A cursory survey of the American defense policy blogosphere reveals a community that’s intellectually vigorous, politically diverse… and hopelessly obsessed with China. The consensus is that China is a rising threat to American influence, and that the Pacific Ocean – specifically, the South China Sea – will be where this threat is realized.
The concern isn’t absurd. While the West has been busy losing Silly Foreign Wars, China has been building and modernizing its military. China’s new potency in cyberspace is well-known, even outside of defense circles. China’s rapid militarization of space is at least as concerning. Most troubling, however, is the Chinese military’s expansion of its expeditionary capacity – the ability to project combat power beyond its borders. As the relevance of nuclear weapons declines, this capability will determine which nations have deciding “votes” in international security affairs. It’s a small club.
So China’s working hard to be taken seriously as a military power. It certainly needs to: A high-profile, well publicized buildup is absolutely necessary if you’re an aspiring superpower whose military last conducted deliberate combat operations when VHS and MS-DOS were emerging technologies. The American military does have much rebuilding to do after fighting seemingly endless, land-locked wars of attrition. It suffers from worn-out equipment, exhausted formations, and dwindling budgets. Still, at least a quarter-century will pass before American servicemen are led by general officers who have not pulled triggers in combat. Chinese civilian senior leaders understand this, and it likely figures heavily into their risk analysis regarding the wisdom of actually employing their fanciful new arsenal against USPACOM assets.
The fact that a South China Sea “hot” war would be an objectively bad idea is not, of course, a good reason not to worry about it. Indeed, many of the United States’s best and brightest lose sleep worrying about unlikely, but potentially catastrophic threats. That’s their job.
That said, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US defense community has developed a peculiar bad habit: We begin fretting over the Next War before winning the war we’re actually fighting. We have a War Attention Deficit. Could anything be more American?
We were “out” of Iraq two years before it became clear the nation would collapse without renewed military assistance. It may do so regardless. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan has neatly correlated with the continued resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda. The nations of Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa are hardly doing any better in their fight against Boko Haram, even with vigorous American and French military assistance. Most troubling, of course, is that ISIS has conclusively demonstrated the ability to plan, coordinate, and resource effective combined-arms attacks in one of the world’s ostensibly safest cities.
Bullet-riddled Parisian concert halls and editorial offices must be irritating to the visionaries of American defense. The US Department of Defense (DoD) and its industry patrons consider these incidents mainly in the sense that they threaten the celebrated “rebalance” of American military strength from Eurasia to the Pacific.
Rebalancing will be expensive. It will require significant, long-term expansion of maritime and aerospace acquisition programs. Persistent warnings of any-time-now Chinese aggression in the Pacific has provided critical life support to the laughably ineffective F35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. In the meantime, the US Army has chosen to cancel the Armed Scout Helicopter– effectively opting to not replace the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior, an inexpensive, combat-proven aircraft whose armament famously includes the grenades pilots toss from sub-treetop altitudes. The nominal replacement for the Kiowa is a drone which will apparently be flown remotely from an Apache.
We’ll see. Perhaps the “Helicopter Pilot Flying a Drone to Support the Soldiers S/He Would’ve Otherwise Just, You Know, Flown a Helicopter to Support” concept will work. Regardless, the broader de-prioritization of weapon systems optimized for direct support of trigger-pulling Soldiers and Marines is a direct result of our ill-advised “rebalance.” The DoD is eagerly building for a type of war that has thusfar only been fought in white papers and panel discussions.
China may be our Next War, but it is not this war. Uncorrected, an obsession with China will cost hard-won gains against a determined and adaptable enemy. The defense industry perceives the “rebalance” as a lucrative business plan, and they are deeply invested in preserving it as national policy.
Less cynical but equally harmful are the defense policy dilettantes more concerned with credit for the Next Big Idea than with reminding policymakers of the boring, frustrating, but very real threats that continue to threaten American interests and those of our allies.
We need to engage in the Pacific. We need to contain China. But first and foremost, we need to win this war. Senior American policymakers need to understand this and embrace it. Their national security legacies must not be starting the next war, but rather winning the one we’re fighting.