The United States may spend more on defense than the next seven highest-spending nations on the planet combined, but it seems to be ill-prepared for war against its most dangerous adversaries: A new analysis suggests the Pentagon would almost certainly endure a "decisive military defeat" if faced with war against Russia or China.
The comprehensive report, released this week by the National Defense Strategy Commission—a bipartisan panel of experts selected by Congress to review and assess the National Defense Strategy put forward by the Trump administration—concludes that America's armed forces would be woefully unprepared in the event of a conflict with its two most daunting rivals, Russia and China, over disputes related to the Baltic region of Northern Europe and the sovereignty of Taiwan, respectively. "The security and wellbeing of the United States are at greater risk than at any time in decades," the report reads. "Put bluntly, the U.S. military could lose the next state-versus-state war it fights."
The reason for this alarming disadvantage is simple: After nearly two decades of counterinsurgency campaigns in the Middle East, the U.S. military superiority has "eroded to a dangerous degree," according to the report. In nearly every critical capability, from anti-air denial systems to cyber, Russia and China are matching and even outpacing the U.S., and those nations' advances complicate the Pentagon's ability to wield what the authors call "the hard-power backbone" of military hegemony—namely, the ability to deploy overwhelming military force, as it has in the past through amphibious operations (World War II) and air superiority (the Global War on Terror). If a conventional invasion of North Korea would prove a bloodbath for U.S. troops, which experts are indeed predicting, a conflict with Russia and China would be disastrous.
Those potential defeats represent not just a broader tactical risk to the Pentagon, but a huge strategic blow to the posture of deterrence that has shaped and defined the geopolitical landscape for decades.
"The credibility of American alliances—the bedrock of geopolitical stability in key areas—will be weakened as allies question whether the United States can defend them; American rivals and adversaries will be emboldened to push harder," the report authors write. "Attrition of U.S. capital assets—ships, planes, tanks—could be enormous. ... The prolonged, deliberate buildup of overwhelming force in theater that has traditionally been the hallmark of American expeditionary warfare would be vastly more difficult and costly, if it were possible at all."
How can a country that spends so much on its military be at such a disadvantage? The mention in the report of "capital assets" points to one fundamental problem: readiness, a term that measures the health of a military, as calculated by variables such as the availability of functional training equipment, special capabilities long-range precision strikes, and cyberwarfare technologies—basically anything that aids in its capacity to go to war at a moment's notice.
The report's grim conclusion on this front is no surprise to the Pentagon: In March of 2017, Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis tipped the Department of Defense's hand when cautioning to avoid the topic of readiness when speaking to reporters. "While it can be tempting during budget season to publicly highlight readiness problems, we have to remember that our adversaries watch the news too," he wrote in an email obtained by Task & Purpose's Jeff Schogol. "Communicating that we are broken or not ready to fight invites miscalculation."
Readiness shortfalls don't just put the U.S. at a strategic disadvantage—they can take the lives of U.S. service members far from any active war zone. The Military Times found in April that U.S. military aviation mishaps—often due to readiness issues like lack of maintenance or pilot error—rose 40 percent between 2013 and 2017; there were a total of 5,500 accidents in that time frame, resulting in the deaths of 133 service members. In the last year alone, more troops were killed in aviation mishaps than died in combat in Afghanistan.
There are two reasons for this decline in readiness: fighting for two decades without ever slowing down, and a dip in its (considerable) financial resources. To that first point, even the current deployment of troops to the U.S.–Mexico border is more damaging than a simple political stunt. Soldiers there are essentially reduced to performing acts of manual labor, laying razor wire and shoveling away refuse thanks to laws that prohibit their deployment within the U.S. for law enforcement purposes.
On the issue of money, the Pentagon is faced with a particularly inopportune five-year-old budget sequester, which capped defense spending in an effort to get the national bogeyman of the budget deficit under control. While the Department of Defense still controls a massive budget, such cost-cutting means less money means fewer high-end pieces of equipment, which means more maintenance on shoddy gear and tech, which in turn means additional costs. The Pentagon is all too aware of the circular nature of this ineptitude: Secretary of Defense James Mattis said himself in February that "no enemy in the field has done as much to harm the readiness of U.S. military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act's defense spending caps."
Did the austerity measures imposed by the deficit actually accomplish their goals despite the costs to the military? It would appear not. According to a June report from the Congressional Budget Office, public debt will reach the highest level since 1946 in the next decade, while a November analysis from Bloomberg found that the deficit jumped to $100 billion at the start of this fiscal year alone, up 60 percent from the previous year. The defense sequester was supposed to get U.S. federal debt under control, but all it did was strip the military of essential manpower and resources at a time when, after years of war, it needed them most.
Two decades of war and political squabbling have robbed the U.S. military of its effectiveness and its dominance in global affairs. The Trump administration's pivot away from terror networks and toward "Great Power" competition with Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea may help close that gap—but time will tell whether this change in focus will be too little, too late.