Chinese aircraft carriers, inflatable armies and six reasons for a smaller US military

by Chris Zappone

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(J-15 takes off from Liaoning)

The recent incident between the USS Cowpens and a Chinese navy ship that prevented its view of the aircraft carrier Liaoning has fueled renewed worries about the state of the US pivot to Asia. By extension, it has brought predictable hand-wringing over the level of military spending. But the issue points to a bigger question about the general direction of the US military in a time of China’s rise. As James Carafano, writing for the Heritage Blog notes, the US can’t implement a ‘containment’ strategy for China. “Trying to contain a major power makes no sense. We never “contained” the Soviet Union. In reality, our Cold War strategy was to outlast the Soviets and protect our allies.”  Yet, the notion of US-China competition is undeniable – and at the extreme end of that spectrum of worries is the scenario that drew the US into war in the Pacific in the 1940s. With these concerns outlined, here are six reasons why a smaller, more agile military may be the best way to meet the China challenge.

1) The US military is already too big and complex. Not only is it costly and unwieldy, increasingly it veers into areas other departments of the US government should be in. Nation building, for example, should be under the US State Department and the USAID, but US military has immense resources at its disposal in these areas (as evidenced by community outreach and new infrastructure built in Iraq and Afghanistan). It’s easy to allow the departments within the military to pile up over the years, as the various roles change. Unable to know what the next conflict brings, it’s easy to try to simultaneously prepare for all conflicts.  As Thomas Ricks in the Washington Post points out, the US is plowing billions into new aircraft carriers in a time when it’s not clear that aircraft carriers (or aircraft carrier-killer missiles) will decide the balance of power in the Pacific. As Ricks writes:

The issue…is how to have not the most powerful military today but rather the most relevant military at the point of necessity — a point that cannot be known. To have that, the United States needs a military that is not necessarily “ready for combat” at any given moment but instead is most able to adapt to the events of tomorrow.

This idea about the need to shrink the US Defense Department is not new. In 2000, decorated military veteran David Hackworth, drew on the examples General Tilly’s Roman Catholic army’s defeat by the smaller army of King Gustavus Adolphus in 1631, as a parallel for the risk the US was running by equating size with relevance.

2) Now more than ever, the US needs to focus on a strong civilian economy that fosters new technologies and industries in order to remain globally competitive. If it can remain competitive – technologically and economically – it’s unlikely to be coerced by China. And coercion, soft-power’s feral cousin, has emerged as a favored tactic of China with smaller countries. If China’s economy grows as large as and as quickly as some predict, the US may end up at the risk of similar pressure from China in a variety of areas. Already, there is a frustration in the US for its business leaders/freetradists allowing the country to lose so much manufacturing capability, creating a strategic risk for the US. (Although to be fair, with costly industrial manufacturing long on the decline in the US, a coordinated strategy of reindustrializing would likely see the US embrace newer technologies and industries. If it’s true that the US is on the verge of a new manufacturing-service economy – 3D printing, lower energy costs, increasing productivity, it has to be in a position to make good on the change by creating the new technologies and not settling for second tier industries.) In this way, securing these new industries is a matter of national security. The Obama White House appears to be aware of this and are pushing for higher education levels and STEM.

3) The American people don’t desire a perpetual war machine and there is a long tradition in the US of eschewing militarism. Not only are the American people today weary of war (necessary or otherwise) the nation wasn’t founded to seek or maintain empires afar. Something to think about regarding the Asian Pivot. That fundamental truth about the US is also something to think about in the age of the internet, when it’s not hard to get online and read about the so-called American Empire, often written by outside observers.

4) If China is pursuing a campaign to lead the US into overspending on defense, the Pentagon would be better served spending less on hardware, more on R&D, and considering the use of discrete deployments. After all, the new game may be perceptions and deceptions (hazy photos of would-be Chinese stealth bombers, conflicting signals about carriers vs carrier-killer missiles and the like) rather than actual military spending. Also, the US maintained a huge Industrial Age arsenal during the Cold War when the US was an Industrial power. It made business sense. Now, the US is transitioning into a Service/Information power. In this world, the US might as well consider investing in inflatable dummy tanks, planes and ships like was done in the months before D-Day. Sophisticated dummy armies could achieve the same goal as real armies – while allowing the US military to stay nimble and avoid forcing the US government to sunk money into costly weapons systems that, in the event of peace, never pay off. Or in the event of war, may turn out to be outdated.

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(Dummy tank during WWII)

5) Manufacturing is on the verge of being decentralized – meaning that parts of production can be distributed across many plants. Consequently, gone are the days of an Industrial Age military. Today we are entering in the era of Information Age military – a time of drones, IEDs, robotics and cyberattacks. With the US economy already growing this way, a military strategy to match, more based around scaling up around particular challenges, rather than keeping a huge standing army or navy, would be wise. It would give the US the flexibility it needs to face down Islamist threats in, say, Africa, and larger militarized threats in Asia.

6) Finally, the emphasis on an Information Age military would allow for the proliferation of dual-use technologies (not the kind to be exported to China, of course). The Japanese, in their recently created National Security Strategy, flag the strategy of dual use, because “the advanced technology of Japan constitutes the foundation of its economic strength and defense forces, and is also a valuable resource that the international community strongly seeks”. This is also true for the US. It’s also a solid argument for more investment in space, which is a realm of dual-use technology. While civilian use technology can be repurposed for war, the evolution of technology in that direction also allows the civilian economy to thrive, with a parallel defense application, should that be needed. Given that the US is no where near relaxing restrictions on the export of dual use technology the people of Washington should take a look in the mirror and admit this part of US-China trade, and in fact the whole element of the kumbaya-let’s-all-be-friends-globalization, well, it ain’t happening. And because it ain’t happening, the US should increase R&D in this area and make it an active policy to keep this technology out of the hands of a country’s whose military represents a long-term strategic challenge.

But coordination is needed.

In other words, get the US commerce people in the same room as the US defense people, and don’t let them leave until they have developed principals and guidelines that mutually reinforce a nimble, adaptable, scaleable military aligned with an economy that is geared toward creating a smart, innovative workforce that can produce game-changing inventions and industries.