The U.S. military is failing, readiness levels are abysmally low, and defense spending is woefully insufficient. At least this is the position held by a number of very influential and intelligent people in government and the think tank community. To be sure, I think the U.S. military needs to reform, and it certainly needs to modernize in areas such as organic land-based anti-air systems and field artillery. However, I’m far from pessimistic about America’s military capabilities, and I think people who subscribe to more fatalistic views of American power possess a deficient analytical framework.
When examining relative military power, it’s always important to remember that inter-state relations are dynamic and always evolving. The balance of power is never static, and it can shift due to technological change, relative economic growth, and shifting alliance structures. After the Cold War, America became the unrivaled superpower. Its erstwhile challenger, the Soviet Union, was no more, and the imposing Warsaw Pact collapsed, with many former members of the communist alliance switching sides and joining NATO. America had a military designed to fight a global war against another superpower, but suddenly there were no superpowers to fight. Thus, American strength became unmatched, and the global reach of the U.S. military was effectively infinite. The U.S. could deploy anywhere, do anything, and nothing could stop it.
Of course, this has since changed. Russia has recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union (though it still remains an exceedingly weak state), and China, witnessing the absolute routing of Saddam’s army in Desert Storm, began to modernize and adapt its armed forces for high-intensity modern war. In short, America’s lead in military power has diminished, and it’s far from clear that it will return (at least in the near future). The U.S. is, of course, attempting to mitigate the loss of relative power. The third offset strategy seeks to leverage America’s comparative advantage in R&D and innovation to generate cutting edge technologies that are simply impossible for less developed countries to replicate. And the military is also attempting novel approaches to gender integration in frontline units, increasing the overall pool of candidates from which to draw in times of conflict. Ultimately, though, I’m very skeptical that these reforms will ever yield a power differential approaching that of the 1990s.
This is the fundamental problem with a lot of military analysis today. People take an aberration – complete U.S. military dominance in every spectrum of conflict – and then make it the new baseline from which to evaluate current defense capabilities. The 90s were the outlier, though. They were certainly not the norm. During the Cold War, for example, it was never the case that the U.S. military possessed full-spectrum dominance, and people accepted this as inevitable. With a rising China and a more decentralized power distribution, the early 21st century is evolving away from the highly centralized and unbalanced military distribution of the 1990s. This is just a fact, and these fundamental systemic changes can’t be halted simply by waving the magic wand of increased defense spending. The U.S. military should always strive to innovate. It should always seek to preserve its battlefield dominance. What it shouldn’t try to do, however, is attempt to maintain a static power differential. That kind of approach to military force planning would be almost impossible, and it would be financially ruinous. The 1990s were a high water mark for U.S. military power, but deeper structural changes make that degree of military imbalance no longer possible. Unfortunately, many pundits are using the 90s as the benchmark for current military power, and that is leading to some pretty misinformed conclusions.