Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has the United States and its allies faced the prospect of defeat in the event of a major conventional conflict. Having watched the successes of U.S. and coalition forces over the past two decades, prospective adversaries are investing in a range of capabilities and tactics intended to leverage their advantages and exploit U.S. weaknesses. Unless successfully countered, prospective adversaries may be able to deny the U.S. the ability to project power into contested regions or even defeat U.S. combined arms forces.
Many of these efforts fall under the general heading of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD). Most of the focus of discussion regarding the A2/AD challenge has centered on the deployment of advanced, long-range precision weapons systems such as the Chinese DF-21 “carrier killer” ballistic missile or the Russian S-300 air defense system. Equally challenging, however, is the ability of prospective adversaries to employ masses of relatively simple platforms and weapons such as light, fast attack boats or older-generation attack aircraft to overwhelm superior Western systems or simply exhaust their magazines.
The United States needs to recognize that once again it is engaged in a long-term competition that pits our ability to project effective military power into regions of vital national interest such as the Western Pacific against regional A2/AD challenges. Investments in next-generation air and sea power, systems such as the stealthy F-35, long-range bomber and newer Virginia-class nuclear submarine with the enhanced payload module, will be critical to countering the A2/AD threat. These systems work against the sensor and C3 networks critical to an effective A2/AD campaign.
An effective competitive strategy to counter the A2/AD challenge also needs to invest for the long-term in game changing capabilities that can render irrelevant current investments by prospective adversaries. In particular, the U.S. needs to invest in capabilities that undermine prospective adversaries’ quantitative superiority. Two such capabilities are directed energy and hypersonic weapons. The former would address the current quantitative imbalance between offensive threats and defensive magazines. The latter could negate the effect of long-range, high performance air defenses.
It is time for the U.S. military to recognize that its preferred way of war is no longer viable. The U.S. needs to invent a new way of war and to acquire capabilities that undermine prospective adversaries’ competitive advantages while leveraging our emerging advantages or creating new ones.
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