The Corner

National Security & Defense

Our Military Is Simultaneously Immensely Powerful and Increasingly Vulnerable

The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay (right) under way in the Indian Ocean, February 4, 2019. (Mass Communication Specialist First Class Ryan D. McLearnon/US Navy)

Over at the New York Times, Bret Stephens has written the most important piece of the day. I’d hate for it get lost in the Trump-dominated news cycle. His thesis is simple (and correct) — America’s military may not be designed to fight the next war. In the key paragraph, he quotes Christian Brose, the former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee:

The traditional model of U.S. military power is being disrupted, the way Blockbuster’s business model was amid the rise of Amazon and Netflix . . . A military made up of small numbers of large, expensive, heavily manned, and hard-to-replace systems will not survive on future battlefields, where swarms of intelligent machines will deliver violence at a greater volume and higher velocity than ever before.

It is true that our military will win any straight-up slugfest. We can bring more firepower on-target more effectively than any other military in the world, and it’s not close. But — and this is a very important but — it’s growing increasingly apparent that if our enemy strikes first he can level the playing field far more than we might like to imagine. Think of it like this — an American carrier (specifically, its air wing) by itself is a decisive military presence in virtually any world region unless it’s in close proximity to, say, the Russian and Chinese mainlands. It carries superior aircraft that possess extraordinary air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities — so long as it stays afloat.

But both Russia and China are developing the capacity to take out our large platforms. Here’s Brose, writing in Foreign Affairs:

For the past two decades, while the United States has focused on fighting wars in the Middle East, its competitors—especially China, but also Russia—have been dissecting its way of war and developing so-called anti-access/area-denial (or A2/AD) capabilities to detect U.S. systems in every domain and overwhelm them with large salvos of precision fire. Put simply, U.S. rivals are fielding large quantities of multimillion-dollar weapons to destroy the United States’ multibillion-dollar military systems.

If Russian and Chinese military capabilities continue to increase, it’s not irrational for one or both nations to believe they could win a short, sharp clash with the United States and count on strong disincentives against escalation to cement their gains. They could present us with the choice — take the local loss or risk going big (and incurring large-scale casualties) to recover lost ground. American leaders I respect are worried that our unassailable military edge is slipping away, and with it the deterrence that has kept the peace between the great powers for generations. I’m worried as well. Kudos to Stephens for bringing these concerns to the nation’s most prominent media platform.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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