An analysis of US generals’ growing dissatisfaction with the political leadership in Washington sheds new light on the direction in which the American military machine is heading. In particular, it is interesting to observe the military planning for the future of the sea, air, space, cyberspace, and land forces.
At the end of the Cold War, the US armed forces found themselves without any real peer, causing them to gradually alter their strategy and investments in war and conflicts. They transitioned from being a large numerical force geared toward fighting opponents of a similar caliber (the USSR) in accordance with a specific military strategy, to a force focused on hybrid adversaries (regular or militia forces) or foes that were not their equal (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, and Libya). The US military accordingly proceeded to change its planning and tactics to satisfy the demands of the new tenants in the White House, the notorious Neoconservatives. What resulted was a military doctrine centered on the concept of a unipolar world and aimed at global domination.
Since the early 90s, policy-makers in Washington have had as their objective the utopian goal of global hegemony, and in order to accomplish this the US armed forces had to expand and create new control centers (USAFRICOM, USNORTHCOM), in addition to those already in existence (USEUCOM, USPACOM, USSOUTHCOM, USSOCOM, USSTRATCOM, USTRANSCOM), in every corner of the planet.
This is a typical example of imperial overreach, which has historically been the impetus for the collapse of several kingdoms and empires over the centuries.
The operational capabilities of the US military machine from the 90s to the mid-2000s remained more or less unchanged in every major conflict in which it was involved: Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003. These were conflicts in which the defense forces of these nations could not hope to match the attacker's power. Weak air defences were a common denominator for all these nations – a vulnerability that has always been the prerequisite for wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the US ability to attain air superiority and thus subsequently enjoy unchallenged air space.
Carpet bombing, coupled with the use of staggering numbers of cruise missiles, destroyed the anti-aircraft defenses of both countries, paving the way for massive ground or airborne invasions. One example still fresh in everyone’s mind was the intensity of the US strike in the early days of the Iraq war in 2003, which brought unprecedented levels of death and destruction.
Yet despite this advantageous position, the number of dead American and allied soldiers during the years of occupation was enough to shock the American public, perhaps forever changing the perception of the military conflict. The consequences were predictable, with popular pressure forcing a withdrawal of troops from Iraq and a significant reduction of the contingent stationed in Afghanistan.
After a 70-year history of warfare, the old strategy of bombing, invading, and occupying a conquered territory had outlived its usefulness.
Time to change. New Goal: World Domination
The pursuit of a new global strategy required changes. A numerically smaller force was now needed, which would could be deployed on short notice to any corner of the world. US military strategists began to develop plans for new operational training methods and procedures, based on rapid-reaction forces and the ability to reach any theater of war with ease. To this end, US special forces, drones used for reconnaissance and attack, and reliance on the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and National Security Agency (NSA) ended up almost totally replacing the previous approach and tactics that had been focused on protecting ground troops.
This organizational change, which allowed the regional command centers a high-degree of strategic and decision-making autonomy, increased the complexity of the American military machine on a devastating scale. The practical results of these transformations could be seen in the control centers’ reduced ability to respond to external threats as a single military power under a single flag.
In less than 10 years the United States had gone from a largely ground force able to invade foreign countries with sizable numbers of troops - thanks to its uncontested mastery of the airspace - to an organized military force compartmentalized into small units, which has rarely been asked to intervene directly in a conflict. Thus there has been less emphasis on a search for means and technologies to protect soldiers on the battlefield.
Instead, air power has continued to be the decisive weapon in the war scenarios for several years, especially in North Africa and the Middle East. In 2011 in Libya, one of its latest demonstrations of air superiority, the power of the USAF, combined with that of its allies, provided the necessary cover allowing ground forces (consisting of terrorists who later invaded Syria and the Sinai Peninsula) to conquer and occupy that territory.
To an attentive observer, all these nations that have found themselves in the US military’s crosshairs in recent years share a common characteristic, namely a pronounced inability to defend their own airspace. Once the skies were conquered, which provided protection for the troops during ground operations, most of the work was already done.
But this is a formula that has not always had a successful impact on the course of the fighting. Ukraine and Syria are proof, despite representing two very different scenarios.
A new situation
For entirely different reasons, the two scenarios have highlighted the shortcomings and the strategic and structural weaknesses of the unified military command. In the case of Syria, the air-defense capabilities of the forces loyal to Damascus, rated among the top ten in the world, forced analysts in Washington in 2013 to develop a strategy based on the need to destroy the air-defense systems with the use of numerous cruise missiles that were launched from their fleet in the Mediterranean. Unless the surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems are disabled, the USAF cannot operate with impunity above Syrian skies and risks heavy losses. Syrian anti-aircraft systems are still quite able to neutralize not only an air attack but also a cruise-missile barrage, making any US assault enormously expensive (each Tomahawk costs about a million dollars), counterproductive, and ineffective. This new situation prompted Obama to seek Moscow's help to avoid a conflict that would have caused more than one headache for the Pentagon.
In the case of Ukraine, control of the airspace was uncontested as the Donbass does not possess an air force that can rival that of the Ukrainian military, and thus the military plan was more focused on effective coordination between ground troops, heavy vehicles, and reconnaissance. The goal was to make tactical advances and to conquer the territories in dispute. Yet despite advisors sent from Washington and the technology offered by the United States (the NSA and NRO), Kiev’s army suffered grim setbacks at the hands of irregular forces far more poorly armed in terms of quality and quantity.
Soon, a series of new situations began to unfold for the United States. Its inability to control the airspace over Syria or gain ground in Ukraine was symptomatic of a deeper malaise affecting the capabilities of the US military and its allies to fight certain battles.
Back to the old school
In the minds of US generals and military advisers, these developments were an unprecedented wake-up call. After 70 years of wars and conflicts, the US found itself for the first time in situations where it could neither afford the luxury of intervening directly (Ukraine) nor be able to provide a concrete solution that would reverse the situation on the battlefield (Syria). This was a cause for concern, forcing American political leaders to rethink their entire approach to military confrontation and to formulate a new strategy to face these new challenges.
In some public meetings conducted by General Robert Neller (Commandant of the Marine Corps) and General Joseph Dunford (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), both men have highlighted the most important challenge for the future of the United States military. They foresee a transformation, over just 15 years, into a military force capable of fighting not only enemies that are well equipped (as in Syria and Ukraine) but also on par with the US (Russia and China). It is a revolution, or more precisely, a return to the past.
In defining these challenges, Dunford spoke of what is referred to in military jargon as the “4+1,” i.e., the nations that the US Strategic Command sees as posing major challenges over the next 10 years, in other words: Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran + Terrorism. In describing this approach, Dunford has outlined a future war scenario mainly involving short-, medium-, and long-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs, MRBMs, and ICBMs, respectively), anti-ballistic systems (ABMs), cyber attacks, and the ability to deny access or airspace (A2/AD).
What will surprise the reader is the admission by Neller and Dunford that the United States has some operational issues that could easily be exploited by opponents. Rival countries (peer competitors) have made technological strides in the past decade allowing them to almost close the gap with the US military in vital sectors for future war scenarios in many fields, such as the following:
• Fifth-generation aircraft (J-31 and PAK FA) with stealth capabilities.
• Long-range ballistic missiles (R-36M) and short-/medium-range missiles (Iskander).
• ICBMs with supersonic speed (unable to be intercepted by current and future ABMs).
• The ability to produce cybernetic damage with real-world effects.
• Increasingly advanced technology to deny airspace to an opponent either electronically (EW) or mechanically (S-300, S-400, S-500).
In all these challenges we can see America’s advantages being diminished. Another worrying aspect, of which both commanders are aware, is the need to have an Internet/intranet connection in order to operate at full capacity. The interconnection between men and means for the United States is a force multiplier, just as is the need to project power on enemy shores through naval forces. Strategies to deny these advantages are essential components of Russia’s and China’s military doctrines.
The new generation of anti-ship missiles (DF-26, BrahMos II,Qader and P-900) offer a clear example of how Beijing and Moscow are reacting to the steady degradation of the frameworks for global peace. If the US Navy is denied a radius of several hundred kilometers, which is needed in order to control ships and aircraft carriers close to an enemy coast, this is a big problem for American military planners. The anti-ship missiles also offer an economic advantage: they cost little but can sink ships worth billions of dollars. They are thus ideal for challenging the US Navy, whose unparalleled power can be seen in its 10 aircraft carriers. Furthering this strategy, Russia and China are working on beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles that, combined with stealth aircraft (J-20 and PAK FA), can deny the United States the essential ability to anticipate a lethal attack on its aircraft carriers that can be launched from a safe distance.
The goal for Beijing, Moscow, or Tehran is always the same: to keep Washington from being able to approach their shores or operate in international waters, in order to prevent the huge American aircraft carriers from being used as a launch pad for military operations.
In terms of strategic security, the protection of the skies is the first priority for any military planner. ABM systems, like Chinese or Russian S-300, S-400, and S-500s, are, as stated, designed with the goal of creating an impenetrable airspace for ICBMs and/or fourth- or fifth-generation stealth aircraft. Without air cover and naval platforms, the functional capabilities of any ground troops are drastically reduced. Add to this SRBMs such as Iskander missiles, which can wipe out whole platoons, and one can easily understand why Dunford is worried that he has already lost his technological and operational edge when faced with a competitor of similar stature.
Certainly the evolution of the American military-industrial complex (MIC) has not facilitated the task of the strategists at the Pentagon. Programs such as the F-35 (fifth-generation stealth aircraft) that were supposed to compete with equivalent Sino-Russian projects have been beset by numerous problems and massive cost overruns, probably the result of a widespread system of corruption, leaving the United States at a disadvantage in future contests for air supremacy.
Even the US nuclear arsenal (nuclear triad) could use some upgrades to keep it on par with Russia’s, and those modernizations are estimated to cost about a trillion dollars over 10 years, a figure the US Treasury does not currently possess (without printing extra money, but that's another story). Recently Moscow conducted a long list of tests of its ballistic missiles that are capable of achieving unprecedented speed (Mach 6-7), able to change direction after launch, and which possess a significantly increased operating range (17,000 kms), making all current and future anti-ballistic systems ineffective and useless.
Closing the gap
Moscow and Beijing have practical considerations (but which are, in a way, almost philosophical) based on the enormous difference in their military spending compared to Washington. This has forced them to aim for inexpensive systems that are nevertheless just as effective.
A perfect example, already fully operational, is the development and use of Kalibr missiles - the Russian response to the US cruise missile. Similar to the American version, its main difference is that it can be fired from small ships. To understand Washington’s level of anxiety, one need only analyze its reaction to the Black Sea launch of the first Kalibr missiles in 2015 toward targets in Syria. The Pentagon declared its surprise at Russia’s “new” ability to launch such missiles at a distance of thousands of kilometers from such small ships (with consequently reduced costs). This inability to recognize an opponent’s capabilities is perhaps symptomatic of underlying problems.
The Kalibr missiles allowed Moscow to gain a tactical advantage, which, according to US military advisers, changed the strategic balance in the Middle East. This was enough to dramatically reduce one of the US’s largest advantages: cruise missiles. Top US advisors panicked, realizing they needed to immediately offer an adequate response to this new situation. Moreover, the strategy of equipping small ships with Kalibr missiles has allowed Moscow to produce a large number of corvettes, vastly expanding the total power of the Russian fleet. Moscow currently has quite a number of these ships, all armed in this way.
The United States prefers the opposite philosophical stance in terms of its projects. Long-term projects are being promoted that offer massive opportunities for price gouging and extra profits for contractors and brokers: stealth ships (USS Zumwalt), mega carriers (Gerald R. Ford class), and the F-35 are just a few examples. Without offering any immediate technological advances, especially in relation to the countermoves of the “4 + 1,” it seems that this is where the moderization efforts of the US armed forces are focused.
Paradoxically, although the US cannot even deploy a few F-35s, nations such as North Korea and Iran already have strategies in place to use deterrence to nullify the current American operational supremacy. In this sense, despite sanctions and the international climate of hostility, Pyongyang has managed to produce a submarine equipped with nuclear SLBMs – a big step forward that greatly expands its ability to deter the United States and South Korea. In Iran, the mass production of domestically developed weapons (Bavar-373) similar to the S-300 system (and just as effective) have been designed to deny any operational capacity over the skies of the Islamic Republic and its allies (Hezbollah and Syria) in the immediate future.
An impossible request
Washington is asking its generals to be prepared for a large-scale conflict with opponents of a stature equal to its own, but the reality behind the scenes is troubling, and the desperate cries of Dunford and Neller, appropriately kept hidden from the media, offer proof of this. Just a simple comparison of the military doctrines of China, Russia, and the United States – in regard to their long-term trajectory - shows that Washington, although possessing a numerical advantage in terms of the forces and means at its disposal, lacks the necessary capability to properly unify the powerful components of the US military in order to dominate its rivals.
This is probably why General Dunford said recently that subsequent strategic plans by US armed forces will not be made public. Evidently, hiding these endemic weaknesses is necessary to avoid jeopardizing a cornerstone of the strategy of US forces: the ability to project power and intimidate opponents without having to take real action.
Conclusions and today's conflicts
Because they have effectively taken advantage of all the above factors, Russia, Iran, and their allies have attained the necessary skills to prevent direct US intervention in various contexts, from Ukraine to Syria.
In analyzing what has not worked in the Middle East or Eastern Europe, the US is blinded by the complexity of its military system and is focusing mostly on its inability to rapidly devise a workable strategy that is inexpensive in terms of human casualties. This is the main reason Washington has been forced to lean on outside actors to influence events on the ground (mercenary battalions in Ukraine and Salafis and Wahhabis in Syria). As we can see, these are all choices that do not pay off in the long run, instead allowing other rising powers to dominate the United States without necessarily resorting to a direct confrontation.
The wars of the third millennium AD also heavily rely on psychological factors and deterrence, as well as the essential ability to influence an opponent with false information. Take the example of Syria and the Russian intervention. No one at the Pentagon or CIA was able to predict Russia’s air and naval deployment, which was accomplished in less than 48 hours. No one, least of all Dunford, was ready at the time with a well-defined plan to respond to this move. In addition to technical and organizational inefficiencies, there is a clearly inadequate ability to decipher an opponent’s moves such as one does in chess. The ability to catch an opponent off guard has already proved its effectiveness in the conflict in Ukraine, in which Crimea was reunified with Russia without a shot being fired and with full popular support.
Dunford and Neller have grasped that any future battlefield will be a hostile environment in terms of air superiority, Internet connectivity, and the simultaneous management of resources across a broad geographical spectrum. It is a challenge with - by the general’s own admission - a far from obvious outcome. Washington's policy, which is dominated by lobbies and corruption, requires an unprecedented turnaround in its military apparatus. But this is what is needed in order to meet the future challenges of a multipolar world with different nations (allied together) with capabilities equal to that of the US military machine.
The truth, which is difficult for US policymakers to accept, is that the current environment of the military-industrial complex (MIC) leaves little room to maneuver, given the gargantuan projects that are in place. The F-35 is unlikely to be put on hold while the project is completely revised and its actual ability to carry out the tasks required of a fifth-generation fighter reviewed. The same could be said about the development of expensive ships such as the USS Enterprise and USS Zumwalt, in which several hundred billion dollars have already been invested.
Military spending is an essential gear in the machine of the US system of oligarchy, but the consequences are starting to drag down the future military capabilities of the United States. Its rivals are catching up, using systems that are more advanced, more economical, and more effective, while also easier to use or replicate. The military leaders at the Pentagon are starting to show telling signs of impatience, calling for a transformation that will be difficult to achieve, since it will require a sea change in the country's top-brass establishment. The ultimate consequences are evidence of a pattern that is slowly draining Washington’s wallet and greatly reducing the competitive advantage that Washington possesses.