Does ‘limited war’ mean limited risks for aggressors?

The National Defense Strategy (NDS) promulgated by the Department of Defense (DOD) last year was presented as something new, different and evolutionary — a change from the post-Cold War period to a novel security dynamic in which the United States now is challenged by near-peer competitors. It is a refreshing dose of strategic reality.

Former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman Mattis16 times Trump said ISIS was defeated, or soon would be Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief under investigation over Boeing ties | Trump uses visual aids to tout progress against ISIS | Pentagon, Amnesty International spar over civilian drone deaths Pentagon watchdog probing whether acting chief boosted Boeing MORE stated it this way: “Great power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.” The new strategy is intended to reflect that reality. It was freshly explained in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month by Elbridge Colby, a former DOD official who participated in drafting the NDS:

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“At its deepest level, it requires a fundamental shift in the way the DOD conceives of what is required for effective deterrence and defense. This is because the United States and its allies will be facing great powers — especially in the case of China. This is a dramatically different world than that which characterized the post-Cold War period, in which our armed forces could focus on ‘rogue states’ and terrorist groups because of the lack of a near-peer competitor.”      

It is true that the post-Cold War global security environment was complicated by the emergence of such diverse new threats as Islamist terrorism, “rogue states” armed with weapons of mass destruction and cyber warfare, among others. Those threats remain even as today’s strategic planners must turn — or return — to the dangers inherent in near-peer confrontations. At the same time, the challenges posed by Russia and China today are not fundamentally different from those previously presented by the Soviet Union and the pre-engagement People’s Republic of China.

Nor did those challenges disappear after the Cold War ended. Defense planning never stopped contemplating the potential danger emanating from the Soviet-cum-Russian and Chinese sources, whether they were called near-peer competitors, rising/declining powers, or something else.

In fact, while there are new features in today’s global security environment, the bi- and tri-polar
confrontations with China and Russia are essentially reversions to the ideological and existential competition of the Cold War itself. They differ only in degree, not in kind — it is still the same old story, a struggle between authoritarian and democratic systems. Today’s Russia is weaker than the former Soviet Union, but China is exponentially more powerful than it was during the
earlier period.

As such, “the way the Department of Defense conceives of what is required for effective deterrence and defense” requires a fresh look at how those concepts were applied during the Cold War and how effective they were in achieving U.S. goals then. It would seem that only after that reexamination is completed can an enlightened decision confidently be made as to whether “a fundamental shift” in strategy indeed is in order — and, if so, in what direction.

Instead, the NDS, or at least the public explanation of the unclassified summary, seems to have reached sweeping conclusions without having thoroughly examined the full implications of the original Cold War — even though that is the brave new world we have reentered. The failure to make, or at least explain, the complete analysis, is exemplified in the discussion of limited war in the Senate testimony, starting with the statement of the problem: “The once overwhelming U.S. conventional military advantage vis-a-vis these major powers has eroded and will continue to erode absent overriding focus and effort by the United States and its allies and partners.”

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That dire assessment goes on to assume that the United States and its allies will not take the necessary measures to restore a favorable correlation of forces, and therefore, that the West must lower its strategic aims in a future conflict with a near competitor: "Our armed forces, therefore, will need to shift from an expectation that they could dominate the opponent to one in which they must expect to be contested throughout the fight — and yet still achieve the political objectives set for them in ways that are politically tenable."

That is quite a leap to what might be considered a quasi-defeatist approach, based entirely on an assumption that Western leaders will not muster the political will to explain to their publics the costs and risks of allowing the present situation to continue and the need for corrective policies and investment.

Moreover, unlike the conflicts with Panama and Grenada during the Cold War and Iraq in the  post-Cold War era, there were no potential confrontations with Russia or China where the United States assumed it could dominate to the point where its forces would be uncontested. We always expected a fight, and prepared for it.

Even with overwhelmingly superior U.S. naval and air capabilities during the Korean War and in the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-96, Washington backed away from directly confronting China, while managing to protect the immediate security of its ally, the Republic of Korea, and its partner and erstwhile ally, the Republic of China on Taiwan.

Similarly, despite the cost in lives, treasure and American credibility of the protracted Vietnam War, Washington never challenged China or the Soviet Union for their roles in supporting Hanoi’s aggression against the South Vietnamese government and population. Nor did U.S. leaders ever threaten to unleash the American and South Vietnamese armies to launch a counter-offensive north of the 17th parallel dividing the two Vietnams, let alone to threaten regime change in North Vietnam.

So, the concept of limited war had a long and inglorious history during both the Cold War and the post-Cold War periods. The question that seems unanswered so far in the public accounting of the new National Defense Strategy is what lessons were learned from that experience. Did limited war deter aggressors from seeking their goals at another time under more favorable circumstances (e.g., Iraq under Saddam Hussein and North Korea under the Kims), or did it enable them to control the conflict by deploying only the resources they were prepared to lose? Had they learned they could rely on Western powers to manage escalation and provide risk- and cost-limiting off-ramps?  

The answers to those questions should help guide actual implementation of the NDS in the fraught security environment created by Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, singly or in concert against the West.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010.  He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and is a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.