The US could lose a future war against Russia or China, a new report to Congress has suggested.
America is losing its edge while rivals innovate and blend conventional, cyber and even non-military capabilities to gain the upper hand in key regions, according to a dozen national security experts tasked by politicians with scrutinising Donald Trump’s national defence strategy.
The bipartisan group, led by former undersecretary of defence Eric Edelman and Gary Roughead, an ex-chief of naval operations, wrote: “The US military could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets in its next conflict.
“It might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia. The United States is particularly at risk of being overwhelmed should its military be forced to fight on two or more fronts simultaneously. US military superiority is no longer assured and the implications for American interests and American security are severe.”
The unquestioned dominance the US enjoyed at the end of the Cold War no longer holds, the expert commission concluded following interviews with key defence officials and reviews of secret documents, and Washington faces serious challenges to its interests in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
The experts identified Mr Trump’s tax reform bill – which greatly benefited the most wealthy – as having drained potential defence funding, alongside tax cuts by both his immediate predecessors. The White House should look to increase taxation and slash entitlements to drastically increase funding available for the military despite the short-term “pain” the move would cause, they suggested.
The US spends more than any other country on defence – budgeting $716bn in 2019, about three times the investment made by the next-biggest spender, China, in 2018. Its military is the most powerful in the world, boasting the most powerful navy with 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers; 1.3 million active-duty troops; the most advanced fighter aircraft; the second-biggest nuclear arsenal, after Russia; and decades of experience of close working between its separate branches. The US has used its armed forces to project influence around the world for more than a century, though not always successfully.
Despite all that, the commission recommended that the base defence budget be increased by between 3 and 5 per cent above inflation over the next several years. According to the authors, Barack Obama’s 2011 Budget Control Act had had “pronounced detrimental effects on the size, modernisation, and readiness of the military”. Mr Trump made building up America’s armed forces a central campaign pledge and the experts said his strategy was on the right track, but did not go far enough.
Providing For The Common Defence, their report, claimed the US was in the grip of a “full-blown national security crisis” because “the number and geographic diversity of security challenges, the technical sophistication of US rivals and adversaries, and other factors, mean that America’s military capabilities are insufficient to address the growing dangers the country faces”.
In particular it identified hybrid warfare and what is known as “grey-zone aggression – intimidation and coercion in the space between war and peace – [which] has become the tool of choice for many”. The authors included senior former Defence Department staffers, ex-diplomats, a former CIA deputy director, a senator, former senior military personnel, and think-tank experts.
They said China posed a “particularly daunting” strategic threat due to “predatory economic statecraft” and its build-up in the South China Sea, a major global shipping route, as well as rapid military reform. Beijing has created new islands in the South China Sea and equipped them with both weaponry and bases, extending its influence over waters it claims as its own – to the consternation of Washington, London and its regional neighbours.
Both US Navy and Royal Navy vessels have sailed through the South China Sea region to assert freedom of navigation rights. America’s former top admiral in the Pacific, and current ambassador to South Korea, has repeatedly warned of Beijing’s ambitions in the area and said earlier this year that the US should prepare for conflict there. America’s Pacific Command would “struggle to compete with” the People’s Liberation Army unless the threat was taken seriously, Harry Harris told Congress.
Mr Trump has frequently denounced what he called Beijing’s “unfair trade practices” and launched a trade war by instituting tariffs between the two countries.
His defence plan drew praise for emphasising competition with China and Russia as the key issue shaping the US military’s future, but the experts said it did not “articulate clear approaches to succeeding in peacetime competition or wartime conflict against those rivals”. Special focus must be placed on technological advancement and interoperability, they added.
Meanwhile, Iran and North Korea were expanding their military capacity, the authors said, and jihadist groups constituted a fifth “credible challenger” on the global stage. The US must have a military able to fight two wars at once, they wrote, as opposed to Mr Trump’s plan for “what is functionally a one-war force sizing construct”.
Kathleen Hicks, one of the report’s authors and the international security director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, told The Washington Post: “There is a strong fear of complacency, that people have become so used to the United States achieving what it wants in the world, to include militarily, that it isn’t heeding the warning signs.”
But Dr Nicola Leveringhaus, a war studies lecturer at King’s College London, told The Independent that a US defeat by China “remains unlikely”, despite Beijing’s “advancements in conventional and asymmetric, especially cyber and AI, technology”. She said: “China cannot realistically catch up in the near to medium term with the US military in either a qualitative or quantitative sense [because] it does not have the economy or skills to do so.”
She also said: “The bigger, and more likely fear, is of escalation to a nuclear level involving China or Russia. This could happen inadvertently, from either side, through poor communication and the deployment of dual-use weapons systems that can be mistaken as escalatory in nature.”
Both the US and China would prefer to avoid a war, she said, but added: “Unfortunately, neither side has managed to set up continuous and regular “track one” [official diplomatic] meetings that cover military issues, and the militaries don’t talk to one another at a high level.
“Misunderstandings and poor communication are a big problem in bilateral relations. This problem existed under Obama too, the difference now under Trump is that the public narrative, especially from the bipartisan US side, is far more recriminatory and anti-China, and there was no “trade war” under Obama.”
Addressing international concern over China’s increased activity in the South China Sea, Dr Leveringhaus told The Independent Beijing was now reaping the benefits of a “decades-long military modernisation underway especially since Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, of which certain new weapons systems are now coming online under Xi Jinping”.
She added: “Given that China was such a weak military power in the 1970s and 1980s, the results of its military modernisation [as] evidenced in its navy especially, but also in the next decade in its air force too, this presents a fundamentally stronger military China – the strongest People's Republic in military terms since its establishment in 1949.
“This is uncomfortable for regional powers that are already concerned by China’s broader re-emergence and economic power, and upsetting to a US that has been militarily dominant and unrivalled in Asia since the mid to late 1940s.”
Defence officials said on Thursday that the US military would withdraw hundreds of troops from counter-terrorism missions in Africa to bolster the Pentagon’s focus on opposing China and Russia as part of the plan laid out in Mr Trump’s national defence strategy. Russia, however, recently suffered a blow to its force projection capacity when a huge dry dock holding its sole aircraft carrier, the ageing Admiral Kuznetsov, sank, putting back the Soviet-era vessel’s refit by months or even years.
Vladimir Putin has been forthright about his desire to strengthen Russia’s military and has boasted particularly of its missile capacity and innovations.
China, which bought Kuznetsov’s sister hull for use as a training ship and converted it into the Liaoning, has since launched its own home-grown aircraft carrier called the Type 001A.
Also on Thursday, Mike Pence told leaders of southeast Asian countries that “empire and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific”. Speaking in Singapore but without mentioning China directly, he added: “Like you, we seek an Indo-Pacific in which all nations, large and small, can prosper and thrive, secure in our sovereignty, confident in our values, and growing stronger together”.
On Friday, North Korea announced its leader, Kim Jong-un, had observed a successful test of a new “tactical weapon” which the official propaganda agency, KCNA, said could protect the country like a “steel wall”. And just days ago commercial satellite images revealed more than a dozen undeclared North Korean missile bases.
Mr Trump and Mr Kim signed an agreement to work towards “denuclearisation”on the peninsula during their unprecedented meeting earlier this year, but little headway has been made since.
The US president, while saying he will build up his own military forces, has also berated his Nato allies for failing to do the same. Europe should no longer take American military support for granted, he has said, urging other Nato countries to meet the defence spending target of 2 per cent of GDP in often undiplomatic language.
Yet the defence strategy, published by his government, acknowledged that “mutually beneficial alliances and partnerships are crucial to our strategy, providing a durable, asymmetric strategic advantage that no competitor or rival can match”.
The Trump administration’s strategy said it aimed to create “a more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating joint force [that], combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, will sustain American influence and ensure favourable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order”. The military would work with all domestic departments of government, law enforcement bodies and other groups “to address areas of economic, technological, and informational vulnerabilities”, it continued.
Source: The Independent