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Will the US win the next war?

A series of presidents and secretaries of defense, amplified by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, have declared that the United States possesses the world’s most formidable and capable military. And that military is indeed impressive — until one observes its record in wars over the past seven decades.

Since World War II, the U.S. military has won many battles, but few wars. Korea was a draw at best. In Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, no matter how proficient the U.S. military was, America failed. As China and Russia loom larger as potential adversaries, and the prospect of Beijing’s invasion of Taiwan grows, will this history prevail?

The reasons why it might are manifold. One is the absence of the most important domain of warfare. Subsets of this domain include possessing sufficient knowledge and understanding of conditions in which force is to be used and basing analysis on assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of potential adversaries.

The Department of Defense compartmentalizes war into five domains: land, sea, air, space and cyber. But where is the domain that lies between our ears? Perhaps it is assumed that brainpower is inherent to each of these domains. But is it? If that were the case, answer a few simple questions about the nation’s defense strategy and our knowledge and understanding of China and Russia as well as each’s strengths and weaknesses.

The National Defense Strategy (NDS) of the past two and current administrations is to contain, deter and, if war comes, defeat (or prevail over) a list of five potential adversaries topped by China and Russia. Yet, where and how have China and Russia been deterred? Yes, China has not invaded Taiwan and neither has started a nuclear war against the U.S. But China continues to threaten its neighbors and act inimically to U.S. interests. Russia was not deterred from seizing parts of Georgia in 2008, all of Crimea in 2014 and invading Ukraine last year.

Further, during the Cold War, the U.S. never fully understood the strengths and especially the weaknesses of the Soviet Union. After all, who predicted it would implode in 1991? No one. Are we repeating this failure in analysis of China and Russia, both of which have very debilitating domestic issues that are no secret, from population to economic? And do we have sufficient knowledge and understanding of Russia and China to form a viable and effective strategy?

If answers to the question of whether our adversaries are being contained and deterred are not satisfactory, deriving a new strategy is essential. But will a strategic review occur? That seems unlikely.

The basis for a new strategy must be broad enough to accommodate all threats and not only military ones. As this column and my last book argued, the new MAD (for Massive Attacks of Disruption) must be prevented, contained and, if they occur, limited in the damage done. This triad also applies to potential geostrategic and military adversaries.

Preventing acts of man or nature from doing harm; containing acts of disruption if they occur; and limiting the damage are applicable in peace and war. It is also prudent not to identify specific enemies by name. For example, what would the reaction be if China and Russia declared their strategies to be to contain, deter and, if war comes, defeat the United States? Congress would explode.

Thermonuclear wars must never be fought. That means the prevent, contain and limit damage criteria fit perfectly with the U.S. military’s superior record of winning battles. Faced with losing the battle, will adversaries be reluctant to start a war? 

With the 2024 presidential election drawing closer, no White House, absent a calamity, will make sweeping changes to its national security and defense strategies. But that must change after the election. The U.S. may still win most of its battles. But will it win every war?

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.” His latest  book is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large.” Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

Tags China Cold War Defense Department National Defense Strategy Russia United States

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