After nearly two straight decades of counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism warfare, the United States has found itself at a disadvantage compared to the smaller and less technologically advanced militaries of China and Russia in some circumstances. With these nation-level competitors enjoying the lead in hypersonic missile technology, long-range artillery technology, and even the development of new and more capable nuclear weapons, America now finds itself in a difficult position, as the realization sets in that simply having the largest military on the planet may not be enough to secure victory in a near-peer conflict.
“If the United States had to fight Russia in a Baltic contingency or China in a war over Taiwan, Americans could face a decisive military defeat,” the bi-partisan National Defense Strategy Commission concluded in November. Now, experts from RAND Corporation are backing up those assessments.
Within the United States, it’s often seen as “click bait” or somehow unpatriotic to assess that the mighty U.S. military may not be able to win some fights, but according to warfare analysts at the RAND Corporation, that’s exactly how many simulations of a conflict with Russia near the Baltics or China near the Taiwan Strait tend to play out. Why? Well, there are a number of factors to consider.
First, the United States isn’t able to bring the entirety of its military to bear in nearly any conflict without leaving its flanks unprotected. That means a nation like China or Russia would likely never need to fight against the entire U.S. military (as these comparisons are often depicted) but rather against the forces America could muster in any given region.
Second, because the United States has been conducting combat operations the world over for nearly two straight decades, there is no shortage of intelligence-gathering opportunities regarding America’s way of war. That has enabled state-level competitors to develop weapons systems and train not to fight America’s war, but rather to take the fight to the weakest elements of America’s warfare infrastructure. Exploiting perceived weaknesses is a far more cost-effective means of warfare than large-scale, direct conflict.
“In our games, when we fight Russia and China, ‘blue’ gets its ass handed to it,” David Ochmanek, a RAND warfare analyst, explained to a crowd at the Center for a New American Security. “We lose a lot of people. We lose a lot of equipment. We usually fail to achieve our objective of preventing aggression by the adversary.”
Among America’s warfare dilemmas would be China’s anti-ship missile defenses, which would force American carriers to loiter more than a thousand miles from Chinese shores for safety. While sinking a carrier may be a significant undertaking, a few missiles finding their target could easily end flight operations, and at that range, no carrier-based aircraft could reach China’s shores to engage those anti-ship defenses. Unfortunately, things are even worse for the Brigade Combat Teams the U.S. and NATO have positioned throughout Europe to counter a Russian offensive. A barrage of conventional ballistic missiles could easily compromise a large swath of American and allied assets in the region.
“If we went to war in Europe, there would be one Patriot battery moving, and it would go to Ramstein (in Germany). And that’s it,” former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said. “We have 58 Brigade Combat Teams, but we don’t have anything to protect our bases. So what difference does it make?”
That single Patriot missile battery, Work points out, couldn’t possibly stop a wave of ballistic missiles raining down on different targets throughout Europe. It may serve as a deterrent against small tactical strikes, but would prove nearly useless in a large-scale invasion. These missiles would even prove extremely effective at taking out America’s premier stealth platform, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter–which may be difficult to target when airborne, but would be a sitting duck on unprotected airstrips.
“In every case I know of, the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky,” Work acknowledged about the simulations, “But it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”
The answer, Work contends, is developing a new approach to warfare that better leverages America’s strengths and bolsters defenses around the weaknesses China and Russia hope to attack. It’s important to note, of course, that there are countless other variables that would come into play in such a near-peer level conflict. Russia’s struggling economy would stifle any sort of large-scale offensive, and China’s overarching foreign policy strategy does not include a direct conflict with the United States (so much as the means to deter the American presence while usurping diplomatic power). It is, nonetheless, important to consider how a war could play out, in case these mitigating circumstances were to change.
“These are the things that the war games show over and over and over, so we need a new American way of war without question,” Work stressed.
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