Within a range of capabilities, military experts increasingly worry about the United States’ defense superiority. Growth of asymmetric threats from Eastern Europe to the South China Sea have many calling to ramp up defense spending. They say that the threats the United States faces are too important not to. Troublingly, those warning about asymmetric risks are failing to understand their own arguments. The tools and strategies used by American rivals were crafted precisely because of large-scale American defense spending. These approaches are designed to prevent the United States from responding simply by spending more.
The budgetary environment in the United States has hindered the military’s ability to pursue its desired platforms. That in itself, however, does not mean that America’s military superiority has diminished. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United States and its allies spent over $1.2 trillion on defense in 2015. Russia, Iran, and China spent $227.4 billion combined. In looking to counter America’s military strength and network of allies, the U.S.’s rivals have turned to approaches that cannot be easily countered with increased spending.
Russia is using a mix of ethnic, political, and economic pressure to exert influence in what it sees as its traditional sphere of influence. More armored brigades in Eastern NATO nations would not in themselves prevent Russia from riling up ethnic-Russians in Donbass, or cutting off energy supplies and loans to Ukraine. Russian military capabilities have helped rebels in eastern Ukraine, but it is unclear that more American firepower in Europe would have prevented Russia from antagonizing a non-NATO country.
Russian military assets also demonstrated electromagnetic warfare capabilities that the U.S. military admits it is unprepared to counter. It stands to reason that Russia acted because it had more vested interests at stake in Ukraine than the United States, and its asymmetric capabilities allowed it to do so while maintaining a semblance of plausible deniability. The lesson is that if the U.S. and its allies are to wrest a country away from a rival’s sphere of influence, they need to pay greater attention to anti-corruption efforts, civil institutions, and ethnic tensions.
Similar lessons can be learned from ISIS’ rise. The U.S.-established Iraqi Security Forces unraveled not because of a lack of firepower, but due to inattention to sectarianism. The Maliki government disenchanted previously allied Sunni tribesmen, opening the door for extremists. The United States is now rediscovering the need to rebuild the coalition it had put together in 2007. ISIS’ exploitation of social dynamics would not have been countered simply by spending more.
In the South China Sea, China is using area and access denial to prevent the United States (or its allies) from challenging Chinese interests. The call for a 350 ship fleet—with 15 aircraft carriers—somewhat misses the point the Chinese strategy. The Chinese systems allow them to hold America’s premier ships at risk at far lower cost than the U.S. Navy would pay to protect them. Simply more of those ships will not change the dynamic. Where one aircraft carrier may be sunk, so may several.
What should the U.S. do to counter these asymmetric threats? The Department of Defense can refocus on its own asymmetric capabilities. American military power already has high-end firepower. To counter rival’s standoff tools, the U.S. could mix in low-end capabilities. These systems, perhaps unmanned, could provide the presence and risk absorption that current high-end platforms cannot. This will require a strong attention to mission when developing these platforms, and not diluting their purpose with increased costs. This won’t be easy, as it requires a variety of defense stakeholders to stay focused on the platform’s mission and not pursue fundamental changes. Wise use of budgetary pressure, however, can help maintain the focus on keeping costs close to projections, which may help prevent unneeded changes.
Perhaps most important is a mindset shift. Investments today have opportunity costs. Some expenditures cannot be avoided during a strategic transition period, but the Pentagon may need to be forced to prioritize. While investments in frigate capability might be useful, adding additional aircraft carriers at $13 billion apiece would reduce available funds for new tools. Lower initial investments spread over diverse options and with risk tolerance (and willingness to divest), would help save funds for when ramp-ups are needed. This would allow the military to develop a range of capabilities over the whole force, and not on shoehorning those capabilities into unsuitable systems.
The most important investments may not be the dollar-heavy ones. The various innovation efforts the Department of Defense is currently pursuing, if done properly, could provide the United States with valuable tools and processes, though initial investments are likely to be low. Anti-submarine technology is an area where the U.S. once led, but now lags. Ground troop electromagnetic warfare investments are needed, but so are the operational changes that would allow them to be properly implemented.
This is not to say that budget relief is not needed in some areas. That being said, if more money means more funding for the systems of yesteryear, then the military will not be better prepared to counter the risks it might face. If investments linger in decades-long development, the U.S. will not regain its technological advantage. The third offset strategy is intended to provide the innovation needed to counter new risks, but innovation is too frequently sacrificed in favor of current platforms. During previous offset strategies, the United States worked around Soviet strengths, making their investments in conventional power obsolete. In this modern pursuit of an offset, advocates of ramping up defense spending should consider the possibility that this time, we’re on the opposite side of that dynamic.