The release of the next National Defense Strategy, expected in early 2022, will address the continued importance of China as a “pacing threat” even as it recognizes the “increasingly complicated and complex security landscape.” As the renewed potential for great power conflict drives strategy and plans, some have dubbed this a “new Cold War.” Letting this planning construct drive DoD’s investment program without paying attention to other kinds of potential contingencies is a Bad Idea.
There is certainly a compelling case to be made for the claim that the United States is in a new Cold War. Just as the Soviets tried to extend their power and influence over client states both near and far, China exerts its substantial economic and growing military power to shape the world. The Belt and Road Initiative demonstrates how China is growing its world influence while its “nine-dash line” claims offer a vision for the growth of the empire. Efforts by the United States to respond or contain China are reminiscent of the great power competition of yore.
A new Cold War means that the United States needs to consider the investments that are required to counter a highly capable peer, who may be competitive in or even leading in key technology areas, as a series of Brookings Institution reports suggests and which can be inferred from China’s global leadership in patent applications. Acquiring the necessary capabilities to counter China will take considerable investment in both funds and focus. It will require an approach to identify and invest in key technologies and process improvements to ensure that innovations make it over the multiple “valleys of death” that can hinder a brilliant idea from turning into an actual program and yielding a new warfighting capability.
However, while the actions of China are certainly concerning in both strategic and economic ways (as they push toward control of critical aspects of supply chains of both defense and commercial items), a war with China is not necessarily the next conflict that the United States may find itself in. A hot war between two nuclear capable superpowers is obviously something to avoid, but even smaller engagements and proxy wars are highly concerning given the potential for escalation.
There are numerous other potential and existing conflicts in our complicated and complex world, including between Russia and bordering countries, within the Indo-Pacific, Middle East, South Asia, North or East Africa, and elsewhere. The United States may or may not play a military role in these, but it needs to be prepared to be surprised, just as it was 20 years ago on 9/11. Instead of considering that we have come to the era of a new Cold War, perhaps a better construct that covers the full range of threats and the possibility of surprise is that of a “Boiling Peace, ” where the military no longer faces a single threat but has to prepare both for potential major conflict and smaller operations.
Among the many implications this construct has for planning is the impact on DoD’s investment strategy. A strategy focused on acquiring capabilities to counter China in a new Cold War scenario will not optimize the force for an era of Boiling Peace. Boiling Peace is not a “lesser included case” of the new Cold War, and an investment strategy that prioritizes countering China may not yield the capabilities needed to prevail in other conflicts in a cost-effective manner.
For example, as the Army organizes, trains, and equips for the pacing threat of China, it has increased investments in longer range strike options, including a long-range hypersonic missile with nearly a 1700-mile range and a mid-range strike capability with a range of over 1000 miles. Not only would these be useful in a conflict marked by great distances, these may also be important for stand-off capabilities even as lower intensity conflicts feature foes with greater technological capabilities. That said, a hypersonic weapon can take out a fleeting enemy more rapidly than a smart bomb, but at a vastly higher cost. The materiel purchased in case of a conflict with China will not necessarily be appropriate, let alone needed, for a low intensity conflict. If DoD focuses on countering China, then acquisition programs appropriate for lower intensity conflicts expected in a Boiling Peace may be starved of necessary resources; instead, these programs might favor weapons that, even if useful for the more likely conflicts that the United States often finds itself in, will not be cost effective for the lower end of the conflict spectrum. In other words, don’t divest from traditional Army systems just because there’s no expectation of fighting a land war in China.
As always, the question is how to balance competing priorities. This is an ancient challenge, with no clear answer–and more importantly, no perfect answer. The development of the defense budget always necessitates trade-offs. And as enormous as the defense budget is–a number perhaps only justifiable with the excuse of a focus on a near-peer, pacing threat–it is never enough to address all the wants of the services, the combatant commands, and the various other entities needing material support.
The solution space offers robust alternatives. One simple approach involves pulling funds directly from the high-tech exquisite programs and investing more in programs designed for less complex missions. The challenge here would be protecting those programs from future cuts that might reallocate resources back to investments to counter the pacing threat. A second approach could focus on buying material from allies, who may have a defense industrial base that can cost effectively deliver materiel that may not be at the bleeding edge of technology, but that would be very useful–and cost-effective–in a future conflict. The United States could hold a competition to get the lowest cost product, just as other nations do, or it could make directed investments to shore up the defense industrial base of allies and build partnerships. Again, the challenge would be to protect funds, although the additional benefits of this approach of strengthening partnerships could provide something of a bulwark against cuts.
The vision of a new Cold War driving strategy (the plan) and investments (the program) is compelling, but it is one that doesn’t cover the full range of potential strategic challenges. Recognizing that these lower tech and lower cost investments are necessary on their own will help the United States succeed in a cost-effective way against the flare-ups and hot spots that are inevitable in an era of Boiling Peace.
(Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sawyer Haskins)