Week of March 15, 2019

America’s Hollow Military: Losing in war -games to Russia and China

Last week saw another sign of American military strength and technological superiority.   The USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000), a 16,000-ton, next generation, guided missile destroyer with advanced stealth technology, left its homeport of San Diego for its first operational period at sea.

“The Zumwalt is designed for stealth,” said Captain Carlson, the ships commanding officer.  “This aids her role as a multi-mission surface combatant and improves the fleet commander’s options for delivery of naval combat power”

The ship is larger than the currently operating Arleigh Burke destroyers and produces enough power to fire electrically powered weapons like directed energy weapons.

The ship is also armed with 80 missiles.

As impressive as that sounds, the fact is that despite having the largest military budget on earth, the US is falling behind in military power and technology.  In fact, recent war-gaming shows that the US would lose conflicts with either China or Russia.

RAND analyst David Ochmanek, who was involved in the war-gaming said, “In our games, when we fight Russia and China, Blue (the US) gets its ass handed to it.”

Much of the problem is due to the shortsighted and changing priorities of the US military since the end of the Cold War.

The end of the Cold War saw the US with a large conventional military designed to fight the Soviet Union across the plains of Europe.  With 9-11, the focus shifted rapidly to a military with cheaper and lighter armored vehicles that were ideal for insurgency, but vulnerable in a conventional war.  These vehicles were also able to be quickly deployed to Third World nations with limited transport infrastructure.  Meanwhile, American tanks were mothballed.

It wasn’t just the US Army that was focusing on insurgency.  The US Navy moved from its traditional “Blue Water” naval strategy and began to focus on ships that would fight near the shore and support ground forces.

The US military also started focusing on Special Forces, who were ideal for insurgency warfare, but too small in numbers for a conventional ground war in Europe.

However, as the US withdraws from battlefields in the Middle East and begins to look at the growing threat of China and Russia, the weapons mix in the American military is out of sync with the current threat.

What the War-games Show

 The RAND Corporation’s annual ‘Red on Blue’ war-game simulation found that the United States would be a loser in a conventional confrontation with Russia and China.

The RAND Corporation think tank in Santa Monica, California has hosted annual “Red on Blue” war-game simulations since 1952. The exercise purpose is to understand how the United States represented by ‘Blue’ can counter ‘Red’ adversaries. By modeling how adversaries could use of asymmetric strategies or weapons, Pentagon planners are forced to deal with unfamiliar threats. The goal is educating the military on how to formulate strategies for training and response for emerging threats and capabilities.

RAND’s ‘America’s Security Deficit’ released on March 7 found that despite spending $700 billion a year on an array of superweapons including stealth aircraft and aircraft carriers, the U.S. forces “suffer heavy losses in one scenario after another and still can’t stop Russia or China” from overrunning U.S. allies in the Baltics or Taiwan.

The primary assumptions of the war-games were that the United States fights Russia in the Baltics region and it battles China for Taiwan. In an overview of the war-games work done by RAND, Ochmanek said: “We lost a lot of people, we lose a lot of equipment, we usually fail to achieve our objectives of preventing aggression by the adversary.” He added, “Within 48 to 72 hours, Russian forces are able to reach a capital of a Baltic country.” In a comment to Fox News, he suggested that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be a military risk for China, but that would not stop it from prevailing. Ochmanek also added another threat is missiles from the enemies. “… salvos that are so great that we cannot intercept all the missiles.”

How did the US go from Strength to Weakness?

US military policy has been whipsawed by politics for the last thirty years.

After the USSR suffering a financial collapse in 1991, the U.S. military was rated as omnipotent.  The result was defense spending cutbacks and a major growth in NATO membership.

RAND highlights that the post-Cold War expansion of NATO to include former Warsaw Pact members in Eastern Europe and Baltic States created undefined U.S. security obligations. Coupled with China’s economic success funding a rapid offensive military modernization, America now faces “vulnerabilities in U.S. power-projection capabilities.”

Many of the U.S. high-tech weapons systems acquired over the last two decades have value. But weapons deployed to big land bases and giant aircraft carriers are now vulnerable to Russian and Chinese advances in long-range precision-guided missiles.

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, who has decades of RAND war-gaming experience, recently warned: “In every case I know of, the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”

Work cautioned: “Whenever we have an exercise and the Red Force really destroys our command and control, we stop the exercise” because it is exceedingly difficult to lead from a command post with blank screens and radio static.”

Ochmanek identifies the growing “Red” arsenals of “smart” weapons as an existential threat to “things that rely on sophisticated base infrastructure like runways.  Fuel tanks are going to have a hard time.” Regarding the wisdom of building $13 billion carriers, “Things that sail on the surface of the sea are going to have a hard time.”

The RAND study also found that huge Army supply bases and the NATO Brigade Combat Teams across Europe are virtually undefended from cruise missiles, drones, and helicopters, “because the Army largely got rid of its mobile anti-aircraft troops.”

“If we went to war in Europe, there would be one Patriot battery moving, and it would go to Ramstein. And that’s it,” said Work.  The US have 58 brigade combat teams in Europe, but no anti-air and missile defense capabilities to handle a barrage of missiles from Russia.

RAND also war-games cyber and electronic attacks by the Russians and Chinese.  The scenarios show both countries crippling the US communications networks.

The RAND study specifically focus on the need to invest about $24 billion in missiles to shoot down ‘Red’ offensive missiles, aircraft, and drones. A short-term fix would include buying lots of the Army’s new Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense (MSHORAD) batteries — Stinger missiles mounted on Stryker armored vehicles. Unfortunately, the Stryker is one of the new generation of armored vehicles that is ideal for insurgencies but very vulnerable to Russian armored vehicles.

The long-term response requires investment in lasers, railguns, and high-powered microwaves to shoot down incoming missiles.

RAND complimented the Trump administration’s 2020 defense budget proposal that plans a decades-early retirement of the USS Harry Truman carrier and cuts two amphibious landing ships. Money is being reinvested in ground-based air and missile defenses, plus the rollout of Marine Corps F-35 jump-jets that can take off from tiny ad hoc airstrips.

The good news for the US is that China and Russia haven’t finished their military modernization.  That means the biggest threat is 10 to 20 years down the road.  If the US military starts to reprioritize, it can reduce the risk.

The US also has a large, mothballed tank force that could be reactivated and sent to Europe – providing they can acquire the manpower to operate and maintain them.

RAND suggests moving away from large, fixed or slow-moving targets that are vulnerable to hypersonic missiles or missile barrages.

Ironically, some of the strategies are like those employed by NATO in the early Cold War years.  The US Marine Corps strategy of relying on F-35 jump jets is reminiscent of the British decision to build and deploy the Harrier jump jet.  It was designed to operate on roads or small open areas in a wartime scenario, where the airfields have been destroyed.

Jump jets also can be deployed to civilian container ships just as the British turned the civilian ship, Atlantic Conveyor, into an “aircraft carrier” during the Falkland Islands War in 1982.  This tactic makes it harder for the Chinese or Russians to totally destroy carrier-based aircraft in a conflict.

However, new strategies are frequently disliked by bureaucracies and those in control.  For instance, the Marine Harrier jump jet has always been opposed by the US Navy for fear that it may mean cutbacks in aircraft carrier production.  Senior Naval admirals are frequently pilots and former aircraft carrier captains and the idea of placing jump jets on small ships rather than a large carrier is an anthemia to them (just as pilotless drones are opposed by senior Air Force officers).

In the end, the US needs more than new equipment.  Its senior officers, who grew up fighting insurgency war in the Middle East, must change their thinking to cope with a new type of warfare.

Then they must sell the idea to the politicians.