An image from a U.S. Air Force video shows a Russian Su-27 aircraft dumping fuel on an unmanned MQ-9 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft operating in international airspace over the Black Sea on March 14, 2023. USAF video
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Editorial: All Together Now

Oct. 5, 2023

Three news images from August and September cast a spotlight on the growing challenges to peace to today’s post-Globalist age. 

The first shows the leaders of the “BRICS”—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—holding hands in unity after voting to expand their group by six—including Iran—at their August summit in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

The second depicts Russia’s Vladimir Putin getting chummy with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in September as they discussed weapons sales and missile and space collaboration in Eastern Russia. 

The third shows China’s Xi Jinping meeting with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad during a state visit to China in September.

One of the United States’ greatest strategic assets since the Allied victory in World War II has been our allies and partners around the world. The U.S. had more good partners than its rivals, and that paid off economically, militarily, and technologically for decades. Those partnerships fueled a triumphant and optimistic globalism that shrunk the world in the post-Cold War era and fueled strong economic growth. But that prosperity was uneven. The gaps between haves and have-nots expanded. Almost everywhere, a slow but inexorable distance grew between increasingly wealthy, urban, educated elites and rural, blue-collar farmers and workers betrayed by the offshoring of jobs and decisions that disadvantaged their way of life. 

What makes things more dangerous today are our political divisions at home.

The same divisive factors that led to Brexit in Europe and Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election also fueled the Yellow Vest protests in Europe and populist political movements from Eastern Europe to South America. 

Divisive politics here at home undermine confidence in the United States among our own citizens as well as our allies. Doubts about whether the U.S. will hold to international commitments force allies to hedge their bets. 

We are now seeing the most dangerous world situation since the 1930s, when the world order that came about at the end of the Cold War is now giving weigh to something more complicated and potentially more dangerous than anything we have seen since the 1930s when the stage was set for World War II. The rise of the Axis Powers—Germany, Italy, and Japan—can be likened today to the joining of the authoritarian leaders of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

Since the day he took office as Secretary of the Air Force, Frank Kendall has viewed China and its growing military as the modern-day corollary to the Soviet Union. His clear-eyed, Cold War-informed view of China’s military ascendance has reinvigorated Air Force modernization by focusing programmatic development and budget planning on clear operational objectives, seven specific Operational Imperatives defined by the Secretary and promulgated across the force. 

Combined with Chief of Staff  Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s admonishment to accelerate change and more recently Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman’s focus on operationalizing military capability in space, Kendall has infused both urgency and discipline in modernization of an aging and, sadly, rapidly declining force.  

Now Kendall is raising the bar again, this time focusing on organization, training, and readiness. At AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference, he committed to “re-optimizing” his department to be more agile and responsive for today’s world, pressing to make the force more ready and more formidable, and therefore better able to deter conflict in the future—or fight and win if necessary.

Kendall’s Operational Imperatives exposed flaws in the department’s ability to rapidly develop capabilities, to respond to crises, and to measure its own readiness. As Lt. Gen. James C. Slife, deputy chief of staff for operations and nominated to be the next Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, explains it, two decades of optimizing the force for efficiency rendered it ready for the status quo, not peer conflict. 

A boxer who spars for just a few minutes daily can still pack a powerful punch, but he’s hardly ready for a 15-round championship bout. Likewise, the U.S. Air and Space Forces may still be the most formidable, most capable on Earth, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready for a knock-down, drag-out war with a peer adversary like China—or even a long, drawn-out fight with a multiparty alliance of rogue nations. 

What makes things more dangerous are the political divisions we see at home. Throughout the Cold War, both parties were united by the same underlying policy objectives driving our competition with the Soviet Union. It’s not that we didn’t have disagreements—we did. The country was hardly united over the Korean or Vietnam Wars. But we did share a common world view about America’s place in the world

When President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire” 40 years ago, he did so while chiding his audience for not appreciating the greater goal of his foreign policy. He was imploring them to avoid “the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”

In that context, our politics today seems eerily familiar. Congress is divided over whether to continue to provide weapons to Ukraine, with many politicians failing or refusing to recognize that  the U.S. commitment to Ukraine directly reflects on U.S. resolve in the Indo-Pacific, where Japan and South Korea, as well as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan all want desperately to believe they can count on the U.S. to deter and, if necessary, fight China’s expansionist agenda. 

Meanwhile, China and Russia are testing U.S. capabilities, increasingly probing readiness and response and challenging U.S. aircraft and naval vessels whenever they are in the vicinity of one another. 

The frequency of close intercepts of U.S. aircraft by Russian pilots over the Black Sea and Syria and by Chinese pilots over the South China Sea aren’t random maneuvers, said Gen. Mark  D. Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, at the Air, Space & Cyber Conference. Rather, they are provocations. 

“They want batting practice against the best Air Force in the world,” Kelly said. They want to know how we respond to pressure.

China will always be able to build more airplanes and train more pilots. But China’s ability to generate an equal quality of training is questionable, and not just in the short term. Independent creative thinking is a hallmark of the American psyche, and anathema to the groupthink of a top-down, single-party system where alternative thinking can actually be a crime. 

That brings us back to our current politics. Americans can differ on how best to achieve leadership on the international stage. But let us not risk what happens when we disappear from that stage. Our adversaries want us to fight among ourselves. Too many of us take that to heart.

Two world wars proved exactly how important American leadership is to world peace. When America retreats into itself, the world becomes more dangerous, and Americans end up dying—cleaning up the resulting mess. 

America’s glory has always been in standing up to tyrants. Let us remain true to our creed.