Vernuccio’s View: Learning the Wrong Lessons From Mideast Military Successes

Last Friday night, US warships launched airstrikes against Syrian research, storage and military targets.

The United States has completed another Mideast military endeavor with little or no loss of life or damage to equipment.

It is important that this does not lead to a false sense of confidence. The true test of American military prowess does not rest with engagements against inferior armed forces, but in the key mission of deterring the rising danger from Russia and China.

In testimony before Congress, Defense Secretary Mattis stated: “We recognize great power competition is once again a reality…great power competition—not terrorism—is now the primary focus of U.S. national security… our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare…Under frequent continuing resolutions and sequester’s budget caps, our advantages continue to shrink. The combination of rapidly changing technology, the negative impact on military readiness resulting from the longest continuous stretch of combat in our nation’s history, and insufficient funding have created an overstretched and under-resourced military…”

Writing in National Review, Jerry Hendrix  notes that U.S. “defense budgets as a percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product had fallen from 5.5 percent in 1991 to 3 percent on the eve of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Key capacities fell accordingly. In 1991 the Army stood at 710,000 troops; in 2001, it had shrunk to 480,000. At the height of the Cold War, the Air Force fielded over 10,000 aircraft; today the force hovers around 6,000, with fewer than 4,000 planes prepared for combat. The Navy suffered a similar decline, shrinking from its peak of 592 ships in 1989 to its present level of 280.”

While Washington slept, both Moscow and Beijing engaged in extraordinary modernization and development of their militaries.  Both now have essential technologies, and in many cases equipment, that are equal to and in some cases exceeding that possessed by the U.S., along with larger numbers. Former key Pentagon advantages, such as the major capabilities America had thanks to its space assets, are jeopardized by the growing ability of its adversaries to destroy satellites. The U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers are increasingly vulnerable to Chinese land-to-sea missiles that can disable them at great distances.

Now that America’s technological advantage has been sharply reduced and, in some areas, eliminated, the issue of numbers again must be considered.  The imbalance in certain types of essential weaponry is startling. On a strategic level, Neither the United States, nor the United States in combination with its allies, is dominant in nuclear weapons, as Russia, for the first time, has a lead in nuclear weapons, and the combination of Russia and China exceeds in overall numbers that possessed by Washington and its allies.

Problems exist on the tactical level as well. Moscow has 20,216 tanks, Beijing, 6,457, and America, 5,884. Russia, notes Global Firepower,fields 14,390 pieces of artillery, and China has 9,726. This compares unfavorably with the 4,564 possessed by the U.S. America’s once-dominant navy faces a major rival as China floats more total hulls than the U.S., and a Beijing-Russia combination poses an existential threat to the Western and Japanese alliance. America retains a large lead in total military aircraft, but increasingly, its planes are grounded and incapable due to inadequate maintenance, and pilots are not receiving sufficient training.

A recent Rand study found that “U.S. forces… are failing to keep pace with the modernizing forces of great power adversaries, are poorly postured to meet key challenges in Europe and East Asia, and are insufficiently trained and ready to get the most operational utility from many of its active component units…”

The success of America’s armed forces in the Middle East is not an indicator of how well equipped they are to take on Russia and China.  As those two nations increase in belligerence, power, and technology, the danger grows exponentially.

Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy and Government.

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