The United States faces an unprecedented challenge: simultaneously deterring large-scale conventional aggression by two nuclear-armed powers. The nation will need to deter these major adversaries from overt aggression in the near term in two primary, yet distinct, regions: China in the Indo-Pacific and Russia in Europe. However, the U.S. military is unprepared to concurrently meet the challenges posed by China and Russia. These challenges have become more pronounced as Beijing continues its ambitious military modernization and Moscow continues to threaten European security despite its currently diminished military strength.
Effective simultaneous deterrence requires the United States to reembrace the basic principles of deterrence to reverse unfavorable trends in military power that are eroding long-standing U.S. warfighting advantages. It necessitates U.S. forces to project power into far-flung regions that are contested by China and Russia to uphold America’s extended deterrence commitments to its allies and partners. To do so, the Pentagon must shift from previous approaches designed to deter opportunistic aggressors and respond to crises. While the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has realigned its strategy to focus on great-power deterrence, it has faced hurdles in strategy implementation that have stymied changes needed to organize more effectively for simultaneous deterrence. This is due in part to a sizable mismatch between strategy and resources.
The U.S. military does not have the kinds and numbers of forces required to simultaneously deter China in the Indo-Pacific and Russia in Europe from conventional conflict. This deficit is especially telling in two priority scenarios: an invasion of Taiwan by China, and a Russian invasion of the Baltics. American forces lack the modernized capabilities, necessary posture, right levels of readiness, and familiarity with executing the types of warfighting missions needed to meet the current challenge.1 The balance between meeting global demands and responding to persistent threats while shifting to emphasize deterrence in the Indo-Pacific and Europe is precarious. Concentrating on strategic priorities requires accepting risk in other regions, as the United States, with fewer forces and resources stretched around the globe, moves capabilities and forces to priority theaters.
A new approach to simultaneous deterrence is needed. The Biden administration has outlined the concept of campaigning as a key component of peacetime deterrence. This concept seeks to sequence and link military activities so they intentionally counter coercion by priority adversaries. The intent is to enable the Pentagon to respond to challenges posed by China and Russia, while still meeting global demands. But the concept is currently ill-defined and expansive, and its broad interpretation does not help the DoD meet its deterrence requirements or align strategy and resources. Instead, campaigning runs the risk of engaging U.S. forces in activities that do not contribute to or are counterproductive to deterrence. A failure to curb these activities will result in either the need to expand force size, or the hindrance of modernization efforts.
The United States has never had to contend with the challenge of potential conflict with two nuclear-armed, near-peer competitors at the same time.
Campaigning must be improved to enable the DoD to effectively achieve its aims and focus peacetime deterrence efforts on simultaneous challenges posed by China and Russia. To accomplish this, campaigning should be better linked to warfighting. It should narrowly focus on how the United States can set the theater in the Indo-Pacific and Europe during peacetime competition to strengthen its ability to deter by denial and improve its warfighting abilities if deterrence fails.
A revised approach to campaigning would alter U.S. military forces and capabilities, posture, and activities by purposefully linking them to warfighting concepts. This requires improving the U.S. military’s warfighting concepts by transforming theater forces. Such forces would be outfitted with capabilities relevant to a high-end conventional fight. They also would be intentionally postured to enable these warfighting concepts, improve survivability of forces, and facilitate forces’ shifting within theater to threatened locations to change an adversary’s offensive calculus. Activities such as trainings and exercises serve the dual purpose of bringing forces to the theater at key periods when aggression is thought to be more likely while also practicing the warfighting missions the U.S. military will be expected to undertake.
This modular approach to campaigning allows for DoD senior leaders to build differentiated, scalable postures and activities to provide unique options in two theaters. It is best thought of as a puzzle: in peacetime competition, it is unlikely the U.S. military will complete the puzzle—that is, show exactly how, where, and at what scale it would fight during a conflict. However, the military can demonstrate different pieces of the puzzle—forces and capabilities, posture, and activities—that when combined comprise warfighting. These puzzle pieces can be assembled in different combinations at different times. Such modularity preserves decision-making space for DoD senior leaders by hedging for a wide range of possible scenarios and providing for a broad range of potential responses. The following table illustrates the framework for a new way of thinking about campaigning.
Campaigning can contribute to deterrence in the following ways. First, it would enable the United States to create scalable, responsive, and combat-credible peacetime postures in the Indo-Pacific and Europe, particularly near threatened territory. Second, campaigning would allow the Pentagon to demonstrate relevant warfighting capabilities aimed at altering adversary decision-making. By showing the execution and sustainment of critical missions in peacetime competition—particularly in conjunction with allies and partners—the U.S. military displays glimpses of what it could bring to bear in a high-end fight against China or Russia. Third, the concept enables responsiveness, meaning the ability of the U.S. military to be at the right place at the right time.2 Responsiveness also allows U.S. forces to shift from a peacetime posture to a more dispersed crisis or wartime posture to enhance survivability and bolster combat credibility.
More narrowly focused campaigning would allow the Pentagon to avoid expending time and resources on activities that are not central to deterring China and Russia. Moreover, refining the campaigning concept maximizes the existing forces and resources at the U.S. military’s disposal. Force structure is unlikely to change drastically in the near term, just as new capabilities are unlikely to come online in that timeframe. The Pentagon will need to make do with current forces, requiring greater creativity in posture and activities to “deter on the cheap.”3 Campaigning provides a way to maximize resources while preserving readiness without placing further burdens on forces and resources. But it requires breaking path dependencies in posture, security cooperation, and the continued demands for presence to take more purposeful, prioritized, and targeted actions in the name of deterrence. By making near-term changes with extant resources to deter China and Russia, the DoD can continue to focus on long-term force modernization efforts to enhance future deterrence.
A new approach to campaigning can strengthen simultaneous deterrence in the Indo-Pacific and Europe in the near term. Campaigning can become the vital paradigm shift that could enable the United States to do more with the forces and resources already at hand. It can bridge the gap between the priorities emphasized in the 2022 National Defense Strategy and America’s continuing global commitments, without compromising budgetary resources, long-term modernization plans, and readiness.
Today, the United States faces an unprecedented challenge: deterring large-scale conventional aggression from two major powers—China and Russia—while also managing persistent but “lesser threats” such as Iran and North Korea. While the United States has faced simultaneous threats in its recent history, it has never had to contend with the challenge of potential conflict with two nuclear-armed, near-peer competitors at the same time. Washington is currently met by a more complex set of challenges that the U.S. military remains unprepared to meet.
These concerns have become more pronounced as the threats posed by China and Russia have evolved. Both nations have sought to reshape the global security environment in their favor. China’s rapid military modernization, development of power projection, and anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities, and growth of its nuclear arsenal, have further narrowed the window for it to reach dominance locally in the not-so-distant future. Thus, China has become the priority “pacing challenge” for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).4 Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 demonstrated its continued ability to threaten territorial sovereignty in Europe and raise the specter of nuclear war. While Russia is currently in a weakened position and the conventional balance of power in Europe has swung to the NATO alliance, a weakened yet reconstituted Russian military may continue to challenge U.S. and European interests in the future.5 The United States will need to deter these major adversaries from overt aggression in two primary yet distinct regions: China in the Indo-Pacific and Russia in Europe.
Effective simultaneous deterrence requires the United States to reverse unfavorable trends in military power that currently erode long-standing U.S. warfighting advantages. This necessitates that American forces project power into far-flung regions—areas contested by China and Russia’s revisionist tendencies, military operations, and A2AD capabilities—to uphold extended deterrence commitments to U.S. allies and partners. Senior U.S. leaders have warned that without changes, deterrence failure remains a risk, and the U.S. ability to prevail in a conflict may be uncertain.6 Moreover, time may not be on Washington’s side. The rate of China’s military modernization has prompted some U.S. officials to warn that potential aggression may be imminent, requiring immediate changes to the U.S. military to strengthen deterrence.7 Russia is likely to focus on reconstituting and regenerating its military power in the coming years, providing a narrow window for the United States and its allies and partners to enhance deterrence in Europe.8
The Pentagon’s efforts to reorganize force structure and posture to better meet the complex challenge posed by Beijing and Moscow has thus far been too slow and too inefficient.9 Significant hurdles remain to produce a combat-credible military capable of deterring these countries from conventional attack and, should deterrence fail, defeating them in a conflict.10 While the requirements for the U.S. military have expanded given the risk of great-power aggression in two theaters, the force has gotten smaller and more expensive. The U.S. military seeks to hold current force size constant while it “divests to invest” by retiring legacy platforms to fund force modernization. Together, divestiture and shrinking force structure result in fewer available capabilities and forces as the DoD invests in the newer and better technology required to prevail in future conflict. At present, U.S. forces are insufficient to maintain a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific and along NATO’s eastern flank in the near-term future. American forces lack the modernized capabilities, necessary posture, right levels of readiness, and familiarity with executing the types of warfighting missions needed to meet the impending challenges posed by China and Russia.11 Preparing to deter two capable adversaries in two distinct regions is likely to place additional burdens on a force that is already stressed, and to create further demands on already overstretched high-demand, low-density assets such as air defenses; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); and critical enablers such as aerial refueling. These burdens are compounded by America’s continued responsibilities around the globe, including in lower priority regions where the U.S. military has a legacy presence, such as the Middle East.12 The balance between meeting global demands and responding to persistent threats while continuing to strengthen deterrence in the Indo-Pacific and Europe is precarious.
At present, U.S. forces are insufficient to maintain a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific and along NATO’s eastern flank in the near-term future.
A new approach to simultaneous deterrence is needed. Washington is in the midst of refocusing its global role to better align its strategy and resources to support its interests.13 Reframing U.S. global defense commitments requires the DoD to make difficult choices about priorities, resources, and risk. The Biden administration has put forward the nested concepts of integrated deterrence and campaigning as its “strategic ways” to deter China and Russia while also fulfilling defense commitments to allies and partners.14 But these two concepts are broadly defined, and questions remain about what they mean in practice.15 How, then, should the Biden administration reimagine simultaneous deterrence to deter two major adversaries—China and Russia—from overt conventional aggression in the Indo-Pacific and Europe while still managing persistent threats around the world without expanding force size or sacrificing modernization priorities?
Campaigning holds the key to simultaneous deterrence, but only if the concept is reformed. This report develops a practical approach for how the United States can successfully deter China and Russia from conventional conflict in the Indo-Pacific and Europe with existing forces and resources. The suggestions offered here improve the concept of campaigning by more narrowly scoping it to focus on how the U.S. military can set the theater in Asia and Europe during peacetime in ways that strengthen its ability to deter by denial and to execute warfighting if deterrence fails. This framing more effectively links deterrence with posture and warfighting to adjust the application of extant resources so that they better advance the defense strategy.
This report develops a framework for campaigning and applies it to two distinct scenarios in the Indo-Pacific and Europe: the defense of Taiwan (the DoD’s “pacing scenario”) and the defense of the Baltics (frontline NATO members).16 The resultant campaign plans are a proof-of- concept for how the DoD may use the campaigning framework and demonstrate that the United States can deter China and Russia in the near term. This analysis shows that the United States can take greater steps to align its peacetime posture and activities to strengthen simultaneous deterrence in the near term while also improving the ability to respond to and defeat potential aggression from two nuclear-armed great powers.
The report begins with a discussion of how the United States lost sight of great-power deterrence and why its legacy presence-reliant approach to deterrence is unsuited to the current challenge. Instead, the department should embrace deterrence by denial to improve simultaneous deterrence of China and Russia in the near term without consuming resources earmarked for modernization. The report redefines campaigning to demonstrate how it could support a denial strategy through the rigorous linkage of campaigning to warfighting. It develops a framework for how the U.S. Department of Defense could implement this revised approach to campaigning. The framework is applied to the Indo-Pacific and Europe to demonstrate how the United States can reimagine its forces and capabilities, posture, and activities to simultaneously deter China from aggressing against Taiwan and Russia from aggressing against the Baltics. These plans are analyzed to determine the implications of two-theater deterrence for U.S. defense strategy, peacetime activities, and resource management. Finally, the report concludes with recommendations for the DoD and Congress on how to manage the simultaneous threat of two major adversaries in the near term.
Read the Full Report.
- David A. Ochmanek, RAND Corporation, “Recommenda- tions for a Future National Defense Strategy,” Statement to the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, November 30, 2017, https://www.rand.org/pubs/testimonies/CT484.html. ↩
- Stacie L. Pettyjohn, “The Demand for Responsiveness in Past U.S. Military Operations,” RR4280 (RAND Corpora- tion, 2021), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR4280.html. ↩
- Susanna Blume, “How the United States Can Get More Stra- tegic Bang for Its Force Structure Buck,” War on the Rocks, February 1, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/02/united-states-can-get-strategic-bang-force-structure-buck/. ↩
- Mark T. Esper, Secretary of Defense, Implementing the National Defense Strategy: A Year of Successes, Department of Defense (July 7, 2020), https://media.defense.gov/2020/Jul/17/2002459291/-1/-1/1/NDS-FIRST-YEAR-ACCOMPLISHMENTS-FINAL.pdf; Department of Defense, 2022 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (October 27, 2022), 4, https://media.defense.gov/2022/Oct/27/2003103845/-1/-1/1/2022-NATIONAL-DEFENSE-STRATEGY-NPR-MDR.PDF. ↩
- Department of Defense, Fact Sheet: 2022 National Defense Strategy,, (March 28, 2022), https://media.defense.gov/2022/Mar/28/2002964702/-1/-1/1/NDS-FACT-SHEET.PDF; Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Michael Kofman, “Russia Is Down. But It’s Not Out,” The New York Times, June 2, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/02/opinion/russia-ukraine-war-nato.html. ↩
- Jim Garamone, “Erosion of U.S. Strength in Indo-Pacific Is Dangerous to All, Commander Says,” Department of Defense, March 9, 2021, https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/2530733/erosion-of-us-strength-in-indo-pacific-is-dangerous-to-all-commander-says; Megan Eckstein, “Congressman Argues U.S. Deter- rence Strategy Failed to Protect Ukraine and Could Fail Taiwan Too,” Defense News, March 3, 2022, https://www.defensenews.com/congress/2022/03/03/congressman-argues-us-deterrence-strategy-failed-to-protect-ukraine-and-could-fail-taiwan-too/. ↩
- Mallory Shelbourne, “Davidson: China Could Try to Take Control of Taiwan in ‘Next Six Years,’” USNI News, March 9, 2021, https://news.usni.org/2021/03/09/davidson-china-could-try-to-take-control-of-taiwan-in-next-six-years; Valerie Insinna, “Navy Leader ‘Can’t Rule Out’ Chinese Inva- sion of Taiwan Even Earlier Than 2027,” Breaking Defense, October 19, 2022, https://breakingdefense.com/2022/10/navy-leader-cant-rule-out-chinese-invasion-of-taiwan-even-earlier-than-2027/. ↩
- “Russia Can Rebuild Its Military in 2–4 Years, Estonian Minister Says,” Lithuanian National Radio and Television, October 19, 2022, https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1803994/russia-can-rebuild-its-military-in-2-4-years-estonian-minister-says; Aaron Mehta, “Russia’s Military Is Now a ‘Wounded Bear.’ Can It Revive Itself?” Breaking Defense, May 20, 2022, https://breakingdefense.com/2022/05/russias-military-is-now-a-wounded-bear-can-it-revive-itself/; Frank Hoffman, “Defining and Achieving Success in Ukraine,” PRISM, 10 no. 1 (September 30, 2022), https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/3175459/defining-and-achieving-success-in-ukraine/; Celeste Wallander, “Virtual Mission Brief: The Role of Allies and Partners in the National Defense Strategy with Dr. Celeste Wallander” (CNAS, Washington, D.C, February 10, 2023), https://www.cnas.org/events/mission-brief-the-role-of-allies-and-partners-in-the-national-defense-strategy-with-dr-celeste-wallander. ↩
- Force structure is defined as how U.S. military personnel, equipment, and resources are organized for operations. Congressional Budget Office, The U.S. Military’s Force Structure: A Primer, 2021 Update (May 2021), https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2021-05/57088-Force-Structure-Primer.pdf; Posture is defined as the forces, footprints, and agreements. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report: February 2010 (January 29, 2010), https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/QDR/QDR_as_of_29JAN10_1600.pdf. ↩
- Jim Mitre, “A Eulogy for the Two-War Construct,” The Washington Quarterly, 41 no. 4 (2019), 7-30, https://doi.org/10.1080/0163660X.2018.1557479. ↩
- Ochmanek, RAND, “Recommendations for a Future National Defense Strategy.” ↩
- Ilan Goldenberg, Becca Wasser, Elisa Catalano Ewers, and Lilly Blumenthal, “When Less Is More: Rethinking U.S. Military Strategy and Posture in the Middle East” (CNAS, November 2021), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/when-less-is-more. ↩
- The White House, National Security Strategy (October 2022), https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/Biden-Harris-Administrations-National-Security-Strategy-10.2022.pdf; Department of Defense, 2022 National Defense Strategy of the United States. ↩
- Department of Defense, 2022 NDS Fact Sheet: Integrated De- terrence (October 27, 2022), https://media.defense.gov/2022/Oct/27/2003103939/-1/-1/1/STRATEGIC-WAYS-COMPILATION-NDS-FACTSHEETS.PDF. ↩
- Stacie L. Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser, “No I in Team: Integrated Deterrence with Allies and Partners” (CNAS, December 2022), https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/no-i-in-team. ↩
- Ely Ratner, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, Statement to the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, December 8, 2021, 3, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/120821_Ratner_Testimony.pdf; David A. Shlapak and Michael Johnson, “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics,” RR1253 (RAND Corporation, 2016), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1253.html. ↩
More from CNAS
Sharper: Campaigning and the National Defense Strategy
The United States faces the unprecedented challenge of simultaneously deterring large-scale conventional aggression by two nuclear-armed powers while also managing other threa...
By Philip Sheers, Molly Campbell & Anna Pederson
Avoiding the Brink
The United States is entering an unprecedented multipolar nuclear era that is far more complex and challenging than that of the Cold War. This report examines potential trigge...
By Stacie Pettyjohn & Hannah Dennis
No I in Team
The United States faces a strategic landscape unlike anything it has encountered in its recent history. It faces a rising great power in China, a diminished but still dangerou...
By Stacie Pettyjohn & Becca Wasser
The Kadena Conundrum: Developing a Resilient Indo-Pacific Posture
This article originally appeared in War on The Rocks. The long-standing debate over whether the United States is prioritizing China and the Indo-Pacific region has reignited o...
By Stacie Pettyjohn, Andrew Metrick & Becca Wasser