The Hard Truth About Long Wars
Why the Conflict in Ukraine Won’t End Anytime Soon
When it comes to international relations, 2022 has been an exceptionally dangerous year. During the first two months, Russia massed thousands of troops along Ukraine’s borders. At the end of the second one, Moscow sent them marching into Ukraine. China, meanwhile, has grown increasingly belligerent toward Washington, particularly over Taiwan. After U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei in August, Beijing carried out a furious set of military exercises designed to show how it would blockade and attack the island. Washington, in turn, has explored how it can more quickly arm and support the Taiwanese government.
The United States is aware that China and Russia pose a significant threat to the global order. In its recent National Security Strategy, the White House wrote that “the [People’s Republic of China] and Russia are increasingly aligned with each other,” and the Biden administration dedicated multiple pages to explaining how the United States can constrain both countries going forward. Washington knows that the conflict in Ukraine is likely to be protracted, thanks to the ability of Kyiv and Moscow to keep fighting and the irreconcilability of their aims, and could escalate in ways that bring the United States more directly into the war (a fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber rattling makes readily apparent). Washington also knows that Chinese leader Xi Jinping, emboldened by his appointment at the 20th National Party Congress in October to an unprecedented third term, could try to seize Taiwan as the war in Ukraine rages on. The United States, then, could conceivably be drawn into simultaneous conflicts with China and Russia.
But despite Washington’s professed focus on both Beijing and Moscow, U.S. defense planning is not commensurate with the challenge at hand. In 2015, the Department of Defense abandoned its long-standing policy of being prepared to fight and win two major wars in favor of focusing on acquiring the means to fight and win just one. This policy shift, which has remained in place ever since, shows. Large quantities of the United States’ military equipment are aging, with many aircraft, ships, and tanks that date back to the Reagan administration’s defense buildup in the 1980s. The country also has limited supplies of important equipment and munitions, so much so that it has had to draw a large portion of its own stocks down to support Ukraine. These problems would prove particularly vexing in simultaneous conflicts. If the United States found itself in a two-war situation in eastern Europe and the Pacific, the commitment would likely be lengthy in both cases. China’s expanding interests and global footprint suggest that a war with Beijing would not be confined neatly to Taiwan and the western Pacific but instead stretch across multiple theaters, from the Indian Ocean to the United States itself. (China might launch cyberattacks, or even missile strikes, on the U.S. mainland in an attempt to blunt U.S. military power.) The United States needs to create deep munitions reserves, stockpile high-quality gear, and come up with creative battlefield techniques if it hopes to win such fights.
Washington should get started now. U.S. policymakers must begin working to expand and deepen the United States’ defense industrial base. They need to develop new joint operational concepts: ways of employing the armed forces to solve pressing military problems, such as how to sustain forces in the face of increasingly capable Chinese military capabilities and defend U.S. space and cyber networks from attack. They should think seriously about the strategic contours of a war in multiple theaters, including where they would focus most of the United States’ military attention, and when. And Washington can do a better job of coordinating and planning with U.S. allies, who will be indispensable—and quite possibly decisive—to the successful outcome of a worldwide military conflict.
In some ways, the United States and its allies will have an advantage in any simultaneous war in Asia and Europe. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that modern precision weapons are highly effective, and most of these weapons are made by the United States. When it comes to quality, Western systems and munitions remain the best in class.
But the United States must supply these weapons to both its own armed forces and those of its allies and friends. Unfortunately, weapons stockpiles in the United States are limited, as is its industrial base. It will likely take years to replenish many of the munitions that the United States has provided to Ukraine. This should not come as a surprise. In 2018, the congressionally mandated National Defense Strategy Commission warned that the United States didn’t possess enough munitions to prevail in a high-intensity conflict and argued that the country needed to expand production. The report also found that Washington would need to modernize its defense manufacturing to create munitions and other weaponry at a faster pace. For example, the United States has not produced Stinger antiaircraft missiles in 18 years, and restarting production will take time and money. So far, the United States has given Ukraine over 1,400 of these munitions.
The Department of Defense must also look beyond Ukraine. Russia’s ongoing war offers a valuable set of data, but if China initiated a military operation to take Taiwan, forcing the United States and its allies to respond, the conflict would likely take place mostly at sea and have very different requirements. It would demand lots of long-range weapons and antiship missiles, and right now, the United States has meager supplies of both. There are, for instance, fewer Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) and Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) in storage than there are on the Ukrainian battlefield.
The United States clearly needs to increase its defense manufacturing capacity and speed. In the short term, that involves adding shifts to existing factories. With more time, it involves expanding factories and opening new production lines. To do both, Congress will have to act now to allocate more money to increase manufacturing.
A war across multiple regions could break out in any number of ways and proceed in a messy fashion.
But to keep U.S. stockpiles from falling too low, the country will need to do more than make ad hoc investments. Congress should also pass legislation that establishes minimum supply levels for munitions, with money automatically allocated for topping off stockpiles as the United States and its friends draw them down. Creating such a system would do much more than just guarantee consistent munitions supplies. To innovate, the United States also needs new firms that can complement existing manufacturers, and having near-guaranteed demand will give venture capitalists and entrepreneurs new incentives to invest in the defense industry.
Of course, the United States cannot rapidly expand all parts of its defense industrial base; it does not have unlimited resources and financing. That means the country will need to think creatively about how it can use the manufacturing it does have to best bolster its forces. The U.S. Navy, for instance, cannot easily hasten the production of aircraft carriers, yet it can think about how to expand these ships’ effectiveness by equipping them with better aircraft. The U.S. Air Force, for its part, will not always be able to rapidly scale up aircraft manufacturing. But it can multiply the effectiveness of its most advanced fighters and bombers by matching them with increasingly capable, low-cost, and easier-to-make unmanned systems that can sense and strike enemy planes while protecting their manned counterparts. By pairing manned systems with unmanned ones, the United States can multiply the effectiveness of the U.S. air fleet, preventing it from being stretched thin in a future conflict.
Finally, the United States should work with its allies to increase their military production and the size of their weapons and munitions stockpiles. Washington will need to be able to backstop its partners, but as the war in Ukraine clearly illustrates, it is good if frontline states have enough munitions to fight without the United States drawing down its own stocks. Some U.S. allies, such as Australia, are making considerable investments to build up their own munitions industry, while others, such as Japan, face considerable barriers to doing so. (Japan’s constitution, for instance, severely restricts the size and scope of its military.) They will need to do more if the West is going to create a munitions base robust enough for an era of protracted warfare.
Weapons and munitions are just one part of war. To win a conflict against both China and Russia, Washington also needs to come up with new fighting techniques. As the 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission put it, “The United States needs more than just new capabilities; it urgently requires new operational concepts that expand U.S. options and constrain those of China, Russia, and other actors.”
Washington has not ignored this call. In response to the 2018 report, the Department of Defense produced a “Joint Warfighting Concept” to shape future doctrine and establish funding priorities. Much of this report is classified, but progress has been patchy. It is unclear whether the department’s document—or the process that produced it—has influenced the size and shape of the U.S. armed forces or the composition of the defense budget. Moreover, efforts by the U.S. armed services to solve pressing operational challenges have come under attack from traditionalists. The Marine Corps’s new Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations doctrine and Marine Littoral Regiment, for example, would devote Marine forces to complementing the navy in countering the Chinese fleet in the western Pacific. But it would divest the Marine Corps of some of its tanks and reduce its complement of artillery, something that traditionalists—steeped in 20 years of warfare in the Middle East—bemoan.
To improve how it fights, the Department of Defense needs a vigorous contest of ideas spurred, supervised, and supported by its senior leadership. The Pentagon needs to develop new concepts to project and sustain forces against an enemy’s precision-strike systems, to resupply forces under fire, and to protect critical bases of operations at home and abroad against attack. The United States also needs to collaborate with its partners on new approaches to deterrence. The Biden administration, for instance, should make good on what it calls for in the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness: working with its allies to harness the power of unmanned systems to detect, and therefore deter, acts of aggression.
As it develops new combat techniques, the United States also needs to think seriously about strategy more broadly—specifically how to structure the military and construct its operations. This will likely require breaking from the military designs of recent decades. Today’s theater command structure, for example, is an artifact of the 1990s and the following decade. It features a series of six geographic fiefdoms presided over by powerful geographic combatant commanders. This structure made sense when the United States was mostly interested in discrete, local conflicts with Iran or North Korea, for example, and terrorist organizations such as insurgents in Somalia. But the threats the United States faces today do not conform to carefully drawn geographic boundaries, nor do the strategies needed to counter them. A war with China could easily spill from east Asia into the Indian Ocean, which connects China with its sources of energy in the Middle East, and even to the Persian Gulf and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, which hosts a Chinese base. In such a war, it might be better to have a command structure that’s not so geographically constrained.
That said, as defense strategists game out simultaneous conflicts with China and Russia, they will need to figure out how to prioritize U.S. military action based on the relative threats in Asia and Europe, the geography of the theaters, and the allies Washington has in each region. This isn’t a simple business. A war across multiple regions could break out in any number of ways and proceed in a messy fashion. Xi, seeing the United States preoccupied with Europe, might decide it’s time to move against Taiwan, something he believes is necessary to “rejuvenate” China. Such an attack could take many forms, from a blockade to a missile campaign to a full-fledged amphibious invasion. If things go well for Beijing, the United States might face the need to assist the Taiwanese in resisting Chinese occupation. But even if things go well for Washington, and a Chinese missile campaign or amphibious invasion ends in failure, Beijing would likely fight on. The United States, Taiwan, and their friends would then face a protracted conflict that could spread to other theaters. Moscow, meanwhile, could decide that with the United States bogged down in the western Pacific, it could get away with invading more of Europe.
Planning for such a conflagration would require careful sequencing. In World War II, the United States emphasized one theater of conflict over the other at different moments, depending on which theater had the greatest and most urgent needs. At the outset, the United States followed a Europe-first strategy focused on beating Nazi Germany because it posed the gravest threat to the United States and its allies. Today, however, the United States would need to initially focus on Asia. Although the war in Ukraine has required great U.S. support, it has exposed the limits of Russian military power as well as the effectiveness of concerted NATO action. As it stretches on, the war will continue to diminish Russia’s conventional military in ways that Moscow cannot quickly repair. NATO, meanwhile, will grow more capable, particularly with the additions of Sweden and Finland. The United States would still have a key role to play in the European side of the war, particularly in maintaining nuclear and other forms of deterrence. Ideally, Washington’s capacities would stop Russia from attacking a NATO country. But the United States’ European allies would be able to take the lead in many areas, such as supplying ground forces. They would not need U.S. aid and direction for every element of combat.
The situation in the western Pacific is different. China has a stronger military than does Russia, and it poses a graver danger to the prevailing regional order. The United States has capable local allies in Australia, Japan, and South Korea, but there is no NATO equivalent. There are many capabilities that only the United States can bring to the table, including nuclear deterrence; key naval, air, and space capabilities; as well as vital logistical support such as munitions. Washington would need to work with Taiwan, and potentially others, to help Taipei resist Chinese attacks and to augment Taiwanese military power. Such an effort would involve forces operating out of U.S. territory, such as Guam, as well as from the territory of allies such as Japan. It would require that the United States protect its territory and allies in the western Pacific and beyond, including the continental United States, as well as its computer networks and satellites. Such a campaign might last months.
This type of war would be frightening, in no small part because it would occur under the shadow of the Chinese, Russian, and U.S. nuclear arsenals. These three powers would have to communicate redlines to one another—for example, attacks on U.S. and allied territory—to avoid the use of weapons of mass destruction. These redlines would likely constrain each state’s military operations. In doing so, the war might simmer longer, but it would likely cause less damage. But the presence of nuclear arsenals would also significantly raise the stakes of escalation. It’s not impossible that the war could produce the world’s first nuclear attacks since 1945.
The more one outlines a conflict between China, Russia, and the United States and its allies, the more it starts to resemble World War II. Analysts don’t even need to look into the future to see the similarities; there’s much about the present day that resembles the international order in 1939. Two authoritarian powers—China and Russia—have formed a loose alliance based on shared goals of redrawing the political map, just as Germany, Japan, and Italy did in the 1930s. Russia is trying to conquer land in Europe, and its violent quest risks spiraling outward, bringing other parts of the continent into combat. China’s increasing belligerence toward Taiwan means that conquest could also return to Asia. The United States and its allies must plan for how to simultaneously win wars in Asia and Europe, as unpalatable as the prospect may seem.
As they do so, they can study the Allied victory in World War II. At first, this comparison may not be encouraging. The ingredients of American success included the mobilization of U.S. science, technology, and industry, as well as the development of new ways of war, and measured by this yardstick, there is much to be done. When it comes to mobilizing industry in support of national security, it is China that most closely resembles the United States in 1940. But the United States has vast reserves of untapped energy in both its defense sector and in the economy more broadly. It can regain the industrial upper hand. And the U.S. armed forces are staffed by dedicated and intelligent officers and soldiers—they have the skills to solve pressing operational challenges.
There is also one advantage the United States has from World War II that it never forfeited: its alliances. Unlike China or Russia, the United States has close ties with many of the world’s strongest militaries. The United States is also interlinked with most of the world’s vibrant economies. Washington needs to collaborate more closely with its partners on everything from defense research to operational planning. It needs to work with them to increase their reserves of munitions and weapons. But the United States has done all this before. There is no reason why it cannot do so again.
Threats, Assurances, and Effective Deterrence