“Our frontiers are the coasts of the enemy and we should be there five minutes after war is declared.”
Admiral Lord Fisher, First Sea Lord, 1902
What is interesting about the new US military strategy is what it implies not what it says. Over the past week I have torn apart “The National Military Strategy of the United States of America 2015”. The more I read it the more my historian’s mind casts me back to the early years of the twentieth century, the Anglo-German naval race and the end of the Two Power Standard which established the mighty Royal Navy at at least twice the size and power of the next two most powerful navies combined.
My assessment of the Strategy is thus; an America on the cusp of relative military decline and a world on the brink of a new and very dangerous geopolitical competition. Its relative decline exacerbated critically by Europe’s retreat from strategic engagement, most notably Britain. Europe’s retreat is contributing to the rapid rise of the illiberal challenge to America’s liberal ‘empire’ of the seas.
America’s splendid military isolation when allies were nice to have but at best a luxury, at worst a hindrance has now been brought decisively to an end. America will need really capable allies with powerful capable militaries if America’s leadership of the liberal preponderance is to persist. But where are those allies? Tiny Australia (current military flavour of the month in Washington)? Forget it.
This brings me to the essential problem of the Strategy; it only hints at the strategic reality it is in fact describing and forecasting. At times Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin E. Dempsey sounds as if he is going through the motions with more of an eye on telling the White House and the Hill what they want to hear than properly confronting America’s growing military dilemma. For example, “Today’s global security environment is the most unpredictable I have seen in 40 years of service….global disorder has significantly increased whilst some of our comparative advantages have begun to erode.” In fact, a look at relative military investment statistics the world over and it is apparent American military preponderance is eroding fast and has been for some time.
The Strategy focuses on three dynamics of strategic erosion: the rise of “counter-revisionist states”; the emergence of “violent extremist organizations”; and the prospect of decisive technology and/or counter-technology shift in military affairs.
The Strategy cites revisionist Russia, competitive China, irritating but dangerous Iran, mad North Korea, and of course the insanity of ‘ISIL’, as the five main sources of challenge to the US military. However, in terms of the required response the Strategy at times sounds hollow echoing Admiral Lord Fisher’s hubristic attempt to reassure early twentieth-century Britain and to justify the enormous cost of the Royal Navy: “The supremacy of the British Navy is the best guarantee for peace in the world.” Contrast Fisher’s dictum with the Strategy: “The United States is the world’s strongest nation, enjoying unique advantages in technology, energy, alliances and partners, and demographics. However, these advantages are being challenged.” And?
The central dilemma the Strategy (sort of) addresses concerns the balance to be struck between US capabilities, capacity, military readiness and what the British called back in pre-WW1 days “the burden of armaments”. It is a balance that Britain is about to finally abandon in its forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 (strategic pretence and impecunity review) and which Continental Europe gave up long ago, much to America’s strategic loss. However, the Strategy offers no real vision as to the future balance the US military will need to strike.
Critically, the Strategy in no way links that balance to any real assessment of what the stated strategic challenges will mean for the geographical range and functional scope of an American military task-list that could expand exponentially over the coming years. This is especially so as the US military finds itself having to prepare for major wars and strategic insurgencies the world over and at one and the same time.
Being an optimistic nation the Americans place great store on the transformative properties of technology as the spear-tip of comparative strategic advantage and its maintenance. However, technology breakthrough works both ways. In 1906 the British built the superb HMS Dreadnought in one hundred days. The first all big-gun battleship equipped with revolutionary Parsons turbines, she combined firepower, speed and armoured protection. At a stroke she rendered every other battleship in the world obsolete, most notably those of the German peer competitor. However, even more notably the massive (and it was truly massive) bulk of the Royal Navy’s battle fleets were also rendered obsolete.
Like Britain in 1906 America is relying on its military-technological defence industrial base to ensure the US military continues to lead the world. However, when I read the May 2015 Chinese Military Strategy alongside the US military strategy I could not but recall a quote by Admiral von Tirpitz, the architect of Germany’s naval challenge to Britain, “All policy hostile to England must wait until we have a fleet as strong as the English.” Germany never achieved that and went to war in 1914 with only 24 dreadnoughts and super-dreadnoughts against Britain’s 49…and lost.
Here’s the rub of this ‘Strategy’; it only hints at the worst case scenario for which the US military must prepare which goes something like this. Some year’s hence America faces simultaneous (planned or opportunistic) challenges in Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Europe from the likes of China, Iran, Russia (with ISIL still in the mix). Strong enough to prevail in any one, possibly any two of the three, but not all three Washington finds itself in the worst of all the worlds the Strategy predicts.
Instead, as I read the Strategy I could not also help but recall my Oxford thesis on British policy and the coming of war 1933-1941. One of the major debates the British had in the 1930s concerned a war in which Britain simultaneously faced Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and the militarists in Japan. The Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff were clear; Britain could just about fight Germany and Italy in an around Europe, but only with the Indian Army could Britain possibly hope to fight Japan at the same time. In effect, the ‘Chiefs’ said that to prevail in Europe, Britain had to effectively abandon the Pacific Empire. The rest, as they say, is history!
The bottom but under-stated line of this Strategy is that for it to work America needs capable military allies on both its Asia-Pacific and European strategic flanks allied to an organisation that promotes strategic military coherence and interoperability that would look not unlike NATO.
Julian Lindley-French is a Senior Fellow, Institute of Statecraft, Director, Europa Analytica, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, National Defense University, Washington DC & Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute.