As America’s involvement in large-scale combat operations in Afghanistan comes to an end this year, Washington’s attention, as well as its resources, will shift to address other pressing national security concerns. Some of the most likely security challenges that might threaten vital American interests over the next 5-7 years are readily discernable on the horizon today, including managing Iran’s nuclear ambitions or disrupting terrorist organizations with global intent and capability. What is likely not on that list, though, is managing a major conflict between the United States and China, for reasons that have largely to do with the latter. Therefore, at least in the short run, most of the military demands generated by the national security environment are likely to center on so-called “Phase 0,” or shaping, activities, not on the necessity of fighting or even preparing to fight another great power.
American leaders are poor prognosticators when it comes to predicting where military force may be applied in the coming years. Some, such as Robert Gates and Ike Skelton, have argued that senior U.S. military or political leaders actually have a perfect track record in this regard—American leaders have been wrong 100 percent of the time.
Gates and Skelton certainly are correct to note that in the post-Vietnam era, U.S. leaders were unable to predict even 6 months beforehand that American military forces would be engaged in Grenada, Lebanon, Libya, Panama, Haiti, the Balkans, or Kuwait. These sorts of security challenges—crises really, that are largely unknowable until just before they erupt—differ, though, from the sort that strategists and leaders can discern on the horizon, thanks to preexisting evidence or trends. For example, most available evidence today indicates that deterring Iran, undermining and disrupting global terrorist organizations, building confidence and security in potential trouble spots like the South China Sea, and bolstering the ability of allied and partner militaries to maintain security and stability in their own neighborhoods so that U.S. forces do not have to are likely to occupy significant attention from American political and military leaders over the next several years.
Even if this evidence is misleading and today’s strategists and leaders are wrong about what lies on the national security horizon, the American public and their political leaders seem very content to accept risk when it comes to current defense policy, as manifested through the significant but not unprecedented budget cuts now unfolding. Military downsizing across all of the services is underway, with expectations that the Army and Marine Corps will shrink significantly. Meanwhile, major military procurement and modernization programs are either being canceled or deferred into the next decade. Likewise, military preparedness will be reduced or doled out on an as-needed basis—only those units preparing to deploy will be trained to the highest level of readiness.
Many, particularly those with strong ties to the defense community, are uncomfortable with the degree of risk the United States will bear between now and 2020, by which time the worst years of sequestration and downsizing will pass. However, one area where that risk seems somewhat acceptable is in terms of great power conflict, particularly with China. Although the United States will need to manage carefully the potential for its allies—especially Japan and the Philippines—to pull it into a conflict with China, leaders in Beijing seem unlikely to pursue a foreign policy that would necessarily lead to a direct confrontation with U.S. vital interests.
China today is beset with several internal challenges that consume the attention of its leadership and the energy of its governing bodies. For example, China is nominally communist, yet the massive income and lifestyle disparities between the elite few and the poor hundreds of millions undermine the credibility of the Communist Party. Related to this is the endemic nature of corruption in China. Although certainly not as corrupt as Afghanistan or Somalia, popular perceptions within China and abroad paint corruption as a major problem in the world’s second largest economy. Environmental degradation is potentially unprecedented, impacting not merely tourism in Beijing, but public health across the country—one recent study estimated that the average life expectancy in northern China has dropped by 5 years or more because of air pollution generated by coal power production.
Frustration among environmentalists, those fed up with corruption or with high inflation in food prices and other commodities, and other groups dissatisfied for one reason or another have resulted in a surge of protests—in 2010, China experienced 180,000 riots and other mass incidents, more than four times the amount of a decade earlier. The years ahead look to be perhaps more contentious, particularly given the looming collapse of the housing market bubble. The housing boom in China over the last 15 years has resulted in a glut of new, unoccupied apartments, houses, and towns. When the bubble bursts and housing values collapse, the invested savings of millions of Chinese will evaporate, and Beijing will need to respond to inevitable demands for protection and relief.
Together, these challenges will make full, frontal confrontation with the United States incredibly difficult, and hence Beijing’s top leadership is unlikely to provoke a fight with Washington. Instead, great focus and energy in Beijing is and will continue to be devoted to internal stability and security—and this will only be achieved with significant, sustained effort.
For the U.S. military, the implications are potentially significant. The most likely security challenges discernible on the horizon today will generate military demands centered not on preparing for great power conflict, but rather on shaping the security environment. Shaping activities are designed to dissuade or deter potential adversaries and assure or solidify relationships with friends and allies. Examples include maintaining operational and tactical interoperability with a variety of allies and partners, building partner capacity with lesser capable countries, developing social and operational access through military-to-military exchanges, increasing transparency through observer visits, and building capability across the range of military operations where it did not previously exist.
These sorts of activities are not nearly as interesting or compelling for some as planning for war with China, preparing to counter area denial capabilities of the Iranian military, or devising plans for rolling back a North Korean invasion of the South. Moreover, security cooperation requirements do not translate as easily into the sorts of tools the military services are most comfortable wielding—such as brigades, air wings, or carrier battle groups—or for which they receive most of their congressional support.
Indeed, the military services may slowly be reverting to their preference for planning for major state-on-state conflict, but most indications are that the most likely security challenges facing the United States in the next 5-7 years will demand security cooperation activities. This does not necessarily mean the U.S. military should allow capabilities important for great power conflict—or, for that matter, the counterinsurgency skills re-learned by the military over the last decade or the counterterrorism tools that may be necessary to preempt or respond to global extremist terrorism—to atrophy completely. However, in an era that demands doing less with less, it is both prudent and wise to place emphasis in military structure, modernization, and readiness on security cooperation activities, given the likely security challenges of the next 5-7 years. If carefully wielded in a manner consonant with U.S. diplomacy, development assistance, and economic incentives, security cooperation is likely to be the most effective, most efficient contribution of the U.S. military to national security in the next several years.
The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. This opinion piece is cleared for public release; distribution is unlimited.
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