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The Military We Need

A strategic approach to affordable and effective defense.

11:00 PM, Dec 22, 2008 • By STUART KOEHL
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A study of history shows that a peer competitor can emerge out of nowhere in less than a decade, assuming that economic, social and strategic conditions are right. In 1861, Germany was an aggregation of petty principalities and middle-sized kingdoms, dwarfed in importance by the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. By 1871, Germany was an empire dominating central Europe and vying for European hegemony. In 1920, Japan was a struggling country barely out of its feudal past; by 1940, Japan was in position to contest control of the Pacific with the United States. In 1933, Germany had no military substantial military capabilities, no tanks, no combat aircraft, no heavy artillery, no submarines, no battleships. By 1939, well, you know that story. . .

It is true that the "fat years" of defense spending are coming to an end. The United States today spends about 4.0 to 4.5 percent of its GDP on defense, and that percentage is not likely to increase; on the other hand, given the competition between discretionary and mandatory (entitlement) spending, it could fall very much, depending on whether the Obama administration decides to establish new and extraordinarily expensive mandates for health care and other social issues. This is what makes the Times call for the gutting of advanced defense programs--only if defense is cut to the bone can the "Change We've Been Waiting For" come to pass. And that can only happen if we limit our strategic time horizon to the next five years, a period in which we have two limited wars to fight and no real threat of a major regional war.

But no country can afford to be so strategically myopic, and looking forward, the fact is the United States must be capable of fighting the full spectrum of possible conflicts, from high intensity regional war to low-intensity counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. However, in investing its finite resources in its national security, the United States can and must weigh the potential for and consequences of each type of warfare.

It is undeniable that, at present and for the foreseeable future, low intensity conflict will be the predominant challenge for the U.S. military. This category runs the gamut from guerrilla warfare, to insurgencies, to terrorism, to piracy to even more asymmetrical responses such as cyber and economic warfare. In that regard, the United States is a victim of its own success in high intensity warfare--after two demonstrations against Saddam Hussein, no minor regional power would be insane enough to challenge us symmetrically in a conventional war.

It is true that a "peer competitor" could emerge within the next two decades that had the economic resources and political will to build up a military force capable of meeting that challenge, but who would that competitor be? Russia is decrepit and in both economic and demographic free fall. India has the potential, but not the will. That leaves China. Assuming it does not implode from its own economic and political inconsistencies, China could build a modern military force with the capabilities to fight the United States conventionally to secure its national strategic objectives, which apparently include recognition of its hegemony in Asia, reintegration of Taiwan into China, and the securing of natural resource areas in and around the South China Sea.

But examine the map for a second. To the north, south and west, China is bounded by Russia, Indo-China, the Himalayan Mountains and the Gobi Desert. China lives in a strategic cul de sac, where distance, terrain, and logistics make expansion overland both difficult and expensive. In addition, the overland routes do not take China in the strategic directions it wishes to go. If China is to get out of its box, then it must go by sea or by air.

There are strategic and force structure implications here for the United States. If China cannot engage the United States by land, then conversely the United States cannot engage China by land, either. Where could we insert and sustain a substantial ground force on the mainland of Asia? Why would we wish to do so? Our only substantial mainland ally is South Korea, and we already have forces present to deter invasion from North Korea. In the event of a war with China, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps will be limited to raids and to the occupation or recapture of various islands which the Chinese may wish to occupy themselves.