Brookings Panel: Pentagon Progressing Slowly in Meeting New Challenges

Four years after the National Defense Strategy reset the American military focus from counter-extremism to “Great Power Competition”—and two weeks after the Pentagon’s new NDS named China the pacing threat—the Defense Department is only sluggishly taking concrete steps to change its operating constructs, although the Air Force is setting the right tone, defense experts said in a Brookings Institution webinar.

In a Nov. 14 program titled “U.S. Defense Innovation and Great Power Deterrence,” experts said the U.S. is not yet fielding the right equipment or moving quickly enough to change its way of war.

“The legacy approach we took to the ‘junior varsity’ adversaries—the Iraqs, the Serbias, the Libyas—consistently fails when it’s tested in our wargaming against a China or Russia; at least, pre-2022 Russia,” said David Ochmanek, senior researcher at RAND Corp. and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for force planning.

“We need to buy more and better stuff … but that in and of itself is not going to move the needle,” Ochmanek said. “In addition to changing what we buy—accelerating the purchase of certain things; buying less of old things, more of new things—we have to think about the new concept of employing them,” he said.

Ochmanek said the Joint Staff has been laboring over a new Joint Warfighting Concept (JWC) for three years, but the document, which he said is now in its third draft, is “a pretty well-informed essay about the demands of fighting in the highly contested environment that can be created by China, or Russia,” but it is “not a blueprint for how to fight.”

The gold standard for such a blueprint was the AirLand Battle concept of the 1980s, which “actually told combatant commanders how to employ forces at their disposal to locate, engage, and destroy the enemy,” Ochmanek said. “It drove posture … modernization … training and doctrine. I am not aware that we have that today,” he said. “And, without that, force planning … is a little hard.”

The NDS released last month did not specify a force-sizing construct for the armed forces, except that they must be able to fight an undefined major war with one peer adversary while deterring a second.

The JWC should precede “the equipping and the posturing of the force,” Ochmanek said, but he has not seen any actions that would “move the needle” on posture, either. The Navy will add a fifth submarine in the vicinity of Guam, he said, but the Air Force is removing its F-15s from Kadena Air Base, Japan. They are important to reassure allies, he said, but would be “targets, not assets” in a war with China, which has hundreds of ballistic and cruise missiles aimed at Kadena.

To get a sense that things are really changing, “watch posture,” Ochmanek said.

He noted that it took five months in 1990 for the U.S. and its coalition forces to get ready for the war to eject Iraq from Kuwait, but “We may have [only] five days to get our war-fighting posture together in a future … fight with China.” The old “expeditionary approach to power projection … is not appropriate for defeating aggression by highly capable adversaries” who can create a highly contested environment and “make it very difficult to deploy forces into the theater, and then employ forces once they arrive.”

Ochmanek assigned a letter grade of “D” to the armed services on posture but said the picture is “a little better” with equipment.

He gave high marks to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall for being “highly focused on China” and redirected resources to “several priority areas” he thinks are key to deterring the People’s Republic.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David H. Berger also “seems to get it,” proposing some “fairly radical changes” to the Marine Corps force structure and spending priorities, Ochmanek said, which have largely been met with criticism from former Corps leaders.

The Air Force and Navy are also pushing toward the right munitions with the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), which is a variant of the stealth Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM); and the Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile-Extended Range (AARGM-ER).

The Air Force is also “investing in those prosaic things that make air bases harder to kill,” such as fuel bladders and greater agility for forces. He also praised the Air Force’s efforts toward low-cost attritable autonomous aircraft, especially those that can take off without a runway.

“The words coming from Secretary Kendall are fairly encouraging,” he said.

Christian Brose, chief strategy officer of Anduril Industries and a former Senate armed services expert who has written a book called “The Kill Chain,” said, “we’re starting to make progress, but it’s not as much or as fast as it needs to be.”

He noted that the notional date of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan “keeps moving to the left,” though not as fast as it needs to be.” The signs of a new peer threat “were there” in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and China was well into its island-building campaign, so the Pentagon is behind the power curve, he said.

“Where we are right now … is positive,” he said, with three Administrations in a row, across the political spectrum, now agreeing that China is the priority and the way to frame reform of force sizing, posture, and equipment.

“It feels like a pretty enduring consensus around the most important strategic priority,” he said.

The big question, he said, is “are we serious or not?” Because there have been other “pronouncements” of new directions that were then followed by adherence to entrenched ideas.

He praised the approach of Pentagon acquisition and sustainment chief William A. LaPlante, who is focused on “production of capability. We can talk all we want about new ideas, new technologies, new R&D efforts … but it really only matters if we’re driving real investment into production … to have things at the ready.”

Brose said new things “take time. Even ramping up production of things we have takes time, as the war in Ukraine has put into high relief. You want more Javelins? You want ore GMLRS? Yeah, that’s going to take years.”

He also pushed for more low-cost, autonomous standoff weapons as a key item to deal with China, but urged that the military take a “realistic” view of what the industrial base is capable of. China has more than half the world’s shipbuilding, he noted, while the U.S. has less than five percent.

“Let’s be honest: We’re not going to win the shipbuilding race,” he said.

Instead, he urged increasing production of weapons “we’re going to need and would be able to have inside the next 2-4 years. And not just 20-year-old things … but new things … new capabilities in service of new CONOPS.”

If the services are “serious,” he said, “we’re capable of doing remarkable things on rapid timelines.”

Ochmanek noted that pursuing ideas such as the Air Force’s palletized munitions concept—launching volleys of cruise missiles or other munitions out the back of a cargo plane—are good ideas that impose costs on China to counter. He’s also keen on building the B-21 bomber.

Both Ochmanek and Brose said that if the U.S. military focuses on what it will take to deter or defeat China, then any other scenario will easily be managed as a lesser included case. A Chinese “multi-domain invasion of Taiwan is the appropriate scenario for evaluating our force,” Ochmanek said, because “it is, inarguably, highly plausible,” given long-term Chinese rhetoric about compelling unification by force if necessary. Also, China relying simply on “coercive strategies” could take longer than Beijing has the patience for: “They will be very uncertain in their effects, and I don’t think the Chinese are looking to get involved in a war that would involve the United States, where they can’t have some control over the end game.”

It’s also the most appropriate scenario “because it’s the most demanding,” he said. Even so, he said, “I think it’s more likely that we’ll end up fighting China over some issue in the South China Sea [or] some issue in the East China Sea that involves Japan, [or] something on the Korean peninsula.”

None of those other scenarios, though, “has the time pressure of a Taiwan scenario,” Ochmanek noted. The Chinese could land “100,000 troops on that island in two weeks. That is a tremendously stressing problem for the combatant commander.”

He agreed with moderator Michael O’Hanlon’s characterization that “the glass is a little more than half full” in regards to U.S. capability vis a vis China, but added that “there’s a hole in the bottom of the glass. They’re still cranking out hundreds and hundreds of accurate ballistic and cruise missiles every year. They now have the largest Navy in the world. And it’s not just hardware; their training is getting more realistic. They’re getting after their … human capital … So we’ve got to run pretty hard to stay even with that.”

Ochmanek said the Pentagon is on “Step 1 of a 12-step program: They recognize they have a problem,” he said.