campaign in Europe and has directly intervened in Syria in league with Iran. And there is a "rising China" posing a menace across Asia and looking to further penetrate Africa and other regions with its global "belt and road" project.           

The recently released National Defense Strategy drawn up by the Trump administration identified Great Power competition with Russia and China as the major challenges facing the United States. The House Armed Services Committee has a hearing on the NDF scheduled for February 6, but held a hearing on January 30 on "Readying the U.S. Military for Future Warfare" that addressed many of the problems a conflict with either Russia or China would entail. The three witnesses, all from private think tanks, delivered detailed and thoughtful testimony which was also complementary rather than repetitive.           

Paul Scharre, Senior Fellow and Director of Technology and National Security at the Center for a New American Security, focused on operational issues, particularly in regard to China. He called for "increased investment in: long-range strike, stealthy uninhabited aircraft to hunt for mobile targets, advanced munitions, electronic warfare, and undersea strike." He lamented the fact that American airpower, both USAF and Navy, is limited to mainly short-range tactical fighters which put their bases and carriers within preemptive range of China's large intermediate-range missile force. He opened his remarks by recounting

a recent simulation of a war in the Western Pacific, colleagues of mine at the Center for a New American Security showed that a Chinese missile strike on U.S. bases in the region could destroy more than 200 aircraft on the ground, crater every runway at U.S. airbases in Japan, hit almost every major headquarters within minutes of a conflict starting, destroy key logistical facilities, and hit almost every U.S. ship in port in Japan.           

Even without such a devastating "first strike", the limited range of American warplanes will hamper the projection of power, particularly carrier based, in the face of China's robust arsenal of anti-access weapons. He urges the more rapid development and large-scale procurement of the B-21 Raider strategic bomber with stealth capabilities which will allow it to penetrate enemy defenses early in a conflict. I worked for a senior member of the HASC who vigorously opposed the Clinton Administration decision to curtail procurement of the B-2 Spirit bomber which entered service in 1993. The USAF initially wanted 132 of these magnificent aircraft, but President Clinton foolishly capped the program at a mere 21. With the Cold War over, all was supposed to be right in a world where perpetual peace was at hand. The White House even ignored its own 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review which argued, "In a majority of cases examined, additional B-2s deployed quickly to a conflict could improve our ability to halt an adversary's advance during the opening days of a major theater war. This was especially true where there would be little or no warning of the conflict or where our tactical aircraft would be restricted in their access to the theater." This is the type of strategic situation America faces today. Yet, less than half the 20 still existing B-2s are available at any time for combat operations, even though in every scenario for a future conflict the B-2 is expected to lead the way as it did in Iraq and as it has been used to intimidate North Korea.           

The Air Force currently plans to buy 100 B-21 Raiders, though that production run could (and should) be extended. However, current budget battles may delay the project as continuing resolutions will keep the program at 2017 spending levels when it needs more money to advance its engineering, manufacturing and development phases.

Scharre also advocates the development of long-range uninhabited aircraft for both the Air Force and Navy to perform strike missions. He expressed harsh criticism of the two services for only looking at UAVs for support duties and not central combat roles. Having worked from 2008-2013 in the Office of the Secretary of Defense establishing policies on unmanned and autonomous systems and emerging weapons technologies, Scharre sees great potential for such weapons, and not just in the air. He recommends the development of robotic submarines and surface ships "to act as additional missile batteries to augment destroyers." And to give more life to existing aircraft, he calls for the development of longer range stand-off weapons.             

Though Scharre's testimony was dominated by the long-range strike issue, he is also aware that victory is ultimately realized on the ground. He called for an Increase in the number of active duty armored brigade combat teams, improved air defenses to protect troops in a future environment where U.S. air superiority is not uncontested, more precision artillery, and, of course, the development of robotic systems for ground combat.           

Thomas G. Mahnken, President and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, took the issue to the level of grand strategy by emphasizing the economic foundations of Great Power competition. "We need a defense industrial base, and a national security innovation base, that is capable of supporting protracted operations. For two decades, the watchword has been 'efficiency' rather than 'effectiveness.' Moreover, in a globalized, interdependent world, we need to think carefully about foreign investment in strategic industries that bear on defense." This means that President Trump's campaign to change U.S. trade policy to bring industry back to America after decades of "out sourcing" to factories overseas has a large national security component and is not just about creating domestic jobs.           

Many corporations felt that with the end of the Cold War they could conduct international business on their own account without regard to national consequences; and too many politicians were willing to let them in exchange for campaign contributions or on the basis of the simpleton theory of "free trade/" Those days are over.           

Jim Thomas, Principle and Co-Founder of the Telemus Group and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, also stressed economics but went beyond the macro-level. He argued, "Our defense industrial base, however, is ill-suited for such a conflict. While the United States and its close allies have in the aggregate excess capacity for shipbuilding and aircraft manufacturing, they have grossly inadequate industrial capacity for precision munitions, trusted foundries for microelectronics, and advanced sensor production to support a large-scale and likely protracted war against one or more great powers."           

Thomas also notes "China's military challenge is driven largely by the wealth it has generated as an economic powerhouse and used to acquire formidable full-spectrum military capabilities for righting what it perceives as a century of foreign humiliation." The foolish open trade policy Washington has followed with China in recent decades has transferred the wealth Beijing it is using to menace America. Over the last twenty years, the U.S. has sent over $4 trillion to China via the lop-sided trade deficit, supporting Chinese growth. In the process, American (and European) firms have also transferred massive amounts of technology, capital and managerial knowledge to empower the Communist regime.           

President Trump has yet to fully implement the policies promised during his presidential campaign to end this dangerous shift of strategic resources across the Pacific. He has stayed his hand in a vain attempt to persuade a duplicitous Beijing to take decisive action against North Korea. But if the NDS is to be taken seriously going forward, measures must be implemented not only to strengthen the U.S. economy but to weaken that of China. It was American economic superiority that won the Cold War without the conflict turning hot. The Soviets became convinced that they could not compete against a rival with resources it could not come close to matching. Despite Vladimir Putin's bluster, the Russian economy is still quite weak. The Chinese, however, believe they can close the gap.           

Of course, an adequate level of national resources needs to be committed to the military both to deter war and to prevail should deterrence fail. All would agree with Mahnken that "we need to field armed forces that possess depth and resilience to be able to fight, accept damage, and recover. Today, our forces lack readiness and are in dire need of modernization." This may be difficult in our current bitter partisan environment. The Left openly rejects the idea of national security and even national identity in favor of divisive campaigns that mock the notion of "making American great again." Thus, Mahnken's warning "we will need to develop ways to identify and counter foreign efforts to influence our society, and that of our allies. Russia and China have been practicing political warfare on us for some time, and the magnitude of those efforts is only now becoming apparent. We need to develop countermeasures and responses to those efforts." Disunity at home is what gives our strategic rivals the openings they need to twist our politics to their advantage. Thus, marginalizing the "enemies within" is a key part of any national strategy to prevail in the global Great Power competition. 

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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