Absent renewed investment in and a strategic realignment of its own capabilities, the U.S. military could lose the next state-versus-state war it fights, according to a new report issued by the National Defense Strategy Commission.
“America’s ability to defend its allies, its partners and its own vital interests is increasingly in doubt,” the report’s authors wrote. “It might struggle to win, or perhaps lose, a war against China or Russia.”
The non-partisan panel of 12 former national security officials and experts was tasked one year ago with evaluating the nation’s defenses and reviewing the National Defense Strategy, a comprehensive planning document that lays out military objectives and was issued by the Defense Department in January 2018. The panel’s conclusions were based on interviews with current and former military and diplomatic officials, policy experts, and a review of both classified and unclassified material.
Its warnings echo those of analogous, precursor reports issued in 2010 and 2014 but are among the starkest yet: America’s military edge is, in many areas, diminished, and in some cases erased – just as other rivals are getting savvier, stronger and more aggressive.
“Russia and China are challenging the United States, its allies and its partners on a far greater scale than has any adversary since the Cold War’s end,” the authors wrote, noting Moscow and Beijing are implementing a mix of economic, diplomatic, political and informational tools to achieve their respective objectives.
“If the United States had to fight Russia in a Baltic contingency or China in a war over Taiwan,” the report warned, “Americans could face a decisive military defeat.”
“They’ve learned from what we’ve done. They’ve learned from our success,” said former Under Secretary of Defense and commission co-chair Eric Edelman. “And while we’ve been off doing a different kind of warfare, they’ve been prepared for a kind of warfare at the high end that we really haven’t engaged in for a very long time.”
In an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell – who is also among the members of the commission and who helped write its report – Edelman said adversaries have “studied” post-9/11 U.S. engagement strategies and developed sometimes asymmetric responses of their own, meant to neutralize American military strengths.
“Anti-ship cruise missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles … create what strategists call ‘anti-access/area denial’ problem[s],” Edelman told Morell. “What that means is that we can’t fight traditionally, the way we have fought,” he said.
The way the U.S. has traditionally dealt with great power aggressors, Edelman explained, was to “come in with unimpeded access, both by air and sea.”
“With Russia and China,” he said, “we find they are developing capabilities precisely meant to preclude our ability to do that.”
The commission identified a set of six trends it said had fundamentally altered the strategic environment now facing the United States. The return of major-power competition from revisionist, authoritarian powers like Russia and China; the rise and expanded military capabilities of aggressive regional challengers like Iran and North Korea; and the evolving and intensifying threats from jihadist groups, the report said, have together made the current security environment among the most challenging in decades.
Many of these adversaries have demonstrated gray-zone aggression – tactics that fall short of triggering conflict but may involve economic coercion, cyberattacks, media manipulation and paramilitary or proxy forces – and which occur “in the ‘seams,'” the report said, between DOD and other U.S. departments and agencies.
“They have become the tool of choice for those who do not wish to confront U.S. military power directly,” the commission wrote, and have made both attribution and targeted reprisal more difficult.
“Singly or in combination,” the panel found, “such tactics confound or gradually weaken an adversary’s positions or resolve without provoking a military response.”
Compounding these challenges, the commission said, is the U.S.’ eroded advantage in critical technologies – including hypersonic weapons and artificial intelligence – and political dysfunction that has led, over the past decade, to budgetary instability and lower defense spending.
“As the world has become more threatening,” the authors wrote, “America has weakened its own defense.”
“We have basically been underfunding the Defense Department for quite a period of time,” Edelman said, noting that a downturn in defense spending was exacerbated by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which resulted in roughly $539 billion in cuts to base national defense spending between 2012 and 2019.
“I think there’s been a disposition to believe that we spend so much money on defense,” Edelman said, “[that] we should be able to deal with all comers.”
“But what I think people have lost sight of is that the international environment has just become so much more complicated,” he told Morell.
The commission called for an increase in the defense budget of between 3-5 percent above inflation, or else “DOD should alter the expectations of the strategy and America’s global strategic objectives.”
The report also listed a number of areas in which America’s pace or policies have proven problematic. It called for more rapid innovation and acquisition of new technologies, swift modernization of the country’s nuclear program, and “creative” steps to better recruit and retain military manpower, noting that the number of people who have the “required fitness and propensity to serve” is in significant decline.
It also recommended an independent commission be appointed to review U.S. cyber policy. “It is painfully clear that America is not competing or deterring its adversaries as effectively as it should in cyberspace,” the report said.
“We’ve got to match the kind of intellectual firepower they’re bringing to the problem with that kind of firepower of our own,” Edelman told Morell. “We have to, as a country, make sure we don’t find ourselves in a position where one of our adversaries could throw a monkey wrench into our ability to defend ourselves,” he said.
The Defense Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 11-page summary of the mostly-classified National Defense Strategy acknowledged, when it was issued, that the U.S.’ military advantage had atrophied just as a new period of “global disorder” – characterized by an erosion of the international rules-based order built largely in the aftermath of World War II – had arisen.
As he unveiled the strategy in January, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S.’ competitive advantage had “eroded in every domain of warfare – air, land, sea, space and cyberspace.”
Previous defense strategy reviews – including those issued by the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel in 2010 and the National Defense Panel in 2014 – had already issued warnings that America was risking national security crises if it did not better maintain or, in some cases, immediately bolster its military and operational capabilities.
The 2018 commission said, however, that it believed America had already “reached the point of a full-blown national security crisis.”
“In this report,” Edelman said, “I think what we had to wrestle with was the consequences of all those warnings having been ignored.”
The commission’s co-chairs will testify about their findings before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees about the report’s contents later this month.
For much more from Michael Morell’s conversation with Eric Edelman, you can listen to the new episode and subscribe to the podcast here.