The Air Force plans to retire 17 B-1B bombers in 2021, even though its bomber force as a whole is already too small to meet requirements for a major conflict with China in the Indo-Pacific, nuclear deterrence, and other missions. Senior Airman River Bruce
Photo Caption & Credits

Building the Future Force

The next National Defense Strategy must mitigate against looming strategic risks. 

The Department of Defense (DOD) develops a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) every four years to align the U.S. military’s force structure, operational concepts, programs, and budgets with the president’s national security priorities. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin plans a comprehensive review of the present NDS, published in January 2018, and has indicated that while the strategy’s focus on great power competition and conflict remains sound, updates may be warranted. Austin suggested during his confirmation hearings the next NDS must address “the continued erosion of U.S. military advantage vis-à-vis China and Russia, in key strategic areas” due to trends such as China’s accelerating military modernization, its increasingly belligerent activities in the Indo-Pacific, and its growing ability to project power against the U.S. homeland. 

Three issues threaten to further erode the U.S. military’s advantages in the future, increasing the risk of failure in the event  of great power conflict. Two of these stem from the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which directed how the services should size and shape their forces, while the third results from DOD’s inadequate means for calculating the relative benefits of investment trade-offs. Left unaddressed, these issues threaten to increase gaps in U.S. forces and capabilities and to reduce the nation’s ability to defeat peer aggression, deter nuclear attacks, and defend the U.S. homeland.

The 2018 NDS requires the U.S. military services to be able to defeat an attempted Chinese or Russian invasion of a U.S. ally before that invasion becomes a fait accompli, as occurred when Russia seized the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Similar threat scenarios include the potential for China to invade and occupy Taiwan or for Russia to invade a NATO member in the Baltics. In the face of a peer aggressor that achieves its objectives within days or weeks, the United States and its allies would face a choice: accept the new status quo or mount a major counteroffensive to evict those occupying forces, an effort so massive and escalatory that it could threaten a nuclear response. 

The 2018 NDS aimed to deny China or Russia the chance to achieve a fait accompli in the first place by requiring that U.S. military forces be able to immediately engage invading forces, even in the face of anti-access/area-denial defenses. U.S. forces in theater would be the first responders and would be rapidly backed up by blunt forces able to operate both in theater and from long range with the intent to degrade, delay, and deny a peer adversary from achieving its campaign objectives. Critically, the 2018 NDS assumes that China or Russia would seek an off-ramp from conflict if their fait accompli strategy failed. This assumption minimizes the potential that China or Russia could instead choose to continue offensive and defensive operations. Failing to size the U.S. military for this longer conflict creates risk it would suffer from significant—and possibly decisive—capacity shortfalls. 

Building the Future force

Today, DOD is acquiring 5th-generation fighters, precision-guided munitions, and other advanced weapons at suboptimal rates. Persistent shortfalls in logistics capacity threaten the military’s ability to sustain combat operations. In a prolonged conflict, therefore, force attrition and the expenditure of weapons that cannot be quickly replenished, the U.S. armed forces might not be able to generate sufficient combat power to meet theater commander requirements. 

Risk: Planning for a Short War 

The National Defense Strategy includes a force planning construct to guide the services in sizing and shaping their forces. This force planning construct describes the type, number, and frequency of major conflict scenarios, along with other assumptions, to help the services define requirements. From the end of the Cold War until 2018, DOD required the capacity to fight two conflicts nearly simultaneously in order to deter an opportunistic aggressor from taking advantage when the U.S. military was already engaged in combat in another theater.

Breaking from this long-standing requirement, however, the 2018 NDS adopted a single-war construct that required the U.S. military to conduct a war with either China or Russia, deter nuclear attacks, defend the homeland, and deter a second lessor aggressor or rogue state, such as North Korea or Iran, from launching an opportunistic attack. The recognition that China and Russia pose a much greater challenge than any rival since the end of the Cold War—coupled with a desire to contain the cost of rebuilding U.S. military combat capacity cut over the past 30 years—likely informed this decision.  

Sizing the U.S. military to defeat a single peer aggressor has significant and risky consequences. The risk that a second adversary—including a peer competitor—could launch an opportunistic military operation that threatens America’s vital interests is greater if adversaries know the U.S. military’s capacity is challenged. China and Russia’s strengthening defense ties, and their continued sharing of advanced military technologies, should further increase concerns over U.S. gaps in a number of critical capabilities. For example, the U.S. Air Force today has too few bombers for conflict with one peer, let alone two. Based on independent analysis, the Air Force lacks at least 77 bombers for a single war plus the nuclear deterrence mission, and more than double that shortfall for two peer conflicts. The Air Force’s stated requirement would increase its current bomber force by five operational squadrons.

A third problem with the 2018 NDS is the U.S. military’s lack of new joint warfighting concepts to defeat peer aggression. Operating concepts explain how the U.S. military plans to conduct future operations in all domains and link DOD’s strategic goals with the forces and capabilities needed to achieve them. These concepts are critical to determining future requirements and provide a foundation for assessing force structure and capability trade-offs across the services. Such trade-offs are necessary when seeking to maximize combat potential for each dollar invested, especially now, at a time when defense budgets face reductions. 

Building the Future Force

The Joint Staff is charged with leading development of a new Joint Warfighting concept for all-domain operations to deter or defeat great power aggression. The Joint Staff’s consensus-driven doctrine development process is unlikely to challenge bureaucratic service equities, however, making it difficult to determine the necessary trade-offs that are part of optimizing combat lethality across the joint force. Here’s how Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John E. Hyten described the concept last fall, illustrating this struggle with trade-offs: “An army capability can have on its own platform, the ability to defend itself or the ability to strike deep into an adversary area of operations,” he told the Hudson Institute. “A naval force can defend itself or strike deep. An air force can defend itself or strike deep. Marines can defend [themselves] or strike deep. Everybody. And … the key piece to do that altogether is an integrated version of command and control.” 

In other words, the operating concept envisioned for future all-domain warfare could validate redundant programs for all the services. This would surrender a necessary process for comparing competing solutions, waste investment resources, and leave the services without the funds to invest in capabilities needed to support other theater commander needs. If the Army, for example, goes ahead with plans to acquire ground-launched precision strike missiles with ranges of 1,000 miles or more—an unprecedented distance for the Army—these weapons, costing tens of millions of dollars each, will compete for funding with less expensive munitions that could be delivered by existing bombers and fighters. Mitchell Institute analysis indicates using bombers to attack hundreds of targets over long ranges would be a far less expensive solution than using multimillion dollar surface-launched missiles to attack the same targets. Meanwhile, other Army missions, such as theater base defense, would continue to be underfunded, exacerbating a risk that leaves U.S. air and other bases vulnerable to attack from ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drone swarms. 

Risk: Planning for One War

The 2022 National Defense Strategy should reduce the risk that a peer adversary might choose to engage in a long-duration conflict with the United States. Adopting a theory of victory that assumes U.S. forces may have to conduct follow-on operations, such as a punishment campaign, after denying a fait accompli invasion would be a strong hedge against such risks. The threat of extensive punishment operations would raise the costs of continued aggression and could deter adversaries from risking continuing hostilities. 

Building the Future Force

A follow-on punishment operation against China should be part of the pacing challenge for sizing and shaping the U.S. military. Russia, by contrast, lacks the military capacity to sustain a long-term, high-intensity conflict against NATO. Because of the nature of the Indo-Pacific region and potential conflict with China, sizing the force for a fait accompli denial operation and a follow-on punishment campaign does not require large-scale investment in additional land forces, because large-scale land-based combat operations would be minimal. Rather, air, sea, space, and cyber offensive systems, depending on the U.S. commander’s concept of operations, would be the central elements of such a campaign. These would include:

  • 5th-generation stealth combat aircraft to counter advanced air and missile threats. 
  • Long-range ISR and strike platforms capable of penetrating contested environments to strike high-value targets, including Chinese bomber and fighter bases.
  • Long-range air-launched and ship-launched anti-ship weapons to cripple PLA Navy aircraft carriers and other surface combatants.
  • A next-generation counterair  family-of-systems to support allied operations and deny China or Russia control of the air, especially over critical areas such as the Strait of Taiwan.
  • Multi-mission unmanned capabilities, including unmanned surface vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and low-cost expendable UAVs capable of teaming with manned systems that increase DOD’s capacity to project combat mass into contested areas.
  • Electromagnetic warfare capabilities to suppress advanced area-denial threats, including Chinese or Russian integrated air defense systems.
  • Offensive cyber capabilities.
  • Space domain awareness and offensive space capabilities.
  • Sufficient stores of precision-guided munitions prepositioned at forward locations in theater to sustain high tempo combat operations. 

Risk: Lack of Joint Fighting Concepts

The 2022 NDS should include a force planning construct that sizes and shapes the U.S. military to defeat a peer adversary, plus a second act of aggression in a different theater. This hedges against the risk that China, Russia, or a rogue state might seek to take advantage when U.S. forces are engaged in another theater. 

To avoid excessive redundancy, the 2022 National Defense Strategy should differentiate between the peer conflict scenarios that each service must use to size and shape its forces. These pacing scenarios should be determined by assessing the forces U.S. commanders will require to deter and defeat future Chinese or Russian aggression. 

The geography of the Indo-Pacific theater means U.S. forces needed to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or aggression in the South China Sea or East China Sea would be predominately Air Force, Space Force, Navy, and Marine Corps assets. Similarly, forces required to defeat a Russian invasion of one or more NATO states in Europe would predominately be provided by the Air Force, Space Force, and Army. Assessing the optimal force mixes for each would help reduce the cost of maintaining a two-war military. In the final analysis, it is DOD as a whole—and not each individual service—that must be capable of defeating a second aggressor. 

Revise the Theory of Victory 

To complement its new force planning concept, DOD should create all-domain operating concepts for peer conflict to help inform its future requirements and provide a foundation for assessing force structure and capability trade-offs using a cost-per-effect approach. DOD’s senior civilian and military leaders should not rely on processes that seek consensus across the services or combine multiple concepts developed by each service in a stovepiped fashion. In place of the Joint Staff’s current doctrine development process, the Secretary of Defense should direct a rigorous, yet targeted, examination of the services’ current roles and responsibilities, then reallocate them as needed to reduce excessive redundancy in forces and capabilities. Resolving enduring debates over service roles and responsibilities for missions including long-range strikes and U.S. theater missile defense would help DOD drive new operating concepts and maximize future combat power. The Secretary of Defense and OSD staff must be deeply involved in developing and approving warfighting concepts used for DOD force planning. 

DOD should also develop distinct all-domain warfighting concepts for potential future conflicts with China and Russia, not a single, overarching concept for both. Separate concepts would help account for vastly different characteristics and geographic features of the Indo-Pacific and European theaters, including physical dimensions, geographic chokepoints, the relative strengths and weaknesses of each potential adversary, and the capabilities of America’s regional allies and partners. These concepts should focus on all-domain warfare, rather than “joint” operations, in order to stress the priority to integrate operations across all domains, as opposed to maximizing the contribution of organizations to combatant commanders. 

Looking Ahead

The 2018 National Defense Strategy rightfully shifted DOD planning and resource priorities toward preparing for great power competition and conflict, beginning the overdue process of rebalancing the U.S. military for an unprecedented array of challenges. The next NDS must build on that, reinforcing the need to ensure an unmatched advantage over China and Russia in next-generation capabilities.

In an era of flat or declining defense budgets, trade-offs will be necessary to responsibly manage the nation’s defense investment portfolio. Those trade-offs must be guided by a National Defense Strategy and complementary all-domain warfighting concepts that reduce the risk of strategic failures and that measure competing solutions by means of sophisticated measures of cost per effect. 

In the end, however, no number of trade-offs or cuts to current forces and readiness will create the savings needed to rebuild a military that has been subject to decades of force structure drawdowns and delayed or deferred modernization. Building America’s future force will require ending the harmful cycle of opting for smaller but more capable forces, which has been a thinly veiled rationale for reducing defense spending for decades. It will take years of steady defense spending to ensure the U.S. military’s transformation to a future force able to compete with China and Russia, deter peer aggression, and win America’s wars.