Americans are waking up to the fact that our military is not as ready or as capable as it needs to be. Just two years ago, 62 percent of Americans thought U.S. military strength was “about right” and 25 percent thought it was “not strong enough,” according to the Gallup organization. Last year, the number saying our military was about right plunged to 44 percent, while the number saying it was not strong enough surged to 42 percent.
How strong the U.S. military needs to be, however, is difficult even for experts to gauge, let alone the average citizen. That’s why a recent series of wargames held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies is vitally important.
CSIS ran 24 iterations of a wargame simulating what might happen if China attempted to seize Taiwan, much as Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Unlike government games, however, these results were made public. And while the U.S. and its allies prevailed in most of the games, the cost of victory was staggeringly high.
We need to prepare for some of the worst-case scenarios to effectively deter in the Indo-Pacific, and that requires us making changes now.
“The United States and its allies lost dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft, and tens of thousands of service members,” write CSIS authors Mark Cancian, Matthew Cancian, and Eric Heginbotham in their report on the games. “Taiwan saw its economy devastated … [and] the high losses damaged the U.S. global position for many years.”
Over the past 30 years, Americans have gained a skewed perspective of wartime losses. While some 7,000 American service members and at least as many contractors died in support of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. military units never faced peer threats. Improvised bombs planted in the roads and other insurgent tactics spread out over two decades were responsible for most of the losses. In the Russian-Ukraine war, the Russians have lost over 100,000 people in 10 months, and Ukrainian losses are not far behind.
The U.S. Air Force hasn’t endured aerial combat losses since the Vietnam War, when it lost more than 3,300 fixed-wing aircraft; in all, U.S. forces lost more than 10,000 aircraft in that war. The U.S. Navy lost more than 350 ships from December 1941 to September 1945; it’s lost fewer than 30 ships since then, mostly due to accidents. The last U.S. ship sunk in combat was the USS Bullhead on Aug. 6, 1945, the same day the Air Force dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
“Is the United States ready as a nation to accept losses that would come from a carrier strike group sunk at the bottom of the Pacific? We have not had to face losses like that as a nation for quite some time. It would actually create a broader societal change that I’m not sure we’ve totally grappled with,” asks Becca Wasser of the Center for a New American Security and a participant in the CSIS wargames. “We need to prepare for some of the worst-case scenarios to effectively deter in the Indo-Pacific, and that requires us making changes now.”
What does that mean in practical terms?
To deter China and, when necessary, fight and win against China, the Defense Department must:
- Strengthen the Air Force’s ability to project power globally. The new B-21 Raider long-range bomber (p.35) is the most critical component of that global reach. The Air Force plans to build at least 100. The nation cannot afford to buy less.
- Modernize the fighter force faster. The Biden administration last year asked for just 33 new F-35s for the Air Force, along with 24 F-15EXs. Lawmakers added funding for another 11 F-35s, bringing the total to 68 new fighters. The Air Force needs at least 72 new fighters annually, however, just to stop growing the average age of its fighter force which is now at 29 years. If this nation is serious about accomplishing its defense strategy, USAF fighter production must greatly increase.
- Build back aircraft production capacity. If the Air Force lost a dozen jets tomorrow it would take years to replace them. The cost and complexity of these jets is such that we will never again crank out aircraft as we did during World War II. But production capacity and consistent productivity is essential to being able to replace aircraft when needed, to supply allies and partners, and to manage and contain costs.
- Build up strategic reserves of precision weapons. Stockpiles of critical weapons are too small, and production orders too inconsistent, to ensure adequate supplies in wartime. According to Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a participant in the wargames, “the stockpile of LRASMs, as well as other munitions, both air-to-air as well as anti-ship, are currently inadequate for any kind of Taiwan contingency.”
- Shore up supply chains. The COVID-19 pandemic made the world aware of how fragile our global supply chains can be. The U.S. has made strides to reduce dependence on Asian-Pacific suppliers for semiconductors, but it will take years to insulate fully against that risk. Other supply chain concerns are less understood. More must be done to ensure the U.S. and its allies have access to critical weapons components when they need them. The supply chain is only as good as its weakest link.
- Build up space capability and make intentions clear. Much has been said about increasing the resilience of U.S. space-based assets, both hardening them against cyberattack and increasing our volume of space assets to eliminate single points of failure. The Space Force must go further and faster, however. The Space Force needs the means to rapidly refuel and replace satellites in orbit; the ability to fight in and through space if necessary; and to establish operational norms in order to avoid accidental conflict and make clear expectations for how the U.S. will respond to provocations.
- Modernize the entire fleet. The average age of Air Force bombers is 48; tankers average 50, falling sharply thanks to the acquisition of new KC-46s; and trainers 35. These are not sustainable numbers. One of the reasons military weapons programs are so frequently behind schedule and over cost is because we do not develop and buy weapons consistently. Continuous production and competition will yield a younger Air Force and a more effective industrial base. That’s a win-win for the nation.
- Help our allies. Some on both the right and left political fringes have argued against major investments in arms for Ukraine and continue to hold back on providing Ukraine the full range of offensive capabilities, such as F-16s for example, that might help them more forcefully fight off the Russian aggressors. Arming Ukraine, however, is an investment in deterrence.
In the waning days of the 1930s, as the Nazi war machine was gearing up, many Americans wanted to maintain an isolationist stand. A little-known, first-term senator from Missouri argued for military “preparedness.”
“I am of the opinion we should not help the thugs among nations by refusing to sell arms to our friends,” then-Sen. Harry Truman argued. A World War I combat veteran, Truman understood what was at stake long before the U.S. entered World War II.
The thugs are still with us. We can deter them now or fight them later. The choice seems obvious.