Matching the Dragon

In the Hutong
Watching the Skies
1512 hrs.

Robert Gates, a longstanding opponent to big-budget weapons systems like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a man who has made it his mission (rightly, in my opinion) to bring to heel the Fighter/Bomber mafia that has been running the U.S. Air Force since 1947, is singing a very different tune this week, all thanks to our friends in Chinese Aerospace. From Elizabeth Bumiller’s piece in The New York Times:

The American weapons that Mr. Gates was referring to included investments in a new long-range nuclear-capable bomber aircraft, which the Pentagon had stopped developing in 2009, as well as a new generation of electronic jammers for the Navy that are designed to thwart a missile from finding and hitting a target. At a Pentagon briefing on Thursday, Mr. Gates said that the jammers would improve the Navy’s ability to “fight and survive” in waters where it is challenged.

Mr. Gates was also referring to continued investment in the Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon’s newest radar-evading fighter jet.

The Pentagon provided no estimate on Saturday of the total cost of the three programs or others meant to counter the Chinese buildup in the Pacific.

If a skeptic like Bob Gates is changing his mind about these programs, China may well have pushed the U.S. past a critical tipping point in the nation’s perceptions of China’s intentions. Despite protests to the contrary today (“no, really, Mr. Gates, this is not about YOU. We just want to feel safe,”) these seem to be systems designed if not to defeat the U.S. military in actual combat, then to carve out a sphere of influence into which the U.S. could no longer comfortably project its influence.

What is Beijing Thinking?

In which case, you have to wonder what the Chinese were thinking by showing off two disruptive weapons systems in the space of three months. One school of thought would say that they are doing this for domestic reasons that have nothing to do with the U.S. That’s possible.

Another school would say that the Chinese wanted to give the Americans pause, but gave no consideration to the fact that doing so would fundamentally alter the way the PLA is perceived by fence-sitters in the U.S.

But a third school would suggest that the Chinese new precisely what they were doing, that they knew this would provoke some instant anti-Chinese sentiment on Capital Hill, bolster the Panda-Sluggers in the Pentagon, and cause America to start pumping cash into weapons systems designed to combat a “near-peer” power. In this case, the theory goes, the Chinese want to provoke the U.S. into an orgy of weapons acquisitions that effectively derail the U.S. economic recovery (or at least slash the investments the Obama administration wants to make into rebuilding infrastructure), undermining long-term competitiveness and leaving  the country even more dependent on Chinese financial support.

The last one seems a tad far-fetched. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like a stratagem straight out of Sun Tzu. After all, isn’t this how America ostensibly won the Cold War? By making the Soviets spend way more than they could afford on matching NATO all while having to pour more money into Afghanistan?

Four Strategic Directions

The ball is now in America’s court. China and the world will be looking to see how the U.S. responds. And the smart thing to do is nothing…yet.

It would be foolhardy to be provoked into a spasm of military spending, especially if the grand strategy behind China’s hardware ante-upping may not be about goading America and its allies into a confrontation, but to drive us into a costly and ineffective military buildup that the Security Council powers can no longer afford. What greater triumph could the West hand China than an America doubly weakened by profligacy in consumer credit and arms procurement, lessened in stature, and compelled by domestic politics to retreat behind the dubious security of its coastlines?

Reverting to the postures and strategies of the Cold War would not bring the result America desires. No, this deserves a better, wiser response, one more suited to the strengths, weaknesses, desires, and vanities of a would-be challenger.

1. Calculate – Think Grand Strategy, Don’t React

Time to go back into the planning rooms and devise a grand strategy for addressing a rising Chinese military power, one that does not presume unlimited defense budgets, and one that takes the growth of four rival powers on the Eurasian content as a given (those being China, India, Russia, and the EU.) How does America’s perception of threats evolve? And what, precisely, are China’s true aims? Not the aims they claim, or those Fox News gives them, but what they really seek, what they’re willing to sacrifice to achieve those aims, and how and why those aims might change.

Until the leaders of the services have a better grasp on China’s strategic calculus, they cannot respond with any effect.

2. Educate – Admit America is China-Ignorant, and Start Doing Something About It

It is time to accept that the Chinese know a lot more about America than America knows about them. And that’s not a matter of bad intelligence, but a matter of misplaced priorities. It is time to change that, starting with the Pentagon. As Commander Tom Henderschedt and Lt. Colonel Chad Sbragia wrote in the Armed Forces Journal last September:

Conversely, while many U.S. maritime services personnel are dedicated to China, few currently on the “China account” have visited China, fewer still speak Chinese and nearly none have enjoyed direct, day-to-day experience with the PLAN and PLAN strategic initiatives. Disappointingly, no experts are placed to affect critical Navy Department planning and policy efforts. The deep understanding by the PLAN allows its officers to be extremely predictive on how the U.S. will act, react and negotiate. The inverse is also true — our superficial approach does not allow deep, predictive analysis of PLAN strategic initiatives.

I would venture that, while Henderschedt and Sbragia contain their comments to members of the maritime (i.e., Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard) services, their comments apply to the Army and Air Force with equal or greater veracity. They counsel:

The most important near-term task is not establishing whether the PLAN is or is not a threat, but truly establishing a deep understanding of the PLA Navy, one that would rival the PLAN’s understanding of the U.S. Navy. Then, with clear penetration of Chinese maritime strategic thought, U.S. Navy “China hands” will be prepared to answer any call — from a PLAN threat or a PLAN partner.

China expertise can no longer reside solely among the China specialists in the U.S. armed forces. That knowledge needs to be disseminated, absorbed, debated, studied, and applied. Responding to a “Chinese threat” before truly understanding whether it is even a threat or whether it is something else entirely serves neither America nor China.

3. Rennovate – Don’t Prepare for Cold War II, Rebuild for The World As It Is.

Mr. Gates needs to make some radical changes to service leadership in the same way he took a fire hose to the Air Force. A few more warriors and fewer careerists atop the Pentagon would be a good start. But what really needs fixing is the military’s procurement system.

A list of prescriptions would be book-length, but it is clearly time to burn the old book, because things aren’t working. The focus has to return to a) superb research and development to keep the most recent innovations on tap, b) taking care of the people in uniform, getting them systems that enhance and protect them, and c) disrupting the capabilities of challengers in the most cost-effective way possible. Our challengers have learned to think asymmetrically about us. We need to start doing the same in return, rather than just buying more and bigger gold-plated systems.

We can argue about specifics, but America’s sword is not only tarnished, it is no longer the right weapon. Time for a rethink.

4. Communicate – The Future Lies With Bloodless Victors

Not everything as about knowledge and armaments. The Chinese know better than we that the best victories are won without fighting. And that means good communications. Elucidating America’s intentions around the world in a way designed to promote support for our goals, rather than have the US branded a loose cannon or worse, would be a good way to start. Mr. Obama began his administration that way, and the State Department is doing its part, but the military are, like it or not, diplomats in uniform, and they need to do more.

First, as Hendereschedt and Sbragia urge, there need to be more interactions between U.S. and Chinese military personnel, not to try to “win them over,” as that is unrealistic, but simply to know them better and to open more channels of communication.

Second, the military needs to craft a peacetime psychological operations capability that can work alongside (but separate from) an enhanced U.S. public diplomacy effort. Deterring a challenger without resorting to violence or coming close does not happen by accident: it is the result of a concerted effort to make clear the fruitlessness of a challenge. For too long the U.S. armed forces have shunted psychological operations into the reserve, calling upon its capability tactically and only in time of armed conflict. In this day and age, if you wait for the war to start psyops, you’ve waited too long. And it needs to be strategic, not tactical.

Finally, it is time to answer loudly the public criticism of small-team U.S. military engagement around the world. The oft-repeated wails of academics like Stephen Walt of Harvard that U.S. deployment in 140 countries is ridiculous only demonstrates their misunderstanding of the costs and benefits of such missions. Argue Iraq and Afghanistan all you want, but ignore the benefits of small-footprint presence at your peril. It is just those sorts of missions that are helping the U.S. military make it more challenging for China to achieve low-cost victories in the region. That’s communications, that’s asymmetric.

Again we can argue specifics, but these are the four strategic directions that the U.S. military should take in response to China today. To do less would be foolhardy, but to do more would be premature at best, and at worst could put us on a path to an avoidable and unnecessary conflict.