The US Defense Department’s opposition to eminently necessary force-structure changes, combined with the subjects of the National Defense Strategy, confirms that the United States is not prepared for an impending Eurasian war.
As the risks of such a war increase in the coming months, President Joe Biden’s administration should reconsider and change course to recognize that we live not in a decisive decade as the White House understands it, but a decisive decade for military confrontation.
Washington is bracing itself for the usual defense-budget wars in the coming weeks. The Defense Department – in truth, Kathleen Hicks, the supremely powerful, politically astute deputy secretary of defense – wishes to cut multiple major warships, including one commissioned only in 2020, to which the US Marine Corps (USMC) and Congress have objected.
Meanwhile, Biden’s Defense Department released the National Defense Strategy (NDS), ostensibly the military counterpart to the National Security Strategy.
These must be considered in turn. Typically, line-item budgetary fights do not signify great policy disputes. This case is exceptional.
Congress, alongside the USMC, wants to keep large surface combatants like the Ticonderoga-class cruisers in the fleet, alongside two expeditionary sea bases, other small surface combatants, and a handful of amphibious warships.
It also seeks to mandate a greater number of amphibious warships in the fleet at any given time, setting a minimum of 31.
The congressional argument stems from the USMC’s new Force Design 2030 concept, which is the most coherent, ambitious, and well-thought-out attempt by any of the Sea Services at crafting a legitimate strategy and force structure since the early 1980s.
That is not to say FD2030 is perfect – from a technical viewpoint, its envisaged light amphibious warships are too small to mount point-defense systems or have robust redundancies, but too large and slow to evade enemy fire. Yet it is a deeply necessary first step toward revamping stultified American strategic thinking and encouraging the military to be ready to “fight tonight,” as it always boasts.
The Pentagon, through the mouth of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, is up in arms. The US Navy has been brought alongside, primarily because of a poor institutional culture and a service chief and secretary who, despite their obvious merits as men and public servants, are unable to assert themselves either against departmental bureaucracy or the bigger stifling effect of an administration that wants to cut defense.
Hicks’ transmitted argument is that the navy must modernize, and therefore must cut as rapidly as possible now to free up resources for development and expansion later in the decade.
Indeed, the ships that the administration seeks to foist on the navy years in the future would be irrelevant to a Sino-American conflict in the next few years. And, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted in an interview last week, a Chinese attack against Taiwan is on a “much faster timeline” than had been thought.
The ships Congress demands the navy retain would make an appreciable difference in a Eurasian war. The Ticonderoga cruisers are the US Navy’s best fleet air defense and command platforms. The expeditionary staging bases that the Pentagon would cut are integral, both now and in the future, to the FD2030 concept – without them, the USMC will struggle to forward-deploy to the First Island Chain.
Even the littoral combat ship (LCS), a poorly designed vessel stemming from an ill-conceived non-strategy, has a role policing the exits to the Second Island Chain, particularly if “up-gunned” through new dual-use developed sensors.
Yet this conviction that time remains in America’s favor permeates the Biden administration’s strategic thought. Indeed, it is one of two pillars of its entire defense strategy, as can be seen in the NDS that was made public on October 27. The Biden administration’s top two priorities are “defending the homeland” and “deterring strategic attacks,” and then “deterring aggression.”
The NDS text clarifies each term: Defending the homeland means defending critical American and allied infrastructure, in essence from sabotage; deterring strategic attacks means deterring nuclear use; and third, deterring aggression means conventional military deterrence.
Integrated deterrence confirms the de-emphasis on actual conventional warfare. The NDS identifies three types of deterrence, by denial, by “resilience,” and what would be termed punishment.
Deterrence by resilience is a clever but vacuous term: It is more properly an offshoot of deterrence by denial, not an independent deterrence concept. In turn, the NDS loops in sanctions, various “offensive cyber,” and other unclear means alongside traditional kinetic actions when describing deterrence by punishment.
The implication is that, even in wartime, non-military means can substitute for military ones. This helps pull the rug out from building the platforms that remain indispensable to successful combat operations.
The NDS was released alongside two other documents, the Missile Defense Review and Nuclear Posture Review.
The NPR is far more relevant for the Biden administration’s strategic picture. It explicitly states that, given the multiple major-power threats the country faces, it is entirely possible that the US might need to use nuclear weapons to deter one Eurasian competitor from exploiting a Eurasian contingency and launching a war of conquest.
In other words, nuclear brinksmanship is back on the table, even as the US narrows its nuclear options by, in the NPR, cutting new nuclear cruise missiles.
But these apparently thorny issues of defense strategy and force structure vanish if one assumes, as the Biden administration does, that a major war will not come for another 10 years; that the US has time to prepare; that the most important step the country can take is to ensure its resilience, not its military power.
The danger is that the Biden administration’s assumption is wrong. By quietly but substantially pruning back US military power in the short term and hinting at long-term investments and a “smarter” defense policy, the White House and Pentagon are putting the US in a strategic bind. For if the major Eurasian confrontation begins within the next decade, the US may need to resort to the unthinkable, whether that be offensive nuclear use or capitulation.
The overuse that creates a truism does not negate its truth: A nation goes to war with the military it has, not the one it wished it had.