America’s flawed war strategies

For a nation that prides itself on having the most formidable military in the world, the following is an embarrassing paradox. The last real war the U.S. won, World War II, was more than three-quarters of a century ago. How could that be?

The answer is highly relevant to today’s National Defense Strategy, which is predicated on great power competitions with China as the “pacing threat” and Russia next in line in which the U.S. is to “compete, deter and, if war comes, defeat” any single adversary. It was and is the “strategies” that got it wrong. And even the best armed forces in the world could not overcome that fatal flaw.

For much of the Cold War, U.S. strategy called for a “two-and-a-half war” strategy until China was no longer deemed an enemy. That strategy directed the U.S. military to fight two simultaneous wars, against the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, and a “half-war” elsewhere. That half-war turned out to be Vietnam. Fortunately, we did not have to fight the other two. 

The Vietnam strategy was profoundly flawed, firstly because a series of administrations never understood the nature of that conflict and believed that gradual escalation would ultimately bring North Vietnam to the peace table. “Search and destroy” missions and “body counts” to kill as many of the enemy as possible, along with dropping greater tonnages of bombs on that region than we did in World War II, likewise did not work. 

Two-and-a-half wars became one-and-a-half wars until the Soviet Union collapsed. Then, we were searching for a strategy. When Saddam Hussein foolishly invaded Kuwait in 1990, the colossus that had been in place to take on the Soviet Union, along with some 50 allies, annihilated the world’s eighth-largest army in 100 hours. But that was hardly a war. 

September 11th brought the ill-conceived global war on terror that somehow was to be won by invading Afghanistan and Iraq a second time, and ultimately by drone strikes to eliminate terrorists. But like other wars and strategies, that did not end well. 

As China grew more assertive and Russia more belligerent, by mid 2014, the Obama-Biden administration invented the “4 + 1” strategy, a cousin of the “two-and-a-half war” construct. The U.S. was to deter and, in the event of war, defeat China or Russia or Iran or North Korea, plus violent extremism. The Trump administration modified that into a great power competition in which the aims of the National Defense Strategy (NDS) were to compete, deter and, if war came, defeat those usual suspects. 

Thus far, the Biden administration has tentatively accepted the NDS with principal attention on China and Russia, while preparing its own defense review. But the NDS is flawed for three basic reasons, making it inexecutable, unaffordable and unwise. Why? 

First, the terms “compete, deter and defeat” are aspirations, not strategy. Despite a just-finished classified study on China, nowhere are those terms defined; nor is it shown what each is meant to achieve. How, for example, is the U.S. to compete militarily with China and Russia? Is it freedom of navigation operations and flying bombers close to Russian territory? Or is it more than that? And what are these actions meant to achieve?

From what are China and Russia being deterred? Surely not militarizing tiny islets or the borders around Ukraine, conducting cyber theft, espionage and attacks shutting down pipelines and meat packing plants, intimidating neighbors or conducting active measures to disrupt and deceive the West. 

And if war comes, how does the U.S. defeat a country with 1.5 billion people or another with at least as many thermonuclear weapons as we have?

Second, what are the off-ramps in this great power competition that seems to be worsening? Does no one remember that a major cause of World War I was great power rivalry?

And last, how does the U.S. intend to fund a military for those so far diaphanous tasks when uncontrolled annual real defense cost growth is perhaps 5-7 percent a year and defense budgets will be flat at best?

The answer is that, like other strategies, this one is fatally flawed. There are options, however, if we are prepared to examine them. Why do we need to designate specific enemies? And why would strategies that deny an enemy potential gains not seem more attractive, particularly if those strategies are affordable?

My forthcoming book lays out some of these strategies. But if we do not change course, the current strategy is altogether too likely to follow the fate of past ones. And that will not be good for America or its friends.

Harlan Ullman, PhD. is UPI’s Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large,” is due out this year.  

Tags 9-11 Cold War Cold War Military doctrines National Defense Strategy Nuclear strategy Pentagon Vietnam war

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