The military’s problem isn’t technological. It’s a strategy designed only for low-intensity conflict.
The U.S. is unprepared for an impending great-power conflict. That’s widely understood, but most commentary on American military preparedness misses three critical points: the time horizon for a conflict with China, the logistical challenges of building and sustaining American military power, and the industrial difficulties of replenishing and expanding current stockpiles. A war with Beijing wouldn’t be decided primarily with high-end weapons systems but with the traditional elements of military power.
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A new cold war has begun. At its heart is a fundamental disagreement between the U.S. and China over the structure of Asian security considerations. The original Cold War’s antagonism stemmed from Soviet insistence that Washington remove itself from Europe and Eurasia more broadly. China’s strategic effort to deny U.S. forces access to international waters where a naval conflict could occur, its increasing numbers of military bases around the world, and its growing ability to interrupt logistic communications with America’s Indo-Pacific allies demonstrate that Beijing has the same ambition today. Just as Soviet Russia sought to destroy the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and thereby eliminate U.S. political engagement in Western Europe, communist China now seeks to capture Taiwan and to fragment the U.S. alliance system in Asia.
China has something against which to measure its policy that the Soviets never had: history. Beijing has studied Moscow’s Cold War mistakes, notably the tendency among Soviet strategists to wait patiently until their military power exceeded that of the U.S. This never occurred, primarily because the West engaged in a massive military expansion in the 1980s that nullified Soviet gains over the preceding two decades.
The Chinese aren’t going to wait patiently. They are prepared to capitalize on an apparent shift in their favor. China enjoys a growing advantage in geographic position, fleet size and missile numbers. In Xi Jinping, it also has a leader willing to use force to achieve political objectives. China stands a better chance now than it ever has of defeating the U.S. and its allies in a major war. The U.S. should expect an attack on Taiwan within this decade, perhaps as soon as 2025.
The imminence of conflict means the U.S. must consider how it would fight with the military as currently constituted. In some cases that would mean repurposing equipment and hardware for new uses. In others it would require reconceiving the service branches’ approaches to war fighting. The legacy systems of the U.S. military—fighter planes, heavy bombers, destroyers and aircraft carriers—would be crucial in a major Indo-Pacific war. The immediate question isn’t how to replace these platforms, but rather how to amplify their effectiveness.
America’s traditional forces aren’t particularly vulnerable or outdated, at least intrinsically. The aircraft carrier has always fought as a system—it needs fighter and strike aircraft that can reach targets without exposing the ship to attack, and an escort screen of smaller ships that can shoot down enemy missiles. The American surface fleet, if used for strike operations, needs long-range missiles to hit the infrastructure that supports the Chinese military.
But the nuts and bolts of American military power are lacking. Most glaring, the U.S. has no logistical capacity to support a major-power war. The military cargo fleet is designed for limited contingencies. According to the Government Accountability Office, ships in the reserve fleet are on average more than 40 years old and in poor repair. According to a 2020 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments analysis, there simply wouldn’t be enough merchant mariners to crew American ships in a major logistical effort. Even during the Gulf and Iraq wars, the U.S. contracted for significant added merchant capacity. Most ships that call at U.S. ports are foreign-flagged or foreign-crewed, if not both. This means that once a conflict begins, Washington can’t rely on them. Without an effective link between American forces in the Indo-Pacific and materiel depots in the continental U.S., a fight will be hard to sustain.
Some commentators have claimed that aid to Ukraine has run down American stockpiles for the defense of Taiwan. That isn’t right. What we’ve been sending to Ukraine is radically different from what would be required in a war over Taiwan and, critically, is built in entirely different locations and with entirely different processes. The real problem stems from Washington’s decision to “rationalize” the defense industrial base after the Cold War, allowing a healthy ecosystem of defense producers to shrink to a handful of corporations. These companies operate far better than their predecessors bureaucratically but can’t deliver results rapidly. Unless the U.S. can scale up production of the weapons it will need in the Indo-Pacific—hypersonics, cruise and ballistic missiles, and short-range antiship weapons—it would lose a fight for Taiwan in weeks.
This is the core issue. The U.S. military isn’t behind the curve in some grand transformation in warfare. It simply can’t employ the combat tools it has so carefully cultivated over the past 30 to 50 years because it has spent that time preparing to fight low-intensity wars, not a major strategic contest with a peer. If stagnation continues, deterrence will fail. So will the prospects for American victory in any major-power conflict.
Mr. Cropsey is founder and president of the Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is author of “Mayday” and “Seablindness.”
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Appeared in the March 29, 2023, print edition as ‘What the U.S. Can Do to Prepare for a War With China’.