After orienting the U.S. military to fight low-intensity conflicts against low-tech forces and terrorist organizations for more than 15 years, the U.S. and Western allies are now “playing catch-up” with great powers like Russia and China, said the State Department’s lead official on Europe.
Speaking at a conference this week hosted by the Institute for the Study of War, Wess Mitchell, head of State’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, noted that U.S. military posture and policy until this year had largely ignored the renewed rise of strategic competition, the Free Beacon reported.
“Unfortunately, I think we have been in a period of big power competition for some time, but I don’t think that the United States has prepared itself for that adequately,” Mitchell said.
“I don’t think we have—and much of the Western world has—acted on the basis of an assumption that we’re part of a big power competition, but our competitors have been planning and acting on the basis of a big power competition and so I think we’re playing catch-up,” he added.
Mitchell stood behind the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which was released in January 2018. The policy paper called for a decisive shift away from focusing on terrorism and low-intensity conflict to reorient the Defense Department towards great-power war and adversarial strategic competition with “revisionist powers” like Russia and China.
When the document was released, Defense Secretary James Mattis declared that U.S. military advantages, once stark and profound, have “eroded” in every warfare domain.
The loss of capability was compounded by a decade of military budget cuts, sequestration, and Congress’ inability to pass long-term budgets that would have allowed service chiefs to plan (and fund) future weapons system development.
Mitchell noted that the failure to recognize a renewed threat of great power conflict, which — historically — happens as other powers rise to challenge the existing order — have also led to the erosion of American combat capabilities.
“The Arctic is a great example of where the West is now playing catch-up and where, in this case, the Russian Federation was early in recognizing the resource potential of the Arctic long-term and treated it as a strategic theater,” he said.
The U.S. is catching up there as the U.S. and its allies are all “very well awake to the fact that Vladimir Putin is serious” about dominating that region.
Analysis: Military historians might compare the last decade of declining U.S. military dominance to the pre-World War II decade when America’s standing Army and Navy were small and equipment outdated or outclassed by what the Germans and Japanese were building. Like Russia and China now, Japan and German then were revisionist powers not so much seeking to change the existing order but to dominate a new order they sought to establish.
The U.S. Air Force, with fifth-gen fighters and maturing, but still capable, bomber force, have probably fared better than ground forces and the Navy in terms of retaining force structure and capability. But the Navy is re-learning old-fashioned naval combat — how to defend ships at sea from enemy vessels — as the Army and Marine Corps ramp-up capability in ‘shoot, move, and communicate’ scenarios necessary to fight a peer or near-peer adversary.
That includes artillery and rocket fires; electronic warfare; missile development; unit movement, command-and-control, and urban warfare (which great power war will surely feature).
ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban hope to ‘win’ against U.S. forces simply by not losing. ‘Death by a thousand cuts’ is the strategy of insurgents and low-tech forces outmatched and outclassed by a technologically advanced, dominant enemy. But advanced fighters, a modern navy, tanks, and missiles aren’t really as advantageous (or cost-effective) against an elusive, lightly-armed foe. Training and tactics suffer. So does planning. So does new weapons development.
We believe that the chances are far better than equal a great power conflict is looming on the horizon. That is historically the case, though in the age of nuclear weapons the dynamic changes because the worst result of such a conflict would be the death of our planet. That doesn’t mean that great power conflict below the level of nuclear weapons use cannot and will not occur.
We think it will, though whether it comes as a result of a miscalculation or purposeful action in Syria, the Baltics, the Scandinavian countries, or the South China Sea, is less clear. That’s why the U.S. must reorient its forces to fight and win in that kind of environment. Our most likely adversaries have been training and preparing for just such a scenario for years while our forces have been rooting out terrorists, searching for roadside bombs and dodging RPGs.