U.S. defense strategy: 'Contain and engage' beats 'deter and defeat'

By Dr Harlan Ullman, Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Chinese military delegates arrive for the closing ceremony of the 13th National People's Congress on Friday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
Chinese military delegates arrive for the closing ceremony of the 13th National People's Congress on Friday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

March 18 (UPI) -- The National Defense Strategy published last year sets great power competition as the foundation for planning and thinking and directs the Department of Defense to "deter and if war comes defeat" a series of potential adversaries topped by China and Russia.

When asked about his most important priorities, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said, "China, China,China." And Russia is not far behind.


Iran, North Korea and violent extremism are also on the list. If rumblings from Pyongyang lead to ending the denuclearization negotiations, China may have a rival for the number one priority. However, the NDS is lacking in one very crucial area.

What will it take to deter and defeat China or Russia if war were to come? As the Commission on the NDS pointedly and tartly observed, no operational concepts have been developed to answer this question. Of course, U.S. combatant commanders have contingency and war plans. Yet, think about this question of deterring and defeating for a moment.


First, barring a catastrophic event, neither China nor Russia have any interest in starting a war. War could easily be global. In China's case, war would be economically destructive in the extreme cutting that country off from its markets and trading partners. As Russian doctrine makes clear, war is likely to be nuclear. Hence, who could "win" such a war in the thermonuclear age is probably meaningless.

Chinese and Russian leaders fully understand these conditions. As a result, their strategies are directed at the so-called gray areas well short of actual conflict. China's "belt and road" and militarization of offshore islets are exhibit A. Russian "active measures" and interference in Western politics as well as the pressure in Ukraine are exhibit B. And how effective has deterrence been in constraining these actions? The answer is not much.

The ultimate test of any military force is the ability to fight even though war may never occur. If there are other criteria why then is a military needed? However, an effective strategy need not and should not be based on the certainty of going to war. And that strategy should also take into account means to block, counter or prevent potentially damaging actions well short of the actual use of force.


Further, if war were to occur, given the extraordinary lethality of modern precision and thermonuclear weapons, the relatively immaculate and casualty free operations we experienced in the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns are unlikely to be repeated. Extensive battle damage and losses must be assumed. And how to make battle damage repairs and replace people and equipment are non-trivial issues. It took many months to repair Navy destroyers such as USS Cole, Fitzgerald and McCain. F-35's cannot be mass produced and nuclear aircraft carriers take years to build.

Worse, in an information age, Russia claims it is perfecting an electromagnetic Blitzkrieg, which its Chief of Defense Gen. Valery Gerasimov claims is four times more potent that conventional forces in terms of rendering our forces "deaf, dumb and blind" in the first phase of any conflict. Whether the general is uttering propaganda or not, a review done for the secretary of the Navy on cybersecurity suggests that we may have far more vulnerabilities than we realize. So what to do?

We know that containment worked during the Cold War. For the 21st century, containment can work again bolstered by "engagement" to deal with so-called gray area actions. In Europe, this leads to a "porcupine defense" that would blunt and do grave damage to any Russian incursions west. The defense would require large numbers of unmanned and swarming drones; copious anti-air, anti-surface and anti-vehicle missiles; electromagnetic systems to obliterate Russian command and control in its operational maneuver groups; and low cost sensors including low earth orbiting satellites that could be quickly deployed to ensure command, control, communications and reconnaissance.


A similar strategy applies to the Pacific with a mobile maritime line of defense to contain the Chinese military to the first island chain. Any Chinese forces venturing beyond that line would be destroyed as in the porcupine defense. In both cases, allies and partners are critical. And this is a defense that need not be as costly as the current NDS and NATO plans project. As important, this strategy would also focus on countering active measures and gray areas that currently China and Russia have virtually free rein.

The choice is clear: spend far more money on defense -- in the face of swelling debt and deficits -- or change the strategy. The risk is failing to address this question.

Dr. Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council. His latest book is Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts. Follow him: @harlankullman

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