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So, Who Decides When We Win?

Words: Rob Levinson
Pictures: Camille/Kmile

Not surprisingly the new National Defense Strategy places potential conflict with China and/or Russia at the center of our defense planning universe. The shift away from the previous emphasis on the Middle East and terrorism is not subtle. The document says – “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.” But fighting either Russia or China, short of some sort of all-out nuclear exchange poses a real problem – the enemy will decide when the fight is over.

After a decade and a half of conflict in the Middle East, the US military has gone back to preparing for the kinds of wars it thinks it understands, good old-fashioned slugfests complete with tanks, planes, and ships. Victory should be determined when our forces reach a certain line on a map or raise a flag on some hill or island. Except, in this case maybe it won’t.

The wars against ISIS, al-Qaeda and their various regional franchises and spinoffs aren’t going away, but while these fights are tough, they don’t require major investments in new military capabilities or expansions in the size of our force. Resolving the conflicts in the Middle East is hard, maybe impossible, but nobody would argue that getting the Army a new tank, or building up a 355-ship Navy will get us any closer to that goal. Fighting Russia or China, on the other hand, means that we need new and better stuff and more of it – a prospect the Pentagon surely doesn’t hate.

But even if we get the budget to buy what we think we need to slug it out in Eastern Europe or the South China Sea – when the conflict comes, what will it mean to win?


The public release of the NDS is only a synopsis, so those of us without a current security clearance can’t be sure what lies beyond, but we can make some reasonable assumptions. In the case of Russia, we’re looking at some sort of crisis in the Baltics or elsewhere along NATO’s eastern border where a Russian move, perhaps with irregular forces (little green men), either accidentally or on purpose, brings in more conventional regular heavy Russian forces which the United States and its NATO allies are compelled to confront with conventional forces of our own.

With China, things could also go downhill quickly, and either accidentally or on purpose. China could decide to finally take back Taiwan, or perhaps as our two nation’s Navies muscle-flex around various reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, an incident could escalate into a shooting war. Some sort of Chinese intervention if the US uses military force in North Korea is also possible. We’ve seen this movie before.

An important commonality in these possibilities is that they are away games for us. We always want to use our inherent geographic advantage, fighting on the other sides of the Atlantic and Pacific moats to our East and West. Unless things get way out of hand, our homeland will likely be safe.

For our potential adversaries, on the other hand, the fights won’t exactly be home games, that is defense of sovereign national territory. They will be in what has been described as the Russians’ “near abroad,” and the Chinese variant in the South China Sea is akin to our own Alfred Thayer Mahan’s desire to make the Caribbean “An American Lake.” The Chinese and the Russians may argue that these fights are in fact about the defense of sovereign territory, and we and the international community may dispute those claims, but at the very least the Russians and the Chinese view these regions as within their respective spheres of influence over which they have primacy and the right to push around those in them if they so choose.

This difference between an away game for us and a near-home-game for them poses real operational challenges. Our success in these fights will depend upon our ability to deploy and sustain combat power over sea and air routes that are thousands of miles long – all the while subject to potential enemy interdiction as well as just the tyranny of time and distance. Being there “firstest with the mostest,” the famous misquote of a Confederate general, will be tough. We won’t be firstest and we probably won’t be mostest.

Our enemies, on the other hand, will be moving forces much shorter distances, and hence much faster, and sustaining them from bases located inside their borders. They can “go deep,” delaying, disrupting, or destroying our forces on the way to the fight without placing our homeland at risk. We will not have that luxury. If we want to engage in the deep fight, we will be forced to contemplate a strategic escalation, attacking the Russian or Chinese homeland. This is different from the Cold War when deep interdiction meant hitting Russian forces in Poland. Will we be willing to turn a localized fight in a disputed region into an attack which would likely result in Russian or Chinese civilian casualties? The risk of a move up the escalatory ladder in this fashion, perhaps even to the nuclear level, will likely not seem worth it over a disputed Baltic border or Eastern Pacific reef.


So how do we prevail? Will we have to have the ability to inflict massive punishment on enemy forces in spite of the complications detailed above? Moreover, even if we inflict heavy losses, they will have the ability to flow replacement forces into the fight. While their resources are not limitless, the exchange ratio in losses will have to be heavily tilted in our favor in order to exhaust the enemy in a time frame we can sustain. Secretary Mattis is right, we will have to be lethal, really lethal.

Setting aside the likelihood of mass casualties, this operational difficulty leads to a problem — it is the enemy, not us who will decide when the fight is over. Unlike World War II or even Iraqi Freedom, the US won’t be raising the American flag in Beijing or Moscow the way it did in Berlin, Tokyo, or Baghdad. Our desired outcome is clearly something more akin to Korea or even Desert Storm. At the end of the fight, the status quo ante is restored e.g. we’re back on the 38th parallel or Iraqi forces are out of Kuwait. Hopefully, our enemy is chastened and a more stable situation exists, but we will have fought a big expensive war (both in money and lives) for a very limited outcome. Most importantly, since we’re not going into the enemy’s capital, bombing its cities, or wiping out most of its military capability, it will be up to the enemy, not us, to decide when it has “had enough” and is willing to negotiate an end to the conflict. While we may be able to thwart the achievement of all of its objectives, the enemy will probably achieve some additional geographic advantage, before deciding to quit. We, circumspect about our ability to sustain the fight over a long period of time, will be willing to take a deal that is offered to end it. Unconditional surrender is for existential fights. If we turn one of these conflicts into one of those, it’s hard to see how it stays below the nuclear threshold.


So where does that leave us? Firstly, both the US and its enemies can agree that we don’t want to get into these fights by accident. Playing chicken with ships or planes is a bad idea. We must be clear about our intentions and our red lines. During the Cold War both the US and the Soviet Union worked to reduce incidents at sea. New efforts along these lines – with both the Russians and the Chinese for both sea and air – are a good idea. If we do get into a fight, we don’t want it to be because a local commander was overzealous or misinterpreted an ambiguous situation.

But more importantly, what we want is to deter these conflicts from happening at all. Keeping the status quo in the first place is far better than fighting to restore it. But in order to do that, we have to convince the Chinese and the Russians, that in a conventional fight, the level of pain they are likely to endure will far exceed any potential gain they might achieve from a conflict. Once upon a time we could threaten to go nuclear, but that was in an age when we had nuclear superiority. Such a threat today is probably not credible. Even during the Cold War there was always a question, thankfully never answered, if we would put New York at risk to save Berlin or Paris. Our willingness to trade Chicago for Tallin or Scarborough Reef is even more of an open question.

So our conventional planners and operators, our scientists and engineers, our congressional budget masters and ultimately the American taxpayer have a very big task and a choice to contemplate. It is not clear exactly what kinds of capabilities our forces will need to have, or what size they will need to be, in fact it never is, but the gap between what we have today and what many think we need to support the current NDS is significant and expensive. If we’re not willing to sign up for that price tag, then we might want to rethink what we want to do in the world, lest our reach far exceed our grasp.

Rob Levinson is a retired Lt. Col in the US Air Force with over 20 years of service as an intelligence officer. He is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and served in Latin America, the Middle East and South Korea as an intelligence officer, foreign area officer, commander and politico-military affairs officer.

Rob Levinson

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