We need a rebuilt defense industrial base to make our forces ready for combat in any theater.
Should the U.S. give Asia priority over Europe? According to some national-security experts, the answer is increasingly yes. America’s resources are finite and its military capacity limited, the argument goes, so it should direct them to the Pacific theater, where China appears poised to attack Taiwan. Meantime, the Europeans can handle Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.
This argument ignores what should be the military’s primary focus: rebuilding its war-fighting capabilities. America needs to be able to respond wherever its interests are threatened—be it in the Atlantic or the Pacific, whose theaters are inextricably linked.
Since the end of the Cold War, our national-security community has increasingly conceived of war as a series of controllable conflicts. This mindset has come in large part from the military’s experience of fighting for two decades on 18th-century battlefields with 21st-century weapons. In its counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, the U.S. has controlled the airspace, managed secure communication and control nodes, and enjoyed largely unchallenged logistics systems.
This dominance over time led our defense establishment to accept a false sense of security. As successive administrations sought to capitalize on the “peace dividend,” they pursued domestic policy at the expense of the military, leaving the Defense Department with a significantly smaller Joint Force. After 9/11, the military was reformatted for expeditionary operations, specializing in “just in time” efficiency capabilities for weapons and munitions production. Though Washington thought this transformation was wise, it has since left our military unprepared for direct conflict against our two pre-eminent competitors.
The American military lacks the resources to contend with mobilizing Russian and Chinese forces. The U.S. Army came up 15,000 soldiers short—or 25%—on recruitment targets last year. A senior Army official told Congress last month that the service is projected to miss its target again for 2023. Many European armies are similarly underequipped, especially the U.K., France and Germany. The only North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries that have seriously begun to rearm—Finland, the Baltic states, Romania and especially Poland—are on Europe’s eastern flank. This comes as Moscow has announced it will increase its military to 1.5 million personnel by 2026 and as China continues to enhance its navy, which is already larger than America’s.
Meantime, over the past 30 years the U.S. defense industry has consolidated from 51 to five aerospace and prime defense contractors. This mismatch has led to multiyear delays for weapons and munitions deliveries to our forces and allies. As a result, our military isn’t positioned to fight simultaneous and potentially uncontrollable conflicts on the horizon—a problem that no amount of strategic finessing, rebalancing between theaters, or technological sophistication can resolve.
There’s a way forward, but it will require that we invest in expanding the military and the defense industrial base. The U.S. Navy, for instance, operates more-capable ships than the Chinese navy. Yet numbers matter, as even the most sophisticated ship can’t be in two places at once. American munitions may be orders of magnitude more precise than what the Chinese or the Russians can bring to the fight, but if U.S. stocks are insufficient, they will run dry while the enemy keeps firing.
The war in Ukraine offers a useful real-time example. According to U.S. estimates, the Ukrainian forces last year fired roughly 3,000 artillery rounds a day. America has responded to that demand and plans to boost its production of its 155mm artillery shell “from 14,000 a month to over 24,000 later this year”—reaching 85,000 a month by 2028. That’s a significant improvement, but such production and stockpiling, for the U.S. and its allies alike, needs to be ramped up across a series of weapons if the military is to be prepared for long-term battles against its two determined adversaries.
Instead of debating whether we should “pivot” to the Pacific, we should focus on enhancing U.S and European war-fighting capacities. In so doing, we must move from a fixation on “just in time” efficiencies to a “just in case” approach that puts a premium on stockpiling weapons and ammunition. Our national-security policy makers should abandon the assumption that future battles will resemble those of the past. When fighting a near-peer or peer adversary, the U.S. will need to have excess defense industrial capacity to respond should its logistical chain suffer from enemy attacks.
When it comes to national defense, the U.S. needs sufficient weapons and ammunition to deter its adversaries—and, if needed, to defend itself and its allies in Europe and Asia. Rebuilding its defense industrial base should be the top priority. No amount of strategic finessing can substitute for the real hard power the U.S. military must bring to the fight.
Mr. Michta is dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch, Germany, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
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Appeared in the June 24, 2023, print edition as ‘Pivot to the Pacific? That Misses the Point’.