The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
The next U.S. president will inherit a security environment in which the United States confronts mounting threats with increasingly constrained resources, diminished stature, and growing uncertainty both at home and abroad over its willingness to protect its friends and its interests. Revisionist powers in Europe, the western Pacific, and the Persian Gulf—three regions long considered by both Democratic and Republican administrations to be vital to U.S. national security—are seeking to overturn the rules-based international order. In Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin has seized Crimea, waged proxy warfare in eastern Ukraine, and threatened NATO allies on Russia’s periphery. Further demonstrating its newfound assertiveness, Russia has dispatched forces to Syria and strengthened its nuclear arsenal. After a failed attempt to “reset” relations with Moscow, U.S. President Barack Obama has issued stern warnings and imposed economic sanctions, but these have done little to deter Putin.
Nor has the administration’s “pivot” to Asia, now five years on, been matched by effective action. China continues to ramp up its military spending, investing heavily in weapons systems designed to threaten U.S. forces in the western Pacific. As a result, it is proving increasingly willing and able to advance its expansive territorial claims in the East China and South China Seas. Not content to resolve its disputes through diplomacy, Beijing has militarized them, building bases on natural and artificially created islands. The United States has failed to respond vigorously to these provocations, causing allies to question its willingness to meet its long-standing security commitments.
The lack of U.S. leadership is also fueling instability in the Middle East. In Iraq, the Obama administration forfeited hard-won gains by withdrawing all U.S. forces, creating a security vacuum that enabled the rise of both Iranian influence and the Islamic State, or ISIS. Adding to its strategic missteps, the administration fundamentally misread the character of the Arab Spring, failing to appreciate that the uprisings would provide opportunities for radical Islamist elements rather than lead to a new democratic order. The administration also failed to learn from the previous administration’s experience in Iraq when it chose to “lead from behind” in Libya, intervening to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi, only to declare victory and abandon the country to internal disorder. It then drew a “redline” over President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria but failed to act to enforce it. The result is growing instability in the Middle East and a decline in U.S. influence.
The threat of Islamist terrorism has grown on the Obama administration’s watch. Al Qaeda and ISIS, both Sunni groups, have gained new footholds in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and even West Africa. Obama’s negotiations with Iran, the home of radical Shiite Islamism, have not curbed the country’s involvement in proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen or its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. What the talks did produce—the nuclear deal—may slow Tehran’s march to obtaining a nuclear weapon, but it also gives the regime access to tens of billions of dollars in formerly frozen assets. The ink on the agreement was barely dry when, in March, Tehran tested ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, in blatant defiance of a UN Security Council resolution. Adding to all this instability, military competition has expanded into the relatively new domains of outer space and cyberspace—and will eventually extend to undersea economic infrastructure, as well.
With the current approach failing, the next president will need to formulate a new defense strategy. It should include three basic elements: a clear statement of what the United States seeks to achieve, an understanding of the resources available for those goals, and guidance as to how those resources will be used. The strategy laid out here, if properly implemented, will allow the United States to preclude the rise of a hegemonic power along the Eurasian periphery and preserve access to the global commons—without bankrupting the country in the process.
The chief goal of U.S. foreign policy has long been to prevent a hostile state from establishing dominance over a key region—Europe, the western Pacific, or the Persian Gulf—where it could accumulate sufficient power to threaten core U.S. interests. Thus, in the first half of the twentieth century, the United States waged war twice in Europe to defeat Germany and once in the Pacific to defeat Japan. During the Cold War, it worked with allies to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Western Europe or expanding its influence into the Middle East and East Asia. This goal remains valid today.
In order to preserve access to its allies and trading partners, the United States also needs access to the global commons. For over 70 years, the U.S. military has borne the responsibility for guaranteeing access to the seas and the air, not only for the United States but for other countries, too. It has accomplished this task so well that many take it for granted. Yet preserving access to the global commons is neither cheap nor easy. Should the United States decline to play this role, there is no other like-minded power that could take its place.
These two tasks have been made all the more challenging by the revisionist powers’ growing “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) capabilities, such as long-range precision-strike weaponry, antisatellite systems, and various cyberweapons. All are designed to attack the U.S. military’s muscle (its forward air bases and aircraft carriers) and its nervous system (its surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting, and communications systems).
What resources are available for accomplishing these two goals? Although the United States is no longer as dominant as it was at the end of the Cold War, relative to the revisionist powers, the country enjoys an enviable position. It possesses extensive natural resources, an efficient free-enterprise system, and the healthiest demographic profile of any major power. The United States has a proven ability to assimilate immigrants, and its educational system, although badly in need of reform, still ranks among the world’s finest. Thanks to its insular geographic position and peaceful neighbors, it can mount a defense of the homeland far from its shores. Its long list of allies includes most of the world’s biggest economies. And it boasts the world’s best military, in terms of quality of people and equipment, as well as in terms of experience conducting a wide range of operations.
The chief goal of U.S. foreign policy has long been to prevent a hostile state from establishing dominance over a key region.
Yet even as the challenges to U.S. security grow, Washington continues to cut its military spending. Between 2010 and 2016, the U.S. defense budget fell by over 14 percent in real terms, and by roughly 30 percent as a percentage of GDP, and it will likely fall further over the next decade, as interest payments on U.S. government debt rise. The United States’ most capable allies are contributing even less. Of the richest powers within NATO, only the United Kingdom budgets more than the alliance’s minimum target of two percent of GDP. In Asia, Japan remains constrained by its self-imposed ceiling of one percent.
This is not to say that the United States should simply peg its defense spending to a particular percentage of GDP. The level should depend on many factors, including the types of threats faced, the amount of risk the American people are willing to accept, the contributions made by allies, and more. Nevertheless, the decline in military budgets—especially in comparison to the investments that the revisionist powers are making—puts the United States and its allies at ever-greater risk. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2014, cutting U.S. defense funding “sends a signal that we are not interested in protecting our global interests.” But Washington needs to do more than simply spend more money on defense. It needs a strategy that allocates these dollars more efficiently and in ways that create a more effective military.
Resources are always limited, so strategy is about making choices. In doing so, policymakers must consider not only the immediacy of a threat but also its scale, form, and trajectory. Radical Islamism represents the most immediate threat the United States faces, but China and Russia have far greater potential to threaten U.S. security. China, a rapidly rising power, has built the most capable conventional forces besides those of the United States, and Russia, although showing clear signs of decline, still maintains the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. The threat from Iran, meanwhile, mainly entails the risk that its progress toward achieving a nuclear capability will trigger a cascade of proliferation in the Middle East. Since the aim should be to minimize the overall risk to its security over time, the United States should focus principally on preparing for the threats from China and Russia and secondarily on checking Iranian expansionism and supporting like-minded partners in suppressing radical Islamist groups.
To meet these challenges, given that resources are limited, the U.S. military will have to adopt a “one-and-a-half-war posture”—giving it the ability to at once deter or wage a major war with China and send expeditionary forces to either Europe or the Middle East. In the western Pacific, this means pursuing a strategy of “forward defense” of the first island chain, which runs from Japan through Taiwan and along the Philippines, three countries with which the United States has firm security commitments. What it should not do is pursue a strategy centered on a distant blockade of China or one that relies on mobilization to retake lost territory, as the United States did in World War II. This would be tantamount to exposing allies and partners to aggression or coercion and would be seen as such. Instead, by positioning sufficient forces forward, including ground forces in Japan and the Philippines, the United States could, along with its allies, offset China’s military buildup and preserve the peace. In Japan, the Philippines, and perhaps Vietnam, the door is increasingly open to greater U.S. military presence and assistance, but it will not remain open indefinitely. Nor will the United States be able to establish a forward defense posture quickly. So the next administration should begin the process without delay.
The immediate problem posed by Russia is its use of proxy forces beyond its borders. Given the character of this threat, Washington should deploy more ground and air forces to frontline countries in eastern Europe. Their mission would be to help those states deter and, if need be, suppress the Kremlin’s attempts to employ local Russian nationals as proxies. The United States should encourage its major NATO allies to make similar contributions. And to further deter Russian adventurism, it should preposition weapons, munitions, and supplies in the region to facilitate the rapid reinforcement of allied forces.
In the Middle East, the United States has oscillated from too much involvement to too little, while announcing unrealistic objectives, such as destroying ISIS and defeating Iranian proxies. Washington cannot expunge these corrupt forms of Islam; only the local populations can do that. It can and should, however, support those states and groups that seek to do so, and with far more vigor than it has to date. Given the greater challenges posed by China and Russia, the emphasis should be on quality over quantity. This means relying more on Special Forces and military advisers to assist local governments and groups, supported by airpower and cyber-operations. As in eastern Europe, it also means adopting an expeditionary military posture that emphasizes the ability to send in reinforcements rapidly in the event of overt aggression, in this case by Iran.
Although the United States is no longer as dominant as it was at the end of the Cold War, relative to the revisionist powers, the country enjoys an enviable position.
North Korea, with its radical regime, weakening economy, and growing nuclear arsenal, poses a unique challenge. For years, the United States agreed to give economic aid to the country to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power. After Pyongyang crossed that threshold in 2006, Washington pursued still more agreements in a vain effort to limit the regime’s nuclear arsenal, which continues to expand. Fortunately, there are indications that the Obama administration is beginning to supplant this failed strategy with one emphasizing tougher economic sanctions, and both Japan and South Korea are improving their missile defenses. The next administration should not abandon these efforts in exchange for promises from the North Korean government. It should tighten the sanctions and remove them only after Pyongyang takes verifiable and irreversible actions to reduce its nuclear capability as part of a plan to eliminate the arsenal entirely.
A core element of any defense strategy involves gaining military advantages in certain areas to offset losses in other areas. For example, the near monopoly that the United States has enjoyed in precision warfare is coming to an end as its rivals acquire new A2/AD capabilities. For over 70 years, the U.S. approach to projecting power has centered on building up ground and air forces at forward bases and positioning its fleet close to the enemy’s shores. But with ever-greater numbers of missiles and aircraft armed with precision-guided munitions, China and other rivals are increasingly able to target U.S. forces at greater distances.
The United States is also losing its edge in a number of key military technologies. Artificial intelligence, big data, directed energy, genetic engineering, and robotics all have military applications, yet their development is being driven primarily by the commercial sector. So they are available to anyone with the means to obtain them, including U.S. rivals.
To sustain its advantage in key areas of competition, the U.S. military will have to develop new operational concepts—the methods by which it organizes, equips, and employs forces for deterring an enemy or prevailing against one should deterrence fail. Above all, this means ensuring that the military is focused on the right set of challenges, such as the A2/AD threats in those regions where the United States has vital interests. The effort should entail experimenting with different types of forces and equipment, since history shows that experimentation lies at the heart of every great military innovation. In the period between the world wars, for example, the German army experimented with exploiting rapid advances in commercial technologies—mechanization, aviation, and radio—thus laying the foundation for the blitzkrieg form of warfare; the U.S. Navy experimented with similar technologies to make the leap from a fleet centered on battleships to one organized around the aircraft carrier. In addition to encouraging innovative thinking, experimentation helps ensure that new weapons systems are sufficiently mature before large-scale production begins, reducing the odds that a program will have to be canceled.
History also shows that a military will have to accept regular failures in order to make major breakthroughs. If every experiment is a success, then no one is learning much. The German army suffered many failures along its path to the blitzkrieg, as did the U.S. Navy as it created the aircraft carrier force. Above all, past experience shows that because preparing for new problems frequently requires making major changes, there is often firm resistance to such efforts. Strong civilian and military leadership is needed to overcome it.
Not only must the U.S. military identify the right operational concepts to exploit emerging technologies; it must also field the forces needed to execute them more quickly than rivals. The faster it generates new capabilities, the less it needs to spend on standing forces. Currently, however, the United States takes far longer than its adversaries to get new equipment from the drawing board into the hands of its men and women in uniform—more than a decade, in many cases. In large part, that’s because the Pentagon often seeks to push new systems’ performance characteristics to an extreme. Projects incur cost overruns when their overseers attempt to incorporate new technologies before they are mature, wasting both time and money while troops make do with old equipment. Compounding the problem, Uncle Sam too often spends, relatively speaking, thousands of dollars ensuring that it doesn’t get cheated out of nickels and dimes. It’s past time to reform that system by setting more realistic requirements and speeding new equipment into the field.
Preserving access to the global commons remains among the United States’ most important goals. Its military strategy must take this into account. A little more than a century ago, “the global commons” generally referred to the high seas. Over the ensuing decades, technological advances expanded the definition to include the air and space and, eventually, cyberspace and undersea energy and telecommunications infrastructure. Once the Cold War ended, the United States’ access to the commons was taken as a given. The U.S. military controlled the seas and the air, and it viewed the other, more novel domains as benign.
The U.S. military will have to adopt a “one-and-a-half-war posture.”
This is no longer the case. Revisionist states are increasingly challenging U.S. access to the commons. Both China and Russia are perfecting antisatellite weapons. As lasers grow more powerful, more states will be able to blind or even destroy satellites. Cyberspace has emerged as a place for economic warfare, espionage, crime, and terrorism. It is only a matter of time before undersea infrastructure becomes a target. States and nonstate actors can obtain unmanned underwater vehicles that can reach the seabed. As is the case with cyberattacks, it may prove difficult to identify the source of attacks on the United States’ assets in space or on the seabed, which means that a strategy based on deterrence is unlikely to work. Instead, the U.S. military will have to shift to a strategy based on defending its assets, limiting damage to them, and repairing or regenerating them rapidly.
The United States’ nuclear forces remain the foundation on which its security rests. But the context in which these forces function has changed dramatically. The world has entered a second nuclear age, having shifted from a bipolar U.S.-Soviet competition to increasingly multipolar regional and global competitions. These competitions are also becoming multidimensional. Although nuclear weapons retain pride of place, other capabilities—such as precision-guided munitions and cyberweapons, as well as advanced air and missile defenses—have entered the discussion of strategic warfare. What used to be called “the nuclear balance” might now more accurately be described as “the strategic balance.”
China and Russia, for example, have expressed concerns about the United States’ nascent “prompt global strike” capability, which would allow the U.S. military to hit a target anywhere in the world within one hour. They have also complained about U.S. air and missile defenses: the Russians have protested U.S. plans to place missile defenses in eastern Europe to deal with attacks launched from the Middle East, and the Chinese have opposed similar plans in South Korea designed to guard against a North Korean attack. Concerns that cyberweapons could be used to disable early warning and command-and-control systems complicate matters even further.
Despite these profound changes, the Obama administration has remained firmly rooted in the Cold War paradigm of arms control, focusing on U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals while envisioning a world without nuclear weapons. The United States’ principal rivals, by contrast, are already operating in the new nuclear age. The Russians have adopted an “escalate to de-escalate” doctrine, which calls for the use of nuclear weapons to offset Russia’s inferiority in conventional forces, and have tested weapons that likely violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. China shares Russia’s concerns about the United States’ precision-strike capabilities and missile defenses and has refused to provide anything but the most modest details about its own nuclear capabilities and intentions, even as it modernizes its nuclear forces and expands its arsenal of precision-guided munitions and cyberweapons.
It is time to move beyond Cold War–era thinking and assess the competition not by merely counting weapons but by looking at it through the lens of the second nuclear age. A key initial step toward adapting the U.S. nuclear arsenal involves developing detailed plans to address various plausible crisis scenarios—ones involving the United States, China, and Russia; the possible use of nuclear weapons by minor powers such as North Korea; or a conflict between two nuclear-armed states, such as India and Pakistan. In the meantime, the United States must maintain a robust nuclear posture—the ultimate guarantor of its security. U.S. warheads, delivery methods, and command-and-control systems have been neglected to the point where they will soon become obsolete all at once. The United States can afford to modernize its nuclear deterrent, which would cost only around five percent of the total defense budget. But it needs to begin this effort now to ensure that it has a nuclear deterrent that can address future challenges—not one designed for a bygone age.
The United States’ nuclear forces remain the foundation on which its security rests.
Even the best strategy will fail if it is not properly resourced, and the strategy outlined here requires significantly greater resources than what the Pentagon is currently projecting will be made available. Fortunately, there is bipartisan support for restoring funding for defense to levels called for by the budget Gates proposed as secretary of defense for fiscal year 2012. Doing so would go a long way toward closing the gap between the United States’ security needs and its ability to meet them at a reasonable level of risk.
Yet the rapid growth in entitlements and projected increases in federal deficits will likely impose political constraints on defense spending. The Obama administration’s policies have produced an anemic economic recovery while burdening future generations with ever-greater debt, thus accelerating the erosion of the United States’ position. The next president must make restoring the country’s economic foundation a priority. The long-term solution lies in stimulating economic growth, making tough choices on entitlements, and revising the outdated tax code. Success on this front is far from assured, and even if progress is made, it will not reverse the country’s economic fortunes overnight.
There are other ways to reduce the gap between ends and means, but they will take foresight and political courage. One approach involves relying more on the United States’ economic power. Sanctions exerted substantial pressure on Iran and North Korea, yet the last three administrations abandoned them in exchange for promises that proved illusory. The United States’ economic might is a poorly developed source of power that, properly employed, can impose substantial costs on rivals, even to the point of compelling them to divert resources from their military efforts.
Washington should also draw more on U.S. allies’ military potential. Too often, the Obama administration has treated allies as impediments to its efforts to accommodate U.S. adversaries, despite the lack of evidence that they will somehow abandon their hostile aims. Working with like-minded governments to craft well-designed regional strategies would help restore allies’ confidence in the United States as a capable and reliable partner. Better relationships would prove especially valuable in the western Pacific, where prospective partners must decide whether to accommodate themselves to an increasingly demanding China or work with the United States.
Just as important, Washington needs to clearly articulate its strategy, so that allies know which military capabilities will be contributing to common objectives. A clear strategy should also help reduce the gap between ends and means by giving the military precise instructions about national priorities, removing much of the uncertainty that plagues defense planning. For too long, U.S. military planners have lacked explicit directions, resulting in the poor allocation of resources. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
A clear strategy can realign forces in ways that not only conserve resources but also reduce the overall risk to security. For example, South Korea has twice the population of the North and over ten times its GDP. Over time, it should be possible for Seoul to assume a greater share of the U.S.–South Korean alliance’s ground force requirements, freeing up some U.S. ground forces for other priority missions. Similarly, developing new operational concepts—for example, one that enables an effective forward defense of the first island chain—would further refine the military’s understanding of which forces and capabilities would be most useful and which could be cut at little risk. The result would be the more efficient use of resources and a more effective military.
The ability to field new capabilities quickly should also cut costs for the United States, in part by reducing the practice of relying on immature technologies, which leads to cost overruns and production delays. If policymakers set realistic requirements during the acquisition process, the military could field equipment more rapidly and efficiently. What’s more, such a move would impose costs on rivals, since the uncertainty created by a fast timeline would force them to prepare for a wider range of possible U.S. military capabilities: they would need to either spread their resources more thinly, reducing the threat they posed, or increase their spending to counter capabilities that Washington may never end up acquiring. The Pentagon is enjoying some modest success in this area in the form of the air force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, which allows the air force to bypass the dysfunctional acquisition system in order to procure new equipment and upgrade old equipment more quickly. The navy has followed suit, creating the Maritime Accelerated Capabilities Office this year. The long-term solution, however, is to fundamentally reform the system itself.
During the last eight years, as a result of the Obama administration’s ineffective strategy, the United States has seen its influence decline and the threats to its interests grow. As Henry Kissinger observed last year, “The United States has not faced a more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.”
Given that the current challenges are both greater in scale than and different in form from those the United States encountered only a short time ago, increasing the resources devoted to national security is necessary but not sufficient. More of the same will not do. The United States must develop new military advantages, and do so faster than its rivals.
None of this will be easy. During the Cold War, the United States allocated an average of over six percent of GDP to defense in order to create the shield behind which its prosperity grew to unprecedented heights. Yet despite sizable cuts in military spending, the country’s financial standing has eroded substantially since the Great Recession, with the federal government accumulating debt at an unprecedented rate. To be sure, there is room for greater efficiency in how the U.S. government allocates its defense dollars, but its financial woes have little to do with military expenditures; the main culprits are the government’s rapidly increasing debt and the expanding costs of entitlement programs. Simply put, the United States is fast approaching the time when its debt can no longer be deferred to future generations.
Thus, it is on the domestic front where the tough choices will have to be made in order to defend the nation’s security and economic well-being. As President Dwight Eisenhower once warned, “Our system must remain solvent, as we attempt a solution of this great problem of security. Else we have lost the battle from within that we are trying to win from without.”