By Robbin Laird
With a growing array of single service initiatives designed to compete for “deterrence badges” in the great power competition, there is a clear danger of splintering deterrence rather than reinforcing it.
In my recent discussion with Dr. Paul Bracken, the nuclear weapons expert, underscored the key importance of the nuclear equation when shaping a deterrent approach to Russia or China.
And with many top military leaders having lived through a period of land-centric wars where this was simply not a consideration, it is not about remembering, it is about fundamentally rethinking how the nuclear aspect is woven into a deterrent strategy and understanding the challenges of deterrence in a second nuclear age.
An additional challenge is when single services put a bid out into the budget world for putting containerized missiles covertly into the first island chain (China) or building a 1,000-mile gun without being woven into an overall military strategy which is closely integrated into a global great power strategy.
Recently, I discussed this overall challenge of context and integration with Lt. General (Retired) Deptula who has been associated with us from the beginning and is now Dean, of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies.
Question: How do you view the impact of the Coronavirus crisis on the way ahead for U.S. military strategy and force structure modernization?
Deptula: Obviously, defense spending will become tighter which means that we need to do a much better job of making strategic, rather than service constrained, investment and force structure development decisions.
We cannot have dangling participles like the Army’s 1,000-mile gun or the Marine Commandant’s cruise missile initiatives unrelated to overall military strategy.
And the COVID-19 virus clearly is introducing major geopolitical changes as well which we need to adjust strategy to deal with both in terms of new opportunities and new challenges.
Notably, the crisis has had a clear impact on European Union cohesion, on China’s role in the world and on the viability of the regime in Iran.
How should we deal with such changes as part of our overall national strategy?
And within that question is another on how do geopolitical shifts affect our military strategy?
Question: Where do you see specific impacts on the U.S. military?
Deptula: The U.S. military has just about come out of the significant readiness shortfalls they were dealing with prior to the funding infusion of the past three years.
Now readiness is being hit again both by the impact of the crisis and then the need to ramp up after the initial effects.
COVID-19 does raise questions about the vulnerability of large deck carriers, in terms of the impact of disease at sea on combat availability. There are more people who tested positive for COVID-19 just on that one ship, the USS Roosevelt, as have tested positive in the entire United States Air Force.
And the tight budget situation coupled with geopolitical changes clearly requires shaping a comprehensive military strategy which supports national strategy shaped to deal with those geopolitical changes.
At the heart of the challenge is the requirement to make strategic decisions about force structure development which align with strategic need, rather than separate force structure modernization.
A case in point is that the USAF is sunsetting B-1s and B-2s because of constraints within the USAF budget and choices that have to be made in terms of investments. But strategically, the flexibility of the bomber force, as well as its capability to deliver significant strike capability into an area of interest is strategically important.
We need to move toward an evaluation system inside the Department of Defense that looks at desired outcomes across all service programs to invest in those that give us the greatest effect for the least amount of resources involved. One B-2 or two B-1s can deliver the same amount of ordinance at range as an entire carrier battle group. There are 5,000 people on an aircraft carrier but only two crew members in a B-2. The problem is that we only have 20 B-2s.
And we clearly need to build out our capability to deal with the strategic disinformation our adversaries are generating in the current environment.
China is now on a campaign to benefit from the pandemic and strengthen its competitive position with the U.S. So what cabinet level organization in the United States government is responsible for coming up with strategic communications and information to counter this kind of an effort? The answer is there is none, so we’ve got to fix that and we’ve got to fix it quickly.
Question: Let us go back to the nuclear issue and the need as well to reshape the joint force to deliver its most capable tactical and strategic effect.
How best to do that?
Deptula: Clearly, we need to implement the new nuclear strategy, and notably insure that the standoff weapons piece in the modernization program is fully funded, both for today’s bomber force and for the B-21.
And, for me, shaping the comprehensive C2/ISR integratability piece is crucial, which I refer to as the combat cloud.
If we can get to that kind of a vision for joint force operations then no service like the Army or the Marine Corps needs to feel that they have to justify their relevancy, but they’re part and parcel of an entire panoply of capabilities that’s formed by this intelligence surveillance, reconnaissance, strike, maneuver sustainment complex that’s extraordinarily difficult for any adversary to derail.
Even if an adversary is able to take out a couple of elements of the combat cloud, the rest of the elements re-form and re-heal and continue to operate.
It’s the diversity of domains and particular threats coming from each of those domains, air, sea, land, space, subsea, that will complicate an adversary’s calculus, which is crucial to achieve deterrence.
The problem of achieving deterrence is that it is an intangible.
And so people have a difficulty putting their hands on it, when in fact it’s the most cost-effective means to avoiding conflict and win it, because you’re winning without having to fight.
And this requires for us an ability to integrate nuclear weapons into this strategic calculus.
The featured photo B-2 Spirit joining up on FORCE 26 – 305th AMW KC-10 just after midnight in the skies over southwest Missouri.