Would the US Really Lose a War With China and Russia?


A new study offers little evidence for its bold generalizations that the U.S. is losing its ability to win a state-vs-state war.

One of the first things one learns as an infantry platoon leader is that he who tries to secure everything with his soldiers on the battlefield usually ends up securing nothing. Unfortunately for U.S. national security, this old maxim appears to have been forgotten at the strategic and political level by some of America’s brightest minds in the defense community as evidenced in a recent report.

The November 2018 study Providing for the Common Defense, issued by the National Defense Strategy Commission, a congressionally-mandated blue-ribbon panel led by former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman and retired U.S. Navy Admiral Gary Roughead, recommends that the United States should spend more on its armed forces and reinforce its global military presence lest Washington be confronted by a national security emergency at a period when the nation is at a “greater risk than at any time in decades.”

The reason for this seems simple: The United States is purportedly losing the ability to defend its allies and partners, as well as its own vital interests, as a result of a weakened military. (Notably, the study endorses the findings of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.) Consequently, the report pushes for an increase in defense spending, the acquisition of additional military capabilities in key areas, and a general boost of the readiness of U.S. forces in order to meet the aggression of authoritarian competitors China and Russia; the rogue states of Iran and North Korea; and transnational threat organizations including radical jihadist groups.

The report suggests that the United States stay the course, indeed double down, on its global defense commitments, rebuild its military strength, and more assertively confront its adversaries. In short, the authors of the study once more sing the Groundhog Day paean of the bipartisan U.S. defense establishment. While the study diagnoses a new reality of major power competition and conflict, its prescription to resolve the alleged national security crisis is blatantly generic and, once stripped of the usual idioms found in such reports (e.g., credibility, whole-of-government, holistic strategies, etc.) can be summed up in two words: more money.

“The costs of failing to meet America’s crisis of national defense and national security will not be measured in abstract concepts like ‘international stability’ and ‘global order,’” the report cautions. “They will be measured in American lives, American treasure, and American security and prosperity lost. It will be a tragedy — of unforeseeable but perhaps tremendous magnitude — if the United States allows its national interests and national security to be compromised through an unwillingness or inability to make hard choices and necessary investments.”

Unfortunately, the report fails to make a good case for the very existence of this presumed national defense and security crisis. Nor does it in any way help “make hard choices” when it comes to defense spending as the basic premise underlying the analysis of the U.S. armed forces beyond a “the bigger, the better” approach. Additionally, the two major causes for this crisis, as outlined in the study, the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) and a failure to enact timely appropriations, as well as the manifold threats posed by the four countries cited above and transnational threat organizations, are insufficiently analyzed. Leaving aside a deeper discussion of the BCA and appropriations, it suffices to say that if a $670 billion defense budget is inadequate to “fulfill the strategy’s [2018 National Defense Strategy] end,” as the authors suggest, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the strategy.