Last week the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an essay by Chris Brose, “The End of America’s Era of Military Primacy.” It described the inability of the U.S. to adapt to changes in the geopolitical landscape over the past thirty years. The U.S. mistakenly believed “that no adversary would be able to overmatch us technologically and deny our ability to project military power worldwide.” While the U.S. continued to spend billions building “large, expensive, and hard to replace” traditional platforms (i.e., ships, aircraft, satellites, vehicles), the world changed, said Chris Brose.
Instead of trying to confront the U.S. military directly, countries like China and Russia, developed strategies to undermine U.S. forces and how they operate. This new paradigm allows a less powerful nation to wage war against a stronger nation by continuously projecting the battlefield onto every aspect of life—trade, finance, economy, media, internet, environment. The war is everywhere, all the time, just not in a form most people recognize. The question then is how do you prevent a war that is everywhere and prevent escalation to actual violence?
Chris Brose described the U.S.’ missteps for the WSJ, “The core problem is that the decades-old assumptions underlying the U.S. military are increasingly obsolete.” Moreover, Mr. Brose writes, “[U.S.] leaders have continuously directed most defence resources to these traditional platforms.”
In ‘‘War on The Rocks’’, Lt. General David W. Barno, U.S.A. (Ret.) illustrates how ill-suited traditional military is when the ‘battlespace’ includes; “assassinating financial speculators to safeguard a nation’s financial security, setting up slush funds to influence opponents’ legislatures and governments, and buying controlling shares of stocks to convert an adversary’s major television and newspapers outlets into tools of media warfare.”
The Washington Post outlines some of the dangers of such a war, “There is a serious risk of miscalculation if, for example, there is a confrontation in the South China Sea. China could misinterpret a move, unleash a cyberattack, and trigger a real cyberwar.”
U.S. military dominance, as policy, spurred the country into an irrelevant arms race with itself and other countries to offset that dominance. Military spending in the U.S. has increased every year since 1991 (the fall of the Soviet Union), with the exception of the 2nd Obama administration. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the U.S. spent $732B on its military in 2019, that’s more than the next ten highest spenders combined. But massive spending hasn’t guaranteed dominance or deterrence. By using non-military and non-violent means, Russia annexed Crimea and China militarized the South China Sea despite the U.S.’ superior military.
The U.S. is asking the wrong question about its security. The question is not, ‘how does the U.S. maintain military dominance in the world?’ Instead, the United States needs to ask, ‘what keeps peace and security regardless of who is dominant?’ The answer is to take a similar holistic view and apply it to peace and security, of which, the military is just one part. Peace and security in the era of ‘unrestricted warfare’ includes a strong military but also engagement, diplomacy, and international coalitions. Moreover, an informed domestic populace is a necessary component. Disinformation campaigns can’t gain traction when the domestic audience trusts its government, its journalists, and its experts.
In 1999, two colonels in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui released a book entitled, “Unrestricted Warfare.” It describes tactics for defeating a superior military opponent (e.g. the United States) in a hi-tech war. As the title “unrestricted” implies, there are no rules to this new warfare and the battlefield is everywhere. The authors advocate for “…a multitude of means, both military and particularly non-military, to strike at the United States during times of conflict. Hacking into websites, targeting financial institutions, terrorism, using the media, and conducting urban warfare are among the methods proposed.” The authors describe a switch to “kinder weapons” focused on paralyzing and undermining, not personnel casualties.
China is not alone in this pursuit. Russia practices similar non-military strategies including political, economic, informational, technological, and ecological schemes. The Russian model prioritizes influence over destruction; decay from within; and culture as a weapon. Furthermore, since Russia prefers nonmilitary, nonviolent measures, this new generation war rarely boils over into full-scale armed conflict. In addition, Russian strategy emphasizes the importance of deception and misinformation to conceal its aggressive operations.
The best example of this was during the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Uniformed, armed troops lacking any national insignias occupied (without actual violence) airports and government buildings in Ukraine. These green uniformed soldiers without national identity were quickly called, “little green men.” It was plain to see they were using Russian weapons, but President Vladimir Putin claimed they were “groups of local militias who had seized their weapons from the Ukrainian Army.”
It’s clear that a strong military is an important and necessary component of deterrence. However, the U.S.’ over-reliance on its military is untenable. It requires a disproportionate amount of resources spent on military components that have been made less relevant by a new definition of warfare. Furthermore, an over-reliance on the military is in itself a weakness. RealClearDefense cited research that found most military interventions since World War II have rarely achieved their intended political objectives, yet the number of interventions has actually increased since the Cold War. Ironically, the research found it was the overuse of the military that “provide[d] an opportunity for competitors who are far outmatched militarily, to find chinks in America’s armor.” The continued focus on military solutions as the driver of U.S. foreign policy will bankrupt the country and make the U.S. less safe.
The more peaceful means of defense—strong institutions, international coalitions, and diplomacy—may be the less expensive, more secure, and less corruptible solutions.