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February 19, 2012

Requirement for a Paradigm Shift (2): Power UnProjection

by Mike M

In a previous post I argued that one trend forcing limits on US global posture would be the looming, inevitable, and structural press of financial realities.  (A new, detailed essay by Christopher Layne makes that case in far more detail.)  A second broad trend adding to the pressure on US national security planning is the fast-approaching moment when the US will be unable to project power into key regions of the world.  Put another way, we are moving rapidly toward an inflection point in relative US military capabilities.

The reasons are partly technological—the capabilities of other states, from Russia to China to Iran, to lay a beating on US naval or air forces that stick their necks into the beehive of regional “anti-access” or “area denial” architectures.  The specific means are numerous, rapidly advancing, and spreading to many actors, even non-state.  Carriers, for example, are menaced by anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, mines, and submarines, threats that become especially dangerous in littoral waters.  Meantime carrier and land-based aircraft are at risk from highly advanced air defense systems, whose capabilities furnish the justification for super-stealthy aircraft like the F-22.  Fleets of drones in the hands of regional powers or even non-state actors could provide the capability for swarming air attacks.

There are also tactical and doctrinal reasons why US military power is gradually being counteracted in ways more rapid and fundamental than most realize.  On land, adversaries can default to insurgent approaches and bog the US down in precisely the sort of war it no longer has the stomach, or checkbook, to fight.  At sea, opponents can employ widely-discussed asymmetric tactics like swarms of small boats, some of which are equipped with massive explosive charges or torpedoes.

Meantime there are emerging strategic asymmetric checks on the deployment of US power.  Certainly, China or Russia would be sustaining their own effects, but either has the ability—through financial or energy means—to threaten massive global consequences in response to an unwanted US deployment of force.  Both, moreover, very likely have the ability to cause huge cyber mayhem within the United States.  More and more actors are gaining space strike assets capable of ruining US global communications.  So as a US president was preparing to decide on a major regional force projection operation, he might just receive a 3 a.m. phone call—from Beijing, telling him to stand down if he valued his ports, transportation network, energy infrastructure, and satellite network.

A critical new RAND report by Paul Davis and Peter Wilson makes the case for an “impending crisis in defense planning.”  It ought to be required reading for anyone who cares about US national security.  Their bottom line is that

The United States is entering a period of discontinuity in its defense planning, something that may be seen by future historians as a planning crisis. … [T]he discontinuity stems from technology diffusion that is leveling aspects of the playing field militarily, geostrategic changes, and the range of potential adversaries.  These are leading to (1) the United States having to deal with a demanding mix of “complex operations” (e.g., counterinsurgency and stabilization) and traditional challenges; (2) the increasing difficulty of force projection in some important circumstances; (3) a related block obsolescence of U.S. forces and concepts of operations; and (4) the need for a new grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.

If you read no other part of the report, look at Table S.2 on page xiv, “Fading Viability of Traditional Concepts of Operations.”  It’s a disconcerting laundry list of the way emerging technologies and tactics are exploding US strategic and doctrinal assumptions.

The upshot is straightforward.  Joseph Nye re-states a cardinal element of the current conventional wisdom when he argues, in a new piece in International Studies Quarterly, that “military power is largely unipolar, and the United States is likely to retain primacy for quite some time.”  The analysis of the RAND report, and others like it, makes clear that this belief is a dangerous fallacy:  US military primacy is actually being eroded at an accelerating clip.  Advocates of primacy don’t want to believe it.  But then they didn’t want to believe we’d be stuck in Iraq for a decade, either, exhausting ourselves financially, politically, and militarily.  Wishful thinking can only get you so far in the face of unavoidable truths.

The RAND authors have some interesting suggestions for possible ways out of the trap, both in terms of military operational planning and grand strategy; but mostly, and properly, they are trying to raise the alarm, and start a dialogue, about revised US defense plans and global postures that take seriously emerging realities.  It is a dialogue that is badly overdue.  Because for the moment, US defense policy remains on autopilot, churning ahead with continued plans to do more of the same.

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