The U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 11 passed its version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, clearing the way for the U.S. Senate to approve the measure. If President Donald Trump signs the bill, it will channel a staggering $740 billion into the Pentagon’s accounts.
That’s by far the biggest military budget of any country. The United States lavishes on its armed forces more than twice as much as No. 2 spender China does, and more than 10 times what No. 6 Russia does.
But all that spending, and the huge quantities of high-tech weaponry it buys, are preparing the Pentagon to fight the wrong war, a panel of experts told The Daily Beast. America is entering the 2020s at a strategic disadvantage. And it could take something awful happening before American leaders change their thinking.
Four years after disguised Russian forces conquered Ukraine’s Crimea region from the inside out, 18 years after 9/11 kicked off two U.S.-led occupations and 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the end of the Cold War, the United States is still equipping itself to fight warplane-versus-warplane, ship-versus-ship and tank-versus-tank against an obliging rival power.
But the countries the U.S. government identifies as its top threats, China and Russia, have made it very clear they have no intention of waging war that way. Instead, they conduct shadowy campaigns where money and information are the weapons and the internet is the battleground.
America isn’t ready to defend against those kinds of attacks. “We’re getting ready for the wrong war,” Sean McFate, a professor of strategy at Georgetown University and the author of The New Rules of War, told The Daily Beast.
Despite China’s explosive economic growth over the past two decades and Russia’s own resurgence under Vladimir Putin, the United States still deploys vastly more military might than those countries do.
The Pentagon operates more than 13,000 aircraft including hundreds of stealth fighters, versus Russia with its 4,000 aircraft (and zero operational stealth fighters) and China with 3,000 aircraft and just 15 stealth fighters.
The U.S. fleet is the biggest in the world by tonnage, a useful metric for overall naval capability. American warships, including 20 big and small aircraft carriers, in total displace 4.6 million tons of water. The Chinese fleet, with two medium-size carriers, displaces 1.8 million tons. Russia’s ships displace 1.6 million tons. Moscow’s sole flattop, the aging and accident-prone Admiral Kuznetsov, caught fire while undergoing repairs in mid-December.
For ground combat, the United States deploys the planet’s most sophisticated armored vehicles and the biggest fleets of transport and attack helicopters. In space, America’s roughly 900 satellites outnumber China’s own spacecraft by a factor of three, and Russia’s by a factor of six.
But the U.S. advantage in planes, ships, tanks and satellites has never mattered less. That’s because America’s greatest foes have found ways of fighting that don’t involve explosive clashes at sea, huge aerial dogfights or sprawling tank battles.
Russia is perfecting the art of weakening an enemy politically before surreptitiously inserting incognito special forces, and finally deploying overt military force only when the opposition is already collapsing. That’s how Russia carved out territory in the Republic of Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine beginning in 2014 and how it turned Syria into a client state starting in 2015.
And it should go without saying that Russia has deployed elements of its new strategy in America and across Europe, pouring money and propaganda into elections in the United States and the United Kingdom, among other countries, all in a bid to sow political discord and weaken Western alliances opposing Russia’s expansion. It’s not for no reason that Trump, a major beneficiary of Russian influence operations, directs some of his nastiest rhetoric against NATO.
Meanwhile, China is buying, bullying and arguing its way into greater influence. Beijing sent militiamen on fishing boats to claim disputed islands in the China Seas then dredged delicate coral reefs to build bases on these islands, all while arguing in international forums that the land-grabs were perfectly legal.
At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party’s multi-trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative, which sponsors roads, railways, ports and other infrastructure across Asia, Europe and Africa, is giving Beijing sway over governments on three continents.
The U.S. government has no clear plan for countering these new approaches to conquest.
It’s all the rage right now in the Pentagon to talk about “great power conflict” between big countries with big armies. But officials are having those conversations “without recognizing the full complexity of today's strategic challenges, in which conflict and competition are occurring in new, often subtler ways, particularly in the realms of influence and ideology,” Elsa Kania, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., told The Daily Beast.
One thing is clear. America’s existing military power isn’t up to the job. “Our superior military didn’t deter Russia from going into Georgia, Ukraine or Syria,” McFate pointed out. “China is winning the South China Sea with zero carrier groups.”
Some U.S. military leaders sense the need for reform. But even the most daring advocates of change at the Pentagon argue for modest internal tweaks, shifting money and people between existing accounts.
Gen. David Berger, the new U.S. Marine Corps commandant, has a reputation as an iconoclast. But his big idea for winning future wars is to replace some of the Corps’ manned vehicles and aircraft with drones. The Marines would still be preparing for a war that seems vanishingly unlikely to ever happen.
Peter W. Singer, an analyst at New America in Washington, D.C. and the author of LikeWar, told The Daily Beast the military has been through this before, with disastrous results.
“The most apt parallel may be the 1930s, where many in the Navy thought they had embraced the new tech of airplanes, simply by putting a floatplane on the back of the battleship,” Singer explained. “They were nibbling at the edges, while massive change was already evident.” A few years later, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor and sank much of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
“We don’t need to be buying more tanks, airplanes and submarines,” McFate said. “What we need to do is find ways of blunting strategic malign information.”
For the Pentagon, that could mean a profound reorganization, with writers, coders, network specialists and electronic-warfare whizzes replacing pilots, infantry and ship’s crews. But as one of the world’s biggest bureaucracies, the U.S. military naturally resists this kind of rapid change.
“People fight to hold onto what is theirs, and the most skilled leaders and warriors in the world are in the U.S. armed forces,” Tarah Wheeler, a New America cybersecurity expert, told The Daily Beast. “There’s a fundamental psychological conflict in asking them to fight wars by abandoning all the energy, teams, budget and effort they’ve put into building our current state and form of readiness. No one likes to be told they’ve been disrupted all the way out of a paycheck.”
It doesn’t help that information warfare looks, well, boring. Fighter pilots make for great promotional videos. Hackers sitting in front of a keyboard … don’t. And that makes this new era of defense readiness a hard sell to the American public and in Congress. “Cyberwarfare is badly defined, rarely Instagrammable and dull to watch unless you’re the person who just lost control of a nuclear facility due to nation-state hackers,” Wheeler said.
Despite the clarion call from experts and Russia and China’s continuing successes waging a new kind of warfare, don’t expect much of a reaction in Washington, D.C. Not until some cataclysmic event shakes Americans from their belief that the United States wins wars because wars mean tanks shooting at tanks and Americans are good at that sort of thing.
“Victorious nations are very hard to change their minds strategically,” McFate said. Usually they have to lose a battle or an entire war to convince them that they’re no longer the winners they thought they were. “They have to lose a lot of blood.”