A new military strategy for Washington?

By Michael Klare, Le Monde diplomatique, November 1997

To justify their huge annual credits, Pentagon officials are in need of visible enemies which could threaten American security. For some years, this has been the rogue regimes of the third world like Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea. Now some top advisors think it is the turn of the United States' peer competitors—Russia and China—to take on the role of potential adversaries. But this new school of thought has as yet to change official policy.

A quiet revolution is gradually overtaking American military planning. Since the end of the cold war, American military strategists have focused almost entirely on the threat posed by hostile powers in the third world—the adversaries known in Washington as rogue regimes. Recently, however, a number of strategists have begun to warn of the possible emergence of a peer competitor, meaning a powerful adversary that could challenge the United States on something approaching equal terms. No such competitor is said to exist today, but the very possibility of such a threat arising in the years ahead is significantly modifying American strategic perspectives.

The talk of a peer competitor arising in the years ahead has not yet influenced official American military policy. At present, American policy calls for the maintenance of sufficient military strength to fight and win two major regional conflicts at the same time (1). It is generally assumed that one of these conflicts will occur in the Persian Gulf region (against either Iran or Iraq) and the other in Asia (against North Korea). Recently, however, American strategists have begun to look at rather different sorts of scenarios: a conflict with Russia over the oil resources of the Caspian (2) or a war with Beijing over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Although largely confined to internal documents and speculative essays, discussion of these scenarios is attracting increased attention from military planners, intelligence officials and civilian analysts.

Attention is also being focused on these matters in Congress, where a great debate is under way on the type of military forces that will be needed in the decades ahead. Advocates of the prevailing anti-rogue military posture contend that existing levels of military expenditure are sufficient to protect American security. Those who believe that the primary threat will come from Russian or China insist that much higher levels of military spending will be needed. Obviously the outcome of this debate will have far-reaching consequences. It could mean a substantial increase in US military spending and a change in the state of international relations.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, American military leaders have been searching for a new enemy type to guide the development of future weapons and tactics. In the past, this had been a relatively simple matter; American forces were designed to engage and defeat the armies of the Warsaw Pact in a cataclysmic battle on the plains of Europe. The dissolution of the Pact (many of whose members are now anxious to join NATO) made Washington think of new scenarios. But the tactics taught to military personnel are hard to disassociate from overall strategic assumptions. The absence of an identifiable enemy also complicates the task of securing operating funds from Congress. Because the military budget is drawn up and approved on a year-by-year basis, the Pentagon has to approach Congress each year with a fresh justification for continued military spending—an actual or perceived threat.

In response to these dilemmas, American military leaders have been searching since 1989 for a convincing enemy image to replace the Soviet Union. To guide this effort, General Colin Powell, armed forces chief-of-staff until 1996, established a special planning group inside the Pentagon shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This group decided to reconstruct American military strategy around the threat posed by hostile powers in the third world—countries like Iran and Iraq, with large military forces and a history of antagonism toward the West.

This new approach, called the Regional Defence Strategy, was approved by senior Pentagon leaders and President George Bush in the spring of 1990. It was then presented to the American people by Mr Bush in a speech delivered of 2 August 1990—the very day chosen by Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait. Although many Americans assumed that the new strategy was developed in response to the invasion of Kuwait, it was, in fact, approved by Mr Bush several months before the start of the Iraqi attack (3).

Following the Gulf War, it appeared that the problem of the missing enemy had been solved. From now on, US forces would be trained and equipped to fight an endless series of wars against Iraq-like regional powers in the third world. As noted by the then defence secretary, Dick Cheney, The Gulf War presaged very much the type of conflict we are most likely to confront again in this new era - major regional contingencies against foes well-armed with advanced conventional and unconventional [i.e. nuclear or chemical] munitions (4).

This assumption then became the basis for the military strategy of the Clinton Administration. In the so-called Bottom-Up Review of 1993, the Pentagon concluded that, despite the overwhelming defeat of Iraq, the United States would continue to face a significant threat from hostile third world powers or rogue states, as they had come to be called. To counter this threat, moreover, the US would need to maintain a military force capable of conducting two major regional conflicts (MRCs) simultaneously (5).

This principle was again endorsed by the Pentagon in its most recent review of military policy in May 1997. Although calling for a greater emphasis on the use of high-technology weapons, the review reiterated the need to prepare for a conflict with rogue states. It affirmed that the greatest danger to American security today is the threat of coercion and large-scale, cross-border aggression against US allies and friends in key regions by hostile states with significant military power (6).

However, while this assessment was evidently satisfactory to President Clinton and Secretary of Defence William S. Cohen, it has not satisfied those in the Pentagon and elsewhere who believe that the threat posed by rogue states is no longer great enough to ensure congressional support for high levels of military spending. These critics argue that the United States should focus instead on the threat posed by more powerful adversaries. Notably Russia and China.

The peer competitor threat

The growing dissatisfaction with the anti-rogue strategy is the result of several factors. First, the level of threat posed by the rogue states seems to have diminished somewhat in recent years. North Korea, for instance, is widely said to be on the brink of starvation and has begun to dismantle its nuclear weapons capability. Iran has elected a new, more moderate president and has refrained from overtly aggressive behaviour. Iraq retains only a fraction of its past military power and has lost control of its northern, Kurdish-inhabited regions.

Critics of the strategy decided upon in 1990 also worry that a continued focus on the rogue states will undercut the arguments for procurement of the new, high-tech weapons sought by the armed forces. Many of the weapons acquired during the Reagan Administration's military build-up of the early 1980s will begin to reach obsolescence in the early 21st century and the Pentagon would like to replace them with more capable and sophisticated systems. These include the F-22 stealth fighter, the advanced F/A-18E/F aircraft and the proposed Joint Strike Fighter—weapons whose total cost (not allowing for inflation) is estimated at $350 billion (7).

To secure such credits, the Pentagon will have to show that American forces risk facing powerful, well-equipped adversaries. However, most of the weapons now in the inventory of the rogue states are of obsolete technology. They are considered no match for the weapons currently in the American arsenal and do not justify the acquisition of yet more costly armaments. This means that proponents of the new weaponry could face strong opposition in Congress—especially given the current emphasis on balancing the federal budget - unless it can be demonstrated that the global situation is becoming considerably more dangerous.

The United States relies on imported supplies of vital raw materials, especially oil. It now obtains more than half of its oil supplies from foreign sources, and its strategically important dependence will grow in the years ahead as domestic sources are gradually depleted. This has generated renewed concern over the security of existing supply areas (especially the Persian Gulf), and provoked strong interest in such emerging oil and gas-producing areas as the Caspian and South China Sea. All this has generated fresh concerns over Russia (which views the Caspian as part of its historical sphere of influence) and China (which claims much of the South China Sea as its national offshore territory) (8).

This has led to a growing number of American strategists to question the validity of the anti-rogue doctrine and to begin constructing a new strategy aimed at preparing US forces for a future clash with Russia or China. Proponents of this new approach acknowledge that neither of these countries represent a serious threat to American security today. But they argue that either or both of them could emerge as major peer competitors in ten or twenty years' time. And that the United States must begin preparing for such a danger now.

So far, the clearest expression of this outlook can be found in the latest report of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) published at the beginning of this year. The report notes that, while the risk of a worldwide conflict has largely disappeared, the United States cannot entirely discount military challenges from a major power. Such a power may not prove capable of challenging the United States on a global basis, but they may have sufficient power to be a peer with the US in the theater of operations near them.

To accentuate the break with past thinking, the INSS report goes to great lengths to distinguish such a challenger from the existing threat posed by the rogue states. Thus, it is claimed that a peer competitor would possess functioning nuclear weapons, be capable of lifting military satellites into space and maintain very large military establishments. For these reasons, the potential regional peers are far more challenging threats than are the rogue regimes (9). Obviously, only two countries—Russia and China—currently satisfy these conditions. The INSS report does suggest, however, that one of the larger regional powers, such as India, could transform itself into a major military power in the next decade.

Even though American officials continue to highlight the threat posed by rogue regimes, they are placing greater emphasis on the long-term dangers posed by military developments in Russia and China. Russia, it is claimed, has begun to recover from the economic tailspin of the 1990s and is now in a position to begin rebuilding and modernising its military forces. China is said to be utilising its growing economic strength to lay the groundwork for a world-class military establishment.

Typical of this outlook is the 6 February 1997 statement by General Patrick M. Hughes, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In a departure from past American practice, Hughes chose to focus on China first. Overall, he noted, China is one of the few powers with the potential—political, economic and military—to emerge as a large-scale regional threat to US interests within the next 10-20 years. Should China become more assertive in pursuing its regional interests, the prospects for direct confrontation with other regional powers will increase accordingly. In a worst-case scenario, China could view the united States as a direct military threat.

General Hughes went on to declare that Like China, Russia also has the potential to emerge as a large-scale regional threat to US interests within the next two decades. Over the next ten years, he acknowledged, Russia's continuing economic weakness is likely to rule out any improvement in its military capabilities. Beyond that time frame, however, the potential for Russia to re-emerge as a large and capable regional military rival of the United States increases significantly (10).

Assessments of this sort can also be found in the academic and think-tank literature on international security affairs. Some of these studies focus on the threat posed by China, others on that from Russia. An example of the former is The Coming Conflict with China, a recent book by Richard Bernstein of the New York Times and Ross H. Munro of the conservative Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. As their title suggests, the authors believe that China's growing assertiveness in Asia will lead to increased friction and possible war with the United States.

Those who emphasise the potential danger posed by Russia tend to focus on Russia's ties with the republics of Soviet Central Asia and of the pivotal importance of Caspian Sea oil. A number of former officials of Republican Administrations—many of whom have accepted consultancy fees from the American oil companies with interests in the Caspian—are trying to generate public concern over a potential Russian threat to the region. And in May 1997 Caspar Weinberger, secretary of defence in the Reagan Administration, warned that, As the West celebrates the apparent expansion of NATO into Central Europe, Russia is making a concerted bid to achieve a strategic victory of its own: domination of the energy resources in the Caspian Sea region. If Moscow succeeds, its victory could prove more significant than the West's success in enlarging NATO (11).

There is a certain tension between those in American foreign policy circles who view China as America's most likely future enemy and those who tend to focus on the threat from Russia. But the two groups often unite in warning of growing cooperation between Moscow and Beijing with respect to arms transfers. In July, for instance, several members of Congress introduced legislation that would suspend US aid to Russia if Moscow proceeded with the sale of SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship missiles to China.

Should this climate of distrust in peer competitors come to prevail in Washington, we could expect a very different international environment than the one we enjoy today. The progress achieved in establishing a dialogue between NATO and Russia would almost certainly be reversed and tensions would build up along the entire periphery of the former Soviet Union. Likewise, in Asia, we could expect growing tension in Sino-American relations and a hardening of Chinese views on such volatile issues as Taiwan and the South China Sea. At the worst, we could find ourselves in a new cold war with multiple points of friction around the world

At present, such views remain outside the mainstream of official US policy-makers. It is the rogue regimes—and not Russia or China—that they see as the principal threat to American national security. Despite some differences over the transfer of military technology (especially to Iran), the Clinton Administration has generally maintained cordial relations with both China and Russia. To ease the dispute with Moscow over NATO expansion, Washington eagerly pushed the signing of a new partnership agreement between the Alliance and Russia. Likewise, to improve ties with Beijing, the White House has softened its criticism of human rights practices in China. Clearly, economic policy has much to do with this: China has become one of America's principal trading partners and American firms see a vast market for their goods and services in the expanding Chinese economy.

Nevertheless, the talk of peer competitors is growing and is starting to influence the thinking of key military planners. Much depends on the future course of American relations with Russia and China. If a crisis erupts and it looks as if Russia or China represents a significant threat to American interests, the old strategic thinking would then almost certainly be called into question. And with it, we would see a hardening of American foreign policy.

(1) See Michael Klare, Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws: America's Search for a new Foreign Policy, Hill and Wang, New York, 1995.
(2) See Nur Dolay, Grandes manoeuvres politiques dans le Caucase, Le Monde diplomatique, July 1995, and Vicken Cheterian, Grand jeu p├ętrolier en Transcaucasie, Le Monde diplomatique October 1997, (available in English, Jostling for oil in Transcaucasia).
(3) As shown Michael R. Gordon's Military Services Propose Slashes in Existing Forces, New York Times, 12 May 1990.
(4) Statement before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, US House of Representatives, Washington, 19 March 1991.
(5) See US Department of Defense, Bottom-Up Review: Force Structure Excerpts, Washington, 1 September 1993. See also Michael R. Gordon, Military plan would cut Forces but have them Ready for Two Wars, New York Times, 2 September 1993.
(6) US Department of Defense, Report of the Quadrennial Defense Review, Washinton, May 1997.
(7) See Congress Pursues Balanced Budget, Aviation Week and Space Technology, 17 February 1997, pp 27-43.
(8) For discussion of US views on the Caspian, see Hugh Pope, Great Game II: Oil Companies Rush into the Caucasus to Tap the Caspian, Wall Street Journal, 25 April 1997. On China and the South China Sea, see Samuel S. Kim, China as a Great Power, Current History, September 1997.
(9) Institute for National Security Studies, National Defense University, 1997 Strategic Assessment, Washington, 1997, p. 233.
(10) Lt. Gen. Patrick M. Hughes, A DIA Global Security Assessment, Defense Issues, 6 February 1997. Available on the Internet at www.defenselink.mil on 2 September 1997.
(11) Caspar W. Weinberger and Peter Schweizer, Russia's Oil Grab, New York Times, 9 May 1997.