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Will: The eroding U.S. military dominance

Will: The eroding U.S. military dominance

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By George F. Will

WASHINGTON — In government, personnel is policy, so in eight weeks, when president-elect Joe Biden begins assembling his administration, he should nominate Michèle Flournoy as defense secretary. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012, she surely knows what Christian Brose knows.

The former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee under John McCain, Brose writes in “The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare”: “The Chinese Communist Party aims to become the dominant power in Asia and in the world, and it believes that for China to win, America must lose.” China is projected to have the world’s largest GDP “by as early as 2030. The last time the United States faced a competitor, or even a group of competitors, with greater economic power than its own was in the nineteenth century, before our own rise to global predominance.”

In defense procurement, writes Brose, “the goal is to buy deterrence, the prevention of war. And the only way to deter wars is to be so clearly capable of winning them that no rival power ever seeks to get its way through violence.” Today, writes Flournoy in Foreign Affairs, the risk of war with China is higher than it has been for decades, and is growing because of “growing Chinese assertiveness and military strength and eroding U.S. deterrence.” And if conflict comes, “the United States can no longer expect to quickly achieve air, space, or maritime superiority; the U.S. military would need to fight to gain advantage, and then to keep it, in the face of continuous efforts to disrupt and degrade its battle management networks.”

Brose says that if war begins, crucial U.S. military assets — ships, submarines, bomber and fighter aircraft — would be thousands of miles away. Cyberattacks would hinder logistical movements, U.S. satellites would be disabled by lasers, high-energy jammers or anti-satellite missiles, forward bases in Japan and Guam would be attacked by ballistic and cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons — runways cratered, operations centers and fuel supplies destroyed. “Most Americans,” writes Brose, “have spent their entire lives in a world defined by U.S. military dominance,” and he asks, “Do Americans trust the Chinese Communist Party enough to live in a world where it has more capable weapons than the United States and our allies do?”

Flournoy says there is a “dangerous new uncertainty” that, combined with China’s “strongly held beliefs about the United States as a declining power,” could invite Chinese risk-taking, such as attacking or blockading Taiwan: “China’s theory of victory increasingly relies on ‘system destruction warfare’ — crippling an adversary at the outset of conflict, by deploying sophisticated electronic warfare, counterspace, and cyber-capabilities.”

In order to bolster deterrence, Flournoy says, U.S. policy should aim to “shape Beijing’s calculus”: If “the U.S. military had the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan; they would have to wonder whether it was worth putting their entire fleet at risk.”

This, however, will require fresh thinking by a stale defense industry comfortably insulated from new entrants into competition. “National defense,” Brose writes, has become a “closed system” governed by “a dense web of perplexing laws and policies, dominated by a handful of major companies . . . When the Cold War ended there were 107 major defense firms. By the end of the 1990s, there were five.”

Reality, which gets a vote on the fate of nations, is more serious than the United States currently is. It is unrealistic to expect any presidential campaign to articulate the granular details of defense policy, but the 2020 campaign can pose this stark question: Which candidate can be expected to focus on, and act on, facts? Probably not the candidate responsible for the perception of U.S. decline. Certainly only presidential leadership can restore the nation’s safety.

Shortly before leaving the Senate, John McCain directed Brose to organize a briefing for his 99 colleagues to hear why Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had concluded that, “In just a few years, if we do not change our trajectory, we will lose our qualitative and quantitative competitive advantage.” And why the Rand Corp. has concluded what numerous war games involving China have indicated: “U.S. forces, could, under plausible assumptions, lose the next war they are called upon to fight.” About 88 senators skipped the briefing.

Will is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.

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