The United States Military’s Waning Supremacy

Photo Credit: ABC News

By: Patrick Savage, Columnist

It’s been over a quarter-of-a-century since the United States has faced an adversary that had a conventional military capacity rivaling our own. Now, a changing geopolitical landscape, coupled with problematic trends in manpower, equipment, and leadership, raise the question of whether the United States is prepared to face a conventional military threat that can fight back and inflict serious harm.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US emerged from the Cold War with veritable hyper-power status. Though Russia maintained vast conventional and nuclear arsenals, its military, government, and economy were in a state of chaos, while China was still in the process of establishing its great power credentials. Twenty-five years later, that situation has changed dramatically. Russia’s military, though far smaller than its Soviet predecessor, is now far better equipped, trained, led, and organized than it was when it fought in Chechnya in 1995, or even in Georgia in 2008, and continues to improve.[i] Likewise, China has embarked on an extensive plan of military modernization with the aim of reforming, reorganizing, and rearming. This includes developing multiple ways to challenge US air and naval supremacy in East Asia, such as advanced missiles and aircraft that aim to “close the gap” with Western capabilities.[ii]

Meanwhile, while the US defense budget remains at historic highs, many key pieces of military hardware are rapidly aging with replacements either problematic or nonexistent. For example, the seventy-year-old B-52 has yet to be fully replaced and may be in service until 2040.[iii] Despite fifteen years of development and a $200 billion budget overrun, the new F-35 fighter counts fewer than 200 fighters in service out of 2,500 ordered and suffers major technical and performance issues.[iv] These issues aren’t limited to aircraft. The Army is not projected to replace thousands of it 1960s-era M113 armored personnel carrier until the late 2020s, due to the contractor BAE’s maximum projected production rate of 180 vehicles per year.[v] Nor are these issues limited to weapons or vehicles. The US’s lead in cyberwarfare, IT, and communications infrastructure is rapidly shrinking as less developed nations and non-state actors expand their capabilities.[vi] The US government must not only reassess the quality and age of our IT systems, but also its vulnerability to new tactics.

Hardware is only one part of the overall readiness issue. The US also faces acute personnel issues as it shrinks its active duty military, leaving the Army at its smallest size since before World War II.[vii] This is in addition to a loss of military leaders experienced at conventional war fighting, with many officers already retired or preparing to retire in coming years. The military’s current policy incentivizes officers to retire at twenty years of service, which creates a large “retirement bubble” among officers who entered service in the same cohort.[viii] With this trend in mind, it’s been twenty-five years since the First Gulf War, the largest conventional military conflict the US has fought since World War II. The next seven years will mark twenty-years for a generation of officers who fought a conventional war against Ba’athist Iraq in 2003.

The retirement rate of officers experienced in conventional warfare becomes an issue when one thinks about the types of conflicts America has fought in the last fifteen years. Since 2001, the US has been embroiled in various kinds of unconventional warfare, including counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations supporting the War on Terror across the world. Certainly, there are no shortage of experienced officers and enlisted men in the US military in general. But those with experience fighting in a conventional conflict will decline significantly over the next decade. Even those with conventional war experience fought an enemy that proved drastically outmatched by the US Military in nearly all facets of warfare. For all the Iraqi Army’s size and equipment, it was still defeated in three days of ground combat after a one-month air campaign—though, granted, this is a challenge that would also confront Russia and China in a hypothetical conflict.[ix]

Admittedly, these are issues that are not imminently dangerous to national security. US forces still maintain significant advantages over its closest rivals, who still have many issues to resolve in their respective modernization programs.[x] The greater danger lies in the state of the armed forces a decade from now, should current trends in the state of our military and that of rival powers persist. This is a long-term issue that requires timely solutions, especially as a new President and a new Congress prepare to take office in January. The global issues that are likely to cause conflict will not simply disappear. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in Ukraine, there are other states with significant Russian minorities who are worried about conflict with Russia, including the NATO member states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.[xi] China shows no sign of abating in its effort to extend its control over disputed islands throughout East Asia that it sees as within its sphere of influence, militarizing islands and shoals at a rapid pace.[xii]

With a unified Congress and White House due to take office in January, the Republican Party will have the power to make large scale, long lasting changes to US defense policy. To ensure that the US can defend itself in a world where power is shifting, critical changes are needed in the defense arena. Equipment procurement, upgrade, and replacement procedures must be streamlined; there must be greater incentive to retain experienced, capable officers; the manpower needs of our forces must be reassessed; and training for a conventional conflict with a powerful adversary must be prioritized—though knowledge in COIN must not be forgotten. While the US currently remains a military superpower, these actions must be taken with an eye to the next decade and the consequences that could result if current trends are left unabated.

[i] Trenin, Paul. “The Revival of the Russian Military.” Foreign Affairs, May/June, 2016. Accessed December 13, 2016.

[ii] McLeary, Paul. “Pentagon: Chinese Military Modernization Enters ‘New Phase’.” Foreign Policy, May 13, 2016. Accessed December 13, 2016.

[iii] Ewing, Philip. “Fact Check: Has President Obama ‘Depleted’ The Military?” NPR. April 29, 2016. Accessed December 13, 2016.

[iv] Cohen, Zachary. “The F-35: Is the world’s most expensive weapons program worth it?” CNN. July 16, 2016. Accessed December 13, 2016.

[v] Freedberg Jr., Sydney J. “70-Year-Old M113s: The Army’s Long March To AMPV.” Breaking Defense. March 31, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2016.

[vi] Poulin, Andrew. “Cyber Warfare: Just How Vulnerable is the U.S. Military?” Real Clear Defense. June 7, 2016. Accessed December 13, 2016.

[vii] Tice, Jim. “Army shrinks to smallest level since before World War II.” Army Times. May 7, 2016. Accessed December 13, 2016.

[viii] Kane, Tim. “Military Retirement: Too Sweet a Deal?” War on the Rocks. March 2, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2016.

[ix] Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. “Persian Gulf War.” Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016. Accessed December 13, 2016.

[x] Trenin, “The Revival of the Russian Military,”; Heginbotham, Eric and Michael s. Chase. “China’s Military Modernization: Eric Heginbotham and Michael Chase in Conversation.” War on the Rocks. September 13, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2016.

[xi] Solovjova, Jelena. “Is Russia really a threat to the Baltic states?” Al Jazeera. July 7, 2016. Accessed December 13, 2016.

[xii] Buckley, Chris. “China Appears to Confirm It Has Militarized Disputed Spratly Islands” New York Times. December 15, 2016. Accessed December 15, 2016.

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