For the first time in decades, it is possible to imagine the United States fighting—and possibly losing—a large-scale war with a great power. For generations of Americans accustomed to U.S. military superiority and its ability to deter major wars, the idea of armed conflict between great powers may seem highly improbable. The idea that the United States—with the most expensive armed forces in the world by a wide margin—might lose such a war would seem absolutely preposterous. Nevertheless, the possibility of war and U.S. defeat are real and growing.
Given that U.S. armed forces’ last major conventional combat operations were the massively lopsided victories against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991 and 2003, many Americans might be wondering how this could come to pass. This report makes the case that one salient issue is that the American way of war—the implicit and explicit mental framework for U.S. military strategy and operations—that coalesced after the Gulf War is no longer valid.
China and Russia have spent almost two decades studying the current American way of war. While the Department of Defense (DoD) has taken its military superiority for granted and focused on defeating nonstate adversaries, China and Russia have been devising strategies and developing new concepts and weapons to defeat the United States in a war should the need arise. They have offset their relative weakness versus the United States by using time and geography to their advantage and by focusing their weapons- and concept-development efforts on finding ways to attack vulnerable nodes in U.S. military operations. The goal of these strategies and concepts is to create a plausible theory of victory whereby China or Russia avoid a “fair fight” with the Joint Force and could therefore defeat the United States and its allies and partners in a regional war. These Chinese and Russian strategies, which once seemed implausible or far in the future, are beginning to pay off. They are shifting military balances in key regions and pushing allies and partners to reconsider U.S. security guarantees.
"America’s military has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield."
The declining U.S. military advantage in key regions and the increasing plausibility of the Chinese and Russian theories of victory animated the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). The NDS realized that, absent an effort to reshape U.S. military strategy, operational thinking, and consequent force design; the DoD and the Joint Force would face increasing difficulty ensuring favorable balances of power in key regions like East Asia and Europe; countering Chinese and Russian coercion below the level of overt conflict; deterring Chinese and Russian attacks on allies and key partners; and, should deterrence fail, defeating Chinese and Russian aggression. Put more simply, the NDS and efforts like the Third Offset Strategy that preceded it are a flashing warning signal to the DoD, the Joint Force, Congress, and the American people that there are fundamental flaws in the current American way of war.
The potential consequences of these flaws are profound. The possibility of U.S. military defeat, or even the perception that defeat is plausible, could begin to unravel the United States’ constellation of alliances and partnerships as allies and partners begin to hedge their bets on U.S. security guarantees. These relationships have helped the United States maintain a global order that for decades has made Americans secure, prosperous, and free.
Despite the warning signals and the dire consequences, changes to U.S. military strategy and operational thinking have been incremental, lethargic, and too focused on finding “silver bullet” technological solutions. Developing a new American way of war will require some shifts in resources and material, but at its core it is an intellectual challenge. Most efforts to drive change have done so with the goal of finding a way to make the current American way of war work again the way it did in Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
There is no going back to the post–Cold War era of U.S. military dominance. The DoD, the Joint Force, and the broader defense establishment have to come to grips with the systemic nature of the challenges posed by China and Russia. America needs a way of war that isn’t predicated on historically anomalous imbalances in national power, but rather is suited for long-term competition with great powers with capable militaries and substantial non-military power.
The challenges posed by China and Russia are real and difficult, but American military thinkers have faced and bested similar challenges in the past. Previous generations of American military professionals won a two-front global war against Germany and Japan, built the intellectual framework for great-power competition and deterrence in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, and developed the technologies and concepts that underwrote U.S. military superiority from the end of the Cold War until today.
This paper is the opening salvo in an effort to solve the central military strategic problem facing this generation of American military professionals and policymakers. It aims to focus military thinking and policymaking on the most critical issues, while also serving as the intellectual basis for developing a new American way of war. Given the urgency of the challenge and the consequences of failure, it is the duty of every American defense professional to sustain U.S. strategic advantages and pass them on to the next generation.
"If we want everything to stay as it is, everything will have to change."
At first blush, a novel about the unification of Italy in the 19th century seems an odd fit with 21st-century American military strategy. And yet this sentence, about how Sicily’s nobles could hold their position only by aligning with the liberal revolution against the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, is a good metaphor for the paradoxes facing American military strategists, analysts, and planners. The United States is a status quo power navigating a period of disruptive change, or what Thomas Kuhn might have called a paradigm shift in the security environment.3 Sustaining America’s military advantage will therefore require changing everything about how U.S. armed forces fight. Some changes may need to be radical, while many may be subtle. However, they must all flow from new assumptions about the character of modern warfare and the challenges facing the Joint Force.
Unfortunately, the DoD’s responses to the many challenges posed by the emerging security environment have thus far been piecemeal and lethargic, largely because the Pentagon has failed to fully grasp the systemic nature and fundamental implications of the problem it faces: The American way of war that emerged following the Cold War will not work in an era of great-power competition.4 It rests on a foundation of strategic and operational assumptions that were the product of an anomalous historical period of unchallenged U.S. military dominance.5 The assumptions from that period are now deeply flawed or wholly invalid and must be updated for an era of great-power competition.
Profound change is necessary given the potential consequences of failure.
This has led to the situation in which U.S. armed forces are the most powerful in the world by a wide margin, and yet they increasingly run the risk of losing a future war with China or Russia.6 The root of the problem is the DoD’s unwillingness thus far to fully come to grips with the reality that its principal competitors are no longer regional threats such as the Iraqs and Yugoslavias of the world, but rather great powers with advanced military forces and the ability to match U.S. escalation. The problems and risks that spread from that root assumption in our current way of war cross every domain and every function when applied to great-power competitors. The erosion of U.S. military advantage vis-à-vis China and Russia was a symptom of this infection, and the need to reverse it was the animating thrust of the National Defense Strategy. The change in emphasis wrought by the NDS is beginning to infiltrate the thinking and resourcing of the DoD and the military services, but overcoming 30 years of ingrained practices will not happen overnight.
Absent an effort to reshape U.S. military strategy, operational thinking, and consequent force design, the DoD will be unlikely to meet the NDS’s mandate to prevail in the long-term competition with China and, to a lesser extent, Russia by ensuring rough balances of power in East Asia and Europe, respectively. More bluntly, the United States risks losing a plausible war or backing down when faced with one, with devastating strategic consequences. By setting conditions slowly over time, moving rapidly to seize key objectives before the United States or its allies and partners can respond, then offering to negotiate (while threatening to escalate), China and Russia could see a path to effectively using military force to harm vital U.S. national interests. Both China and Russia are pursuing such fait accompli strategies and developing supporting capabilities designed to offset the aggregate military superiority and “way of war” of the United States and its constellation of allies and partners.
How the Joint Force plans to fight in these types of scenarios is critical to the credibility of U.S. deterrence, the cohesion of U.S.-led coalitions, and the plausibility of the U.S. theory of victory. A military strategy that relies primarily on escalation may not provide a credible deterrent to Chinese or Russian coercion or limited-war strategies, particularly given China and Russia’s nuclear weapons and other means of strategic escalation.7 A military strategy that cedes too much territory or fails to defend key allies and partners may have difficulty keeping a coalition together and may not provide a strong position for negotiation.
This problem is tractable, but addressing it will require profound change. This change must follow a coherent logic based on the foundation laid by the NDS. When faced with great-power competitors like China and Russia, the United States cannot afford to throw resources around without a clear strategy and priorities. The Defense budgets for fiscal year 2019 and 2020 take modest steps in the right direction, but they still reflect pre-NDS priorities in many ways. While some inertia and resistance to change is to be expected—a new Joint Force will not be built in a single budget—the evident lack of focus should be an area of concern. The NDS clearly prioritizes the need to deter and, if necessary, defeat Chinese and Russian aggression. What’s needed now is for the DoD to define the next layer of detail on the military strategy and operational concepts—i.e., a new way of war—necessary to realize this objective, not continued debate over the fundamental precepts of the strategy.
Profound change is necessary given the potential consequences of failure. The United States and its allies and partners created the present global order after almost four decades of great-power competition and warfare that caused unimaginable death, destruction, and human suffering. This order survived and evolved through 40 years of competition with the Soviet Union and gave way to a post–Cold War era that, while not perfect, saw enormous expansions in democracy, personal liberty, human rights, and economic opportunity across the globe. There were costs and setbacks to leading and maintaining the global order, but leadership has benefited the United States and the American people enormously in the form of security, freedom from foreign coercion, and economic prosperity.
Today, the global order is weakening. Many in the United States and allied and partner nations only see the costs and burdens of this order in the form of military obligations, regulations, and multilateral organizations. The benefits are often diffuse and the original catastrophes that spurred its creation are increasingly lost in the mists of history. Meanwhile, China seeks to create an alternative Sino-centric order in Asia, and Russia seeks to undermine the U.S.-led order at every turn. Should these efforts prove successful, it could mark a return to the harsh zero-sum competitions between political-economic blocs that led to global cataclysms in the past. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the history of the early 20th century may not be repeating itself today, but it certainly appears to be rhyming.
U.S. armed forces—through their ability to deter or defeat aggression, enforce rules of the road, and maintain alliance cohesion—are critical to sustaining the U.S.-led global order. This is by no means an easy or inexpensive task, and the American people are right to enquire about the utility of these expenses. The empirical data are quite clear on this point. Deterring war by preparing to defeat aggression is expensive, but its costs pale in comparison to fighting a war—particularly a war with a great power. Thus, while developing a new American way of war may not be cheap, it is vastly preferable to the alternative.
Absent an effort to reshape U.S. military strategy, operational thinking, and consequent force design, the DoD will be unlikely to meet the NDS’s mandate to prevail in the long-term competition with China and, to a lesser extent, Russia.
This paper is intended to lay the intellectual foundation for developing a new American way of war. Its primary purpose is to identify the problems this new way of war is attempting to solve. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was fond of quoting Albert Einstein’s remark that if you have an hour to save the world, you should spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute to solve it.8 This paper represents the “problem definition” for a new American “way of war.” Accordingly, it will first define the concept of a “way of war” and explain why it is important. Then it will situate the discussion within the strategic context of the NDS, which provides the vision for U.S. defense strategy in an era of great-power competition. The body of the paper will examine the current American way of war, the key assumptions that underpin it, and why these are no longer valid, and the assumptions that ought to guide a new American way of war.
- Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (2018), 1, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf. ↩
- Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, The Leopard: a Novel (Il Gattopardo) (Pantheon: New York, 1960), 28. The original Italian uses the phrase “Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga comè, bisogna che tutto cambi,” which literally translates to “If we want everything to remain how it is, it’s necessary that everything changes.” The English version translates this as “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” which is much less evocative. ↩
- White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (December 2017), https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf; “Remarks by Secretary Mattis on the National Defense Strategy,” Department of Defense, press release, January 19, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf. I am indebted to Dr. Mara Karlin for the idea that the end of the post–Cold War era marks a paradigm shift. For more on paradigm shifts, see Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962). ↩
- “Despite all the growing challenges to longstanding U.S. approaches to overseas power projection posed by a maturing precision-strike regime, the American military has shown little inclination to embrace fundamentally new operational concepts or organizational arrangements to deal with the looming obstacles. Instead, the military services have largely taken evolving American capabilities for reconnaissance strike and layered them onto existing operational concepts and organizations.” See Barry D. Watts, “The Evolution of Precision Strike” (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2013), 33, https://csbaonline.org/research/publications/the-evolution-of-precision-strike. ↩
- See David Ochmanek, “Sustaining U.S. Leadership in the Asia-Pacific Region: Why a Strategy of Direct Defense Against Antiaccess and Area Denial Threats Is Desirable and Feasible” (RAND Corporation, 2015), 3-7, https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE142.html; David Ochmanek, “Restoring U.S. Power Projection Capabilities: Responding to the 2018 National Defense Strategy” (RAND Corporation, 2018), 3-7, https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE260.html; and Eric Heginbotham and Jacob L. Heim, “Deterring without Dominance: Discouraging Chinese Adventurism under Austerity,” The Washington Quarterly, 38 no. 1 (2015), 186-188, https://politicalscience.nd.edu/assets/262944/deterring_without_dominance_heginbotham_heim.pdf. ↩
- Several measures of national power place the U.S. well ahead of its closest peer competitor, China, especially the GDP composite metric in Michael Beckley, “The Power of Nations: Measuring What Matters,” International Security, 43 no. 2 (Fall 2018), 7-44. Nevertheless, U.S. forces fail in simulations of strategically significant scenarios. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., ‘“US Gets Its Ass Handed to it’ in Wargames: Here’s a $24 Billion Fix,” Breaking Defense, March 7, 2019, https://breakingdefense.com/2019/03/us-gets-its-ass-handed-to-it-in-wargames-heres-a-24-billion-fix/. ↩
- Elbridge Colby, “America Must Prepare for Limited War,” The National Interest, no. 140 (Nov/Dec 2015) 11-22, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/america-must-prepare-limited-war-14104; Elbridge Colby, “Against the Great Powers: Reflections on Balancing Nuclear and Conventional Power,” Texas National Security Review, 2 no. 1, November 2018, 145-152, http://dx.doi.org/10.26153/tsw/864. ↩
- Dwayne Spradlin, “Are You Solving the Right Problem?” Harvard Business Review, September 2012, https://hbr.org/2012/09/are-you-solving-the-right-problem. ↩
More from CNAS
PodcastBuilding the World’s Biggest Budget
What do the Pentagon's decisions about military spending say about our priorities as a nation? What goes into the DoD's $700 billion budget each year? Former Pentagon official...
By Ilan Goldenberg & Susanna V. Blume
VideoWinning the Next War
Chinese and Russian capabilities to exploit vulnerabilities in America's current way of war have grown. Without major changes to how it fights its wars, does the United States...
By Robert O. Work & Chris Dougherty
VideoChallenges to Force Development in A New American Way of War
What can the U.S. military can do to maintain a quality force in a changing landscape of warfare and competition?...
By Lt Col Brad Orgeron, Emma Moore, Chris Dougherty, Alex Horton, Laura Junor & Peter Levine
VideoA Deadly Game: Taiwan Strait Crisis 2025
What could a crisis in the Taiwan Strait look like in the year 2025?...
By Elbridge Colby, Susanna V. Blume & Chris Dougherty