It turns out that adversaries took careful note of the way the United States and its allies used air dominance in all its operations. They reshaped their defense plans to make inroads on that asymmetric advantage. They are building advanced missiles, aircraft and subsystems, and there's also a world market for their best wares.
For all these reasons, conventional deterrence is moving up the list of jobs for America's military. Adm. Michael Mullen, the current chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "A big part of credibility, of course, lies in our conventional capability. The capability to project U.S. military power globally and conduct effective theater-level operations across the domains of land, sea, air, space, cyberspace and information -- including the capability to win decisively -- remains essential to deterrence effectiveness. We must therefore address our conventional force structure and its readiness as a deterrent factor, especially after seven years at war." Mullen wrote that analysis in his article "From the Chairman: It's Time for a New Deterrence Model," in the fall 2008 issue of Joint Force Quarterly.
No one is suggesting that deterrence in this multipolar world will be the same as the Cold War. Far from it. For one thing, the United States will not have the same economic dominance it once enjoyed. The U.S. economy will still probably be the biggest for a time, but economic and financial peers are already on the scene. Some forecast that China's economy may grow fast enough to overtake the United States at some point in the coming century.
With China and other nations, military deterrence will be one part of a much wider relationship encompassing trade agreements, financial deals, diplomacy and yes, other competition for global influence as China navigates its "peaceful rise."
Instead of spies and the Berlin Wall, the deterrence of the 21st century will include gala state dinners, toasts with strong liquor and a shifting series of international consortia and negotiations on everything from trade to climate change.
However, low-level military friction is likely to be a constant. Russia will be active on its borders, and China will continue to build global ties. Expect the spheres of influence of the major world powers to collide from time to time. Conventional deterrence will have a big role in shaping those collisions.
(Part 4: The changing face of 21st century war and the growing need to maintain U.S. conventional air superiority around the world.)
(Rebecca Grant, Ph.D., is a senior fellow of the Lexington Institute, a non-profit public-policy research organization based in Arlington, Va.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)