It used to be U.S. military policy to prepare to face war on two fronts – one in the Middle East and one in East Asia likely against North Korea as the Hermit Kingdom was seen as the riskiest flashpoint before 9/11. Now the resurgence of China and its threat to Taiwan, plus Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have brought the two-front war closer to reality. Is the United States prepared for simultaneous contingencies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific?
Taiwan Crisis Competes for Full Attention
It is clear China is belligerent via its surrounding of Taiwan. Its Navy is conducting live fire exercises with two aircraft carriers to demonstrate its anger after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited the island on August 2. China has fired numerous ballistic missiles near Taiwan in a show of force. China’s Navy has also simulated a blockade against Taiwan. NineteenFortyFive predicted this activity on August 1. The Americans responded with an aircraft carrier strike group and at least two other amphibious ships deployed to the theater.
Russia Must Be Dealt With Too
With numerous military aid packages totaling at least $8.8 billion given to Ukraine draining U.S. resources, and the need for the Navy to push its ships to the limit to answer China, the future looks murky. Americans may need to sock money away for overseas contingency operations, otherwise known as warfare. In the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act, the Pentagon received only $14.3 billion for overseas contingency operations and this was for the drawdown in Afghanistan and for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria.
Domestic Political Pressures Push Toward Stopping Forever Wars
The new “two war” contingency would create a “whole of government” need that would encompass the White House National Security Council, the Pentagon, and Congress. This would force the U.S. government to put thorny problems such as domestic policy, the economy, climate change, and the culture wars on hold or at least adjust fire on what the United States prioritizes. Americans would not have the stomach for long-term warfare having been reticent to support “forever wars” in the past and present. There are nationalist America First adherents in the Republican Party and peaceniks in the Democrat Party that resist war. How can U.S. leadership in the White House keep the country together during a time of war when inflation and jobs are top of mind and foreign policy is an afterthought?
Defense Leaders Recognize the Threats
“We are now facing two global powers, China and Russia, each with significant military capabilities, both who intend to fundamentally change the current rules-based order,” Milley said. “We are entering a world that is becoming more unstable, and the potential for significant international conflict between great powers is increasing, not decreasing.”
But Military Strategy Is Not Clear
That’s the threat, but where is the strategy? The Pentagon has released its National Defense Strategy but the White House has been tardy. The president’s National Security Strategy is being re-written again to take into account Ukraine efforts and Chinese saber rattling. It may not be released until September. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s defense strategy has unspecified buzzwords and fuzzy concepts such as “Integrated Deterrence;” “Campaigning;” and “Enduring Advantages.” Not to mention the Department of Defense’s efforts against climate change that do not answer the rise of great powers.
Can Biden Be a Juggler of Domestic and Foreign Policy?
Obviously there are classified versions of these battle plans to refrain from giving too many details to the enemy, but one has to wonder if the United States is prepared for a two-front contingency. For decades President Joe Biden was seen as an experienced foreign policy hand. These crises will require his utmost attention and Biden will have to juggle issues domestically and abroad.
Thankfully, Russia and China have few allies and the Americans have dozens, but it is clear that these friends look to the United States to offer fulltime leadership. The strategic underpinnings for guidance are just not there at this time. But it’s not too late to fix the strategy – or strategies. One good thing about the 24/7 news cycle and strident social media posts is that it creates pressure on political leaders to act. It may take a fulltime pressure campaign to encourage the whole of U.S. government to get in gear for a “forever cold war” against Russia and China that is brewing toward a hot shooting war – a World War Three scenario that no-one wants.
Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.