The presidential debates are nearly upon us. Inevitably, they will turn to national security: Who are America’s greatest threats? How do we maintain world leadership in an era of “great power” competition? How big should our military be? How should it be used?
These are important questions, but the wrong ones. Concerns about military might, “combat overmatch,” and “kill chains” are irrational because we already have the best military in the world — even our adversaries know this and avoid open battle. Yet we struggle against lesser foes, from the Taliban to the Kremlin. If we’re honest, the United States has not won a major war since 1945. What’s going on?
Warfare has changed, but we have not, leaving us vulnerable. Our adversaries know and exploit this, which is why the United States struggles against weaker powers; they eschew outmoded paradigms of armed conflict, such as “conventional war” (think: World War II) and embrace new ones. It’s why they succeed.
War is getting sneakier. Armed conflict is going underground, into the complicated shadows. Occasionally it will bubble up into mainstream media and may look “conventional” for a brief time, before returning to the shadows. Russia has mastered this new way of war. During the Cold War, when the Kremlin wanted to put its boot on someone’s neck, it rolled in the tanks. Brute force squashed uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
That was the 20th century, when military might was power. Now, it’s a liability.
In 2014, Russia had enough conventional forces to blitzkrieg Ukraine but, instead, waged a shadow war with clandestine forces. Why? Because it allowed Russia to escalate the conflict in secret. It flooded the countryside with a ghost occupation force composed of Spetsnaz special forces, mercenaries such as the Wagner Group, “little green men,” and astroturfed proxy groups such as the Donbass People’s Militia. Dense propaganda and “active measures” further distorted the world’s perception of reality, making the conflict disappear from the global stage. Many outside the Ukraine did not know it was a shooting war, and still don’t. By the time the international community figured things out, Moscow’s conquest of Crimea was a fait accompli. Only then did the tanks, destroyers and other conventional-war weapons arrive. Strategic subversion, rather than brute force, won.
In the information age, weapons that bestow plausible deniability are more important than firepower, and this is driving war underground. Russia waged a shadow war in Ukraine, manufacturing the fog of war and exploiting it for victory. If the basic facts of a conflict are in question, how can the United States rally the world to fight a war that may not exist? We can’t. It’s an effective strategic offense by Russia, and it’s an example of what’s to come.
Ukraine is not unique, and the ongoing wars in Syria and Libya fit the same pattern. Warriors are masked, and the situation on the ground remains murky. The “Laws of War” do not matter, and it’s difficult to tell who is fighting and why. These armed conflicts reveal the changing character of war, just as the Spanish Civil War did before World War II.
While our adversaries fight in the present, the United States is mired in the past. Washington is building a super-expensive conventional military designed to win last century’s major wars, proving the adage that “Generals always fight the last war, especially if they won it.” They think the future of war will be World War II with better technology, imagining the South China Sea as Midway fought with Ford-class carriers and F-35 fighter jets. One look at the defense budget divulges all.
Budgets are moral documents because they do not lie. They show where we are placing our bets for winning future armed conflicts. Top military acquisitions over the past years are the F-35 and F-18 fighter jets, Ford-class aircraft carriers, B-21 bombers, Apache helicopters, submarines and destroyers — all conventional war weapons — yet we live in a post-conventional-war age. No wonder we struggle. The last time we fought conventionally was the Korean War, a stalemate. Every war since has been unconventional, and ultimately we did not win.
It’s doubtful that China, Russia or anyone else will attack us conventionally, because it would be suicide. Everyone knows this. Instead, they will come at us in sneaky ways, ones in which we struggle, so let’s prepare for that inevitability. Perhaps China and Russia already are.
But here’s the problem, and the question for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Biden pushes back at Democrats on taxes MORE and for President TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE. Warfare is getting sneakier, and our adversaries with it. Yet, secrets and democracy are incompatible, as the Church Committee concluded in 1976 and the more recent controversy surrounding Edward Snowden shows. Autocracies can wage war easily in secret, but democracies cannot — which also may explain the rise of autocracies everywhere.
So how does the United States fight secretive wars without losing our democratic soul? This is the most important national security question today, not how many F-35s are needed.
Sean McFate is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of five books, including “The New Rules of War: How America Can Win—Against Russia, China, and Other Threats” (2019). He is a professor of strategy at Georgetown University and an adviser to Oxford University’s Centre for Technology and Global Affairs. He served in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division before working as a private military contractor and as a military consultant.