President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria and Afghanistan has dominated foreign policy headlines in recent weeks.
During this same period, however, many news outlets have shown little interest in covering America’s deteriorating relations with Russia and China. Over the past four weeks, Chinese president Xi Jinping has threatened forceful reunification of Taiwan, Beijing has floated the possibility of attacks on U.S. aircraft carriers in the South China Sea, and Russia successfully tested a hypersonic missile that appears nearly impossible to defend against.
Now, Trump’s decision to withdraw troops is hardly insignificant. On the contrary, it represents a major shift in U.S. foreign policy and holds serious implications for ongoing U.S. efforts to counter Russia, Iran, and the last remnants of ISIS.
And the sacrifices of the brave men and women who have served our country in the Middle East since the Reagan administration cannot be taken lightly.
Yet, despite the continued strategic importance of the Middle East, an increasingly turbulent geopolitical landscape means that the region is no longer the primary focus area of U.S. strategy.
Instead, as the 2018 National Defense Strategy explains, “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” from so-called “revisionist powers” China and Russia. These nations, the document states, are working “to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.” As such, they present a credible threat to American interests and security.
China’s rise in particular poses a major challenge for the U.S. Through a combination of predatory economic practices and sweeping infrastructure projects abroad, Beijing has grown in power and influence by exploiting cracks in the U.S.-led international order. “China’s goal, simply put, is to replace the U.S. as the world’s leading superpower,” explains Christopher Wray, Director of the FBI.
To counter the threat China and Russia pose to American interests and security, the Department of Defense must channel spending towards three main areas. First, it must continue to modernize an aging nuclear arsenal. Second, American scientists and engineers must continue development of advanced weapons systems. Finally, military leaders must prioritize refinement and implementation of artificial intelligence.
American leaders must prioritize nuclear modernization. By maintaining a nuclear arsenal, the U.S. deters foreign aggression, ensuring that conventional or nuclear attack remains strategic suicide. Former Secretary of State Ash Carter has called nuclear deterrence “the bedrock of our security” and “the highest priority mission of the Department of Defense.”
Nuclear deterrence consists of three individual components: land-based ICBM’s (intercontinental ballistic missiles), sea-based SLBM’s (submarine-based ballistic missiles), and strategic bombers. Together, these elements form what is known as the “nuclear triad.”
However, each “leg” of the American nuclear triad has become dangerously dated.
For example, the Minuteman III system – the standard American ICBM – was introduced in 1970. The Ohio-class submarine, which forms the sea-based leg of the triad, was commissioned in 1981. And, despite being introduced in 1958, the B‑52H Stratofortress makes up over 3/4 of the American nuclear-capable heavy bomber fleet. The U.S. has not even produced a single nuclear warhead since 1988.
Fortunately, the Department of Defense plans to address each leg of the triad within the next decade. If the defense budget is flatlined or cut, however, any of these nuclear modernization programs could be pushed back even further.
Compounding the problem of geopolitical instability, the rapid development of futuristic military technologies – coupled with advancements in artificial intelligence – has the potential to change how war is fought.
Within the past few weeks alone, for example, China was observed testing a ship-mounted electromagnetic railgun, while Russia announced plans to deploy its Avangard hypersonic missile in 2019. Russia’s Avangard system is particularly concerning, as it is both nuclear-capable and reportedly can travel at a speed of 15,000 mph. According to U.S. officials, each of these weapons is nearly impossible to defend against with current technology.
To maintain the security of America and her citizens, the military must quickly develop ways to counter advanced weapon systems like these. Ensuring that the U.S. military remains the most technologically advanced fighting force in the world is critically important.
The final step must be sustained U.S. investment in artificial intelligence (AI). In a 2017 study on the future of warfare, the Department of Defense called AI “the most disruptive technology of our time.” It has a host of potential combat and non-combat military applications, including advanced targeting systems, improved logistics, and realistic training programs.
However, the U.S. faces tremendous competition in the AI race. In an effort to become the world leader in AI by 2030, China is spending billions more per year on AI research, development, and application.
For the first time since the end of the Cold War, America’s role as the premier global superpower is being challenged. Revisionist regimes China and Russia have shown an increasing willingness to challenge America’s role as the premier global superpower. In an effort to eliminate American military superiority, these nations are pouring significant resources into developing advanced military technologies.
How can the U.S. counter these challenges? One thing is clear: The U.S. must prioritize military spending to maintain deterrence against potential adversaries. By modernizing the nuclear arsenal, developing advanced weapons systems, and winning the AI race, the U.S. can protect the safety of its citizens while preserving world stability.
In a time of global turbulence and uncertainty, American leaders would be wise to follow one of the oldest principles of grand strategy: si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you want peace, prepare for war.”