As President Obama struggles to find the right policy prescriptions for dealing with the growing challenge of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), other parts of the world are ripe with challenges calling for Washington's attention. In the economically dynamic Asia-Pacific region, the People's Republic of China, through a variety of tactics, is challenging Washington's military dominance. If America found itself in a conflict with Beijing while attempting to use the same military platforms and strategies to fight a foe like ISIS, it could find it is militarily ill-equipped and unready for the challenge.


At present, Washington is well-suited to the task of taking on ISIS. U.S. airpower aboard aircraft carriers or short-range strike aircraft at present can surge quickly almost unchallenged and strike targets at will throughout Iraq and even in Syria if needed. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can rapidly move into areas of surveillance interest, gather intelligence, and even strike targets largely without fear of reprisal. Even the most vilified of options, placing large amounts of "boots on the ground," if needed to stop, say, an ISIS march on Baghdad or Erbil, would be operationally possible as ISIS forces would be unable to stop an American or allied build-up. Indeed, one of the greatest military assets the United States has taken for granted since the 1991 Gulf War — being able to surge large amounts of military assets into a theater of combat operations — would be something Washington could very much count on against ISIS if the moment ever came. America could largely use the same types of assets and strategy it has relied on since the end of the Cold War — building forces in mass near a conflict zone, short range airpower, carriers based offshore, long-range strike aircraft (B-52, B-1 and even B-2 bombers) and cruise missiles to strike possible ISIS targets at will.

Unfortunately, if the United States found itself in a conflict with China, whether to honor treaty commitments to Japan or the Philippines or in some unforeseen circumstance, military assets and strategies that would prove lethal against an adversary like ISIS would be ineffective against Beijing.

China's military over the last two decades has set out to transform itself from a largely bloated and obsolete continental force that focused on countering a Soviet attack to a modern, 21st-century military working toward projecting power out into the East and South China Seas. It has focused its efforts on a strategy named by Western analysts "Anti-Access/Area-Denial" or "A2/AD." Having studied the last two decades of U.S. combat operations, China has worked to remove areas of presumed U.S. strength and in fact turn them into weaknesses. The goal of such a strategy is quite simple: keep U.S. forces out of areas where China feels it should assert its authority or has "indisputable sovereignty." This involves developing and deploying large amounts of ballistic, cruise and now hypersonic missiles, anti-submarine sonar nets, over 80,000 sea mines, ultra-quiet conventional submarines, cyber weapons and various other systems all in an effort to deny American forces the ability to mass forces in and around China's coastline and near seas. If U.S. forces like aircraft carriers were to approach a conflict zone, China could launch new "carrier-killer" missiles with a range of 1,500 kilometers. If U.S. short-range strike aircraft and fighter jets seemed ready to attack or join in the fray, Beijing could launch large follies of cruise missiles at U.S. air bases in Japan and possibly as far as Guam, striking jets on the ground. If such aircraft were to survive and attempt to attack targets on the Chinese mainland, they would face one of the world's most powerful air defense networks.

So how can America prepare to defend itself, its allies and its interest against two very different challenges? For starters, the U.S. military budget, considering the vast array of challenges it could be asked to tackle around the globe, needs to become once again a priority. Ideas like sequestration need to be scraped. Washington must also begin the development of military assets that can survive in A2/AD environments as well as more conventional conflicts. Stealthy, long-range aircraft that can launch from carriers and attack targets in nations like China, Iran and even non-state actors that are developing A2/AD strategies, is crucial. Also, a stealthy next generation long-range bomber must receive proper funding and be delivered in adequate numbers to ensure America retains the ability to attack targets from distance.

Clearly, the challenge presented by ISIS will be a multi-year effort. At the same time, Washington must look to future challenges that will require different types of military hardware and require critical investments. America can certainly balance these two very different types of military challenges. The costs of not doing so are too great to imagine.

Kazianis serves as managing editor of the Washington-based international affairs magazine The National Interest. He also serves as a senior fellow (non-resident) at the China Policy Institute. The views expressed are his own.