The conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza—playing out as Russia and the Ukraine fight their own war in central Europe—highlights an increasingly complex world is brimming with dangers, and points to a rethink of American military strategy and investment, says retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
“The U.S. military today struggles to meet the demands in one theater, let alone four,” said Deptula, who oversaw targeting in 1991’s lopsided Operation Desert Storm.
The war in Gaza, which apparently caught Western intelligence services by surprise, should be a wake-up notice to American strategists, Deptula said. The current National Defense Strategy prioritizes China as a peer competitor, and keys in on Russia as an acute threat, while also recognizing strengthening powers like Iran and North Korea and the risks posed by ties among these powers. But it holds fast to the size and scale of the current force, which Deptula says is clearly too small.
It’s past time for a “national conversation” on the size and strength of the U.S. military, Deptula argues, yet the topic is almost entirely absent in the presidential debates. It “needs to be a talking point on the campaign trail.”
To deter others from expanding the war with Israel, Deptula said the U.S. must demonstrate its willingness to use force. “There cannot be any invisible ‘red lines,’” he said. Deterrence requires an unambiguous, credible threat of force. “Saying, ‘Don’t,’ doesn’t cut it.”
Should Hezbollah in Lebanon or Iran or any other force attempt to open a second front with Israel, the U.S. must be ready to act on President Joe Biden’s warnings, or future warnings won’t be seen as credible. As the U.S. rushed forces into the region as part of that deterrence effort, however, it was clear the U.S. did not have every capability at the ready. No F-35s or F-22s—the most capable fighters in the force—were included. That alone underscores that the U.S. Defense Department “needs to go back to force-sizing based on a two-major-regional war” construct, Deptula said. That underlying requirement two-MTW requirement remained part of U.S. strategy from the early 1990s until recently; it no longer is delineated in the national military strategy. It posited that the U.S. should have enough military wherewithal to fight a Desert Storm-size conflict and a second, similar-size regional war, while still being able to defend the homeland.
Strategy And Resources Don’t Match
The Biden administration’s National Defense Strategy, released in 2022, set China as the “pacing threat” against which the U.S. needed to measure itself, while opting not to specify the number of troops or fighting organizations needed to deter adversaries in this multipolar world. The Pentagon has remained silent on setting any such goals.
As in the Cold War, the U.S. does not intend to compete on a one-for-one basis with its allies. U.S. strategy has long held that superior capability is more important than sheer numbers. Indeed, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said the Air Force continues to focus on introducing new, advanced hardware to deter enemies, while not seeking to match the far more populous China, either man for man or plane for plane.
Kendall admitted that the NDS lacks any kind of force-sizing calculus, but said not to look for major changes anytime soon.
In 2018, then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and then-Air Force Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein defined the Air Force’s operational requirement, in response to the National Defense Strategy, as 386 operational squadrons. That represented a 25 percent increase over available resources then and now. Based on a defined requirements, combatant commander demand, and classified operational war plans, that plan defined the need, but the resources were never there to support it. Goldfein considered the analysis as a worthwhile academic exercise, but not a realistic objective, and the service soon dropped 386 as a stated goal.
With increasing demand on U.S. forces in Europe, the Arctic, the Indo-Pacific, and now—again—the Middle East, the shortfall is becoming more clear.
“While we have the most impressive military personnel in the world, our military today is simply not sized or equipped to succeed in even one major regional war, much less two,” Deptula noted. The U.S. military needs the resources to “fight and win, and that is not the case today. So we better get our act together,” he said.
There are links among these disparate war zones. While Russia was probably not behind Hamas’ savage Oct. 7 attacks on Israeli civilians—“I think they have their hands full with Ukraine,” Deptula said—the conflict in the Middle East is nevertheless advantageous to Moscow, forcing the U.S. to supply large quantities of weapons to two countries in two wars, when it was already challenged just to supply one.
Likewise, China benefits, Deptula said. Beijing, he added, is “certainly considering a move on Taiwan,” given that the U.S. is backstopping Israel with carrier battle groups and land-based fighter squadrons, while maintaining an alert posture in Europe.
“I’d certainly be watching for indications of potential aggressive action against Taiwan because it would not be beyond the imagination for a President Xi [Jinping] and … his Chinese Communist Party to take provocative action to stretch and test the United States,” Deptula said.
Biden has said the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid if China attempted to invade, he noted, but China would also pay an economic price for a Taiwan invasion. Xi “understands that he’d be shooting [at] his largest customer, and that would not bode well for the Chinese economy,” Deptula said.
“So I think that’s a balancing element in here.”
The Pentagon, in its annual China Military Power report, released in October, noted that in 2022, China overflew Taiwan with a ballistic missile and “increased flights into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone,” while conducting “large-scale, simulated joint blockade and simulated joint firepower strike operations.”
Beijing also stepped up what the Pentagon called “coercive and provocative actions” in the Indo-Pacific region, including “over 180 instances of (People’s Liberation Army air and naval forces employing) coercive and risky air intercept against U.S. aircraft in the region” as well as “around 100 instances” of such behavior “in the air domain against U.S. allies and partners.”
The report predicted that China will have built and deployed about 1,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles by 2030, several years ahead of previous forecasts, but has resisted military-to-military “hotline”-type communications with the U.S. The report also noted that while China touts its “no limits” partnership with Russia as “integral to advancing [its] development and emergence as a great power,” it pursues a “discreet approach” to “providing material support to Russia for its war against Ukraine.”
China and Russia continue to sow division in Western democracies through social media, with the aim of making it hard to reach consensus on how to respond to Chinese and Russian aggression, or to raise the forces needed to counter those moves.
“Our national leaders must meet the moment and realize that there is a severe cost for prioritizing politics over national security,” Deptula said.
“Our leadership has got to pass a federal budget so the Defense Department can be funded,” he said. Continuing resolutions—or no action at all—hold spending levels to that of previous years, and “puts a halt on new starts and all kinds of things that we need to do,” he said.
“That inhibits our ability to assist Ukraine and Israel with the military equipment that they need to survive.”
While ambitious plans have been floated to “beef up” American posture in the Indo-Pacific, “those need to be funded,” Deptula said. “We hear all of this about … Agile Combat Employment on the part of the Air Force, but if it doesn’t get funded, it doesn’t happen. And that reduces our deterrent element against the Chinese taking any adventurous action.”
Continuous threats of a government shutdown likely make the U.S. look divided and indecisive, and send a bad message to the rest of the world, Deptula said.
“We’ve got to end the risk of a government shutdown. And we’ve got to get to a common vision to get past the impasse in getting a speaker of the House Representatives.”
There is the perennial “guns versus butter” debate over how much to spend on defense, Deptula said, but the U.S. can afford to spend what’s necessary.
“It’s not that we can’t,” he said. “We’re operating today at less than half the percentage of [Gross Domestic Product] that we spent [on defense] during the Cold War.”
The Pentagon has taken steps to increase production of munitions for the Ukraine conflict, restarting some production lines and negotiating with allies to gear up multiple production lines, in multiple countries, for some high-demand items, like artillery rounds.
Deptula said, though, that the nation must once and for all abandon “this ridiculous notion that we can run the Defense Department like a business.”
“Warfare is not a business,” he continued. “It is the most wasteful application of resources that humankind has ever devised.”
Trying to acquire equipment and weapons at low rates and with commercial-style “just-in-time” delivery is a recipe for trouble when a crisis strikes. “That doesn’t work,” he said.
Just In Time Is Too Late
“We need mountains of stockpiles of weapons, sitting there and waiting, in sufficient quantities, that if we need to use them, we don’t have to go back and retool and spin up to produce,” Deptula said. “That’s what the leadership in the Pentagon has been missing over the last 30 years.”
He credits Pentagon acquisition and sustainment chief William LaPlante for recognizing the problem and trying to change direction. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, LaPlante’s mantra has been “production is deterrence.”
“LaPlante … gets that you can’t flip a switch and all of a sudden double your inventory” of a particular munition, Deptula said. “So you have to start to retool now. You also have to change the direction of your national military strategy” and provide the resources needed to carry out the strategy.
When budgets get tight, the services have gotten into the habit of cutting munitions buys first. “There is no constituency for weapons or munitions production during peacetime,” Deptula said, so the cut is politically easier than other options. But it’s a false economy, he added: Having sufficient munitions on hand for a protracted war is a deterrent, while not having enough is an invitation.
Deptula said he had been “hopeful that the Russian invasion of Ukraine would wake the American public up to the dangers that we face,” but whatever alarm it did cause was not long-lasting. The concerns raised by Hamas’ attack means America’s readiness must no longer be ignored.
“We have to … get back on track to be prepared and equipped,” Deptula stated. “And only then will we be able to deter aggressive actors like we’re seeing pop up out of the woodwork today.”
What America has today could even be called a deterrence deficit. “Part of the reason they’re doing what they’re doing … why Putin invaded Ukraine and Hamas took its egregious actions against Israel, is because they sense a weak United States military, which lacks the will to employ force,” Deptula said. “And even if they do [employ force], that force is insufficient in capacity to fight and win.
“The world is on fire, and the United States is woefully unprepared,” Deptula said. “That demands a national conversation.”