Deterring Existential Threats

By Peter O’Brien

Senior Fellow, London Center for Policy Research

With the Mueller investigation ended, perhaps we can finally put that behind us and move on to the business of governing. Which would be good, because there’s a great deal to do and much of it has – honestly – little to do with partisan politics. Specifically, there’s the matter of national security. If you missed it, during the last several weeks two things happened that, though seemingly unrelated, are, in fact, of great significance to US national security decisions in the near term.

In the decades old stand-off between India and Pakistan there was an exchange of artillery, some soldiers were killed, and several aircraft were shot down. Things quickly heated up and, for several days, there was reasoned concern the situation would escalate further. As both countries have nuclear weapons, escalation is a grave problem. While the situation has eased a bit, it has by no means gone away. Nor will it any time soon.

About the same time a report came out detailing a series of war-games conducted by the RAND Institute in which the US – fighting Russia and China simultaneously – didn’t do well. Key statements revealed that: “many US aircraft were destroyed on the ground, forward supply bases were easy targets, many ships were sunk.”

This may sound dire, but it really not only tells us nothing – none of this is new, some of it is very old news; but it also serves to obfuscate the situation. In any war between the US and China or the US and Russia, the US will be – and will remain – at a serious geographic disadvantage. After all, they will be fighting on their own doorsteps, we will need to move soldiers and sailors and ships and airplanes thousands of miles. Further, and perhaps more distressingly, there appears to have been a certain degree of shock among some of those involved in the study that the US will suffer serious losses.

Yes, that’s what happens when you get into a war, particularly a major war. That’s why you try to avoid them.

Nor can the situation be remedied, as was suggested by RAND, by spending an additional $24 billion per year. That money might be of use, but what’s more important is to recognize that fighting another great power – whether Russia or China – will mean major combat losses on both sides, and the probability of escalation.

The question becomes then: how, short of rolling onto our backs and surrendering, do we avoid wars with great powers? More to the point, how do we defend US interests while preventing a war with either Russia or China?

The answer, of course, is deterrence, deterrence and a strategy of containment, which brings us back to India and Pakistan. What the brief escalatory scare between India and Pakistan reminded us is simply this: India is the natural ally of the US; our interests align in many respects. And at the same time Pakistan’s interests are counter to US interests almost across the board. (If you want to know why the war in Afghanistan continues – after 17 years – the short answer is Pakistan.) Further, Pakistan is abetting China’s spread into the Indian Ocean and South West Asia.

Deterrence among great powers is a difficult concept, one that has been mostly ignored for the last 25 years, with begrudging references made here and there, but with little effort applied to it. Now, this benign neglect is catching up to us. And while the
Halls of Congress echo with calls for ever greater levels of domestic spending, very real existential threats has been growing over the horizon – both to the east and the west. We need to address those threats before it’s truly too late.

Our national security policy must begin to reflect the threats we face. We can begin by recognizing that the best conventional deterrence force is a large and robust Navy, and that balancing the Army, Navy and Air Force budgets – as we have essentially done for 30 years to avoid internecine arguments – is a fool’s paradise. We need to tailor our forces to increase our deterrence. A budget weighed heavily in favor of Navy, Space, Missile Defense, Intelligence, and Cyber assets, a modernized nuclear force, a strong effort to develop a large and capable unmanned aircraft force, and money spent on infrastructure defense would be a good start.