America's two-front defense strategy is a ticking time bomb

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
U.S. President Joe Biden (L) listens to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as NATO heads of state and governments gather in Madrid on Wednesday. Photo by Paul Hanna/UPI
U.S. President Joe Biden (L) listens to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as NATO heads of state and governments gather in Madrid on Wednesday. Photo by Paul Hanna/UPI | License Photo

Warning: Those who start two-front wars lose.

Eighty-one years ago this month, after overrunning Western Europe, on June 22, 1941, Adolph Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa -- the invasion of the Soviet Union --embarking on a two-front war. He, like Napoleon 125 years earlier, lost and the Third Reich was destroyed.


Before publicly releasing its new National Security Strategy, the Biden administration should revisit strategies that took on two major adversaries more or less concurrently. That history is sobering and applies to America, raising what may be the most crucial, unaddressed strategic question facing the nation.

Has the United States committed a similar unforced error by opening a strategic two-front military confrontation against China as "the pacing threat" and Russia without defining what are the actual as opposed to hypothetical dangers posed by China and Russia to the United States and to global security?


During much of the Cold War, the United States maintained a "2 1/2 war" strategy against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and a very weak People's Republic of China. Vietnam showed the folly of the half-war strategy. Fortunately, the Soviet Union imploded. But that was then.

The past two administrations' strategic objectives were to "contain, deter and, if war comes, defeat" China and then Russia, followed by a list of lesser adversaries. But the Obama and Trump strategies were unachievable and unaffordable, emphasizing military power as the default solution.

China, Russia and lesser threats have not been contained or deterred in practice. A war that could easily become thermonuclear is unwinnable. And because of uncontrolled, real annual cost growth for every defense item from people to precision weapons and pencils of at least 5%-7%, the current force cannot be sustained, even with an $800 billion budget this year. The perplexing result is that the more spent on defense, the more the force shrinks.

The Trump strategy was also predicated on fait accomplis that have not occurred: a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and Russia seizing the Baltic states. But despite all the heated rhetoric, suppose China concluded that peaceful integration of Taiwan was the only realistic option and Russia understood that attacking a NATO member meant World War III. Should U.S. strategic thinking change, especially in light of the war in Ukraine that demonstrated how such pre-emptive attacks can be disrupted and defeated with the right strategy and weapons?


China is an economic and military power. Russia is a nuclear weapons and energy power. China has threatened the use of force, particularly against Taiwan, but has not used it. Russia has invaded a neighbor and threatened using nuclear weapons. Both are not bordered by allies.

But China and Russia have enormous weaknesses that are too often discounted or ignored. China's underclass of around half a billion people living at or below the poverty line exacerbates the demographic nightmare of a declining and aging population where fewer workers support more retirees amid a shortage of females; excessive debt largely due to a real-estate bubble; and pandemic lockdowns and assaults on the business and entrepreneurial classes that choke innovation and productivity. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that some form of internal implosion in China is possible.

Likewise, Russia has a declining population and an economy entirely dependent on energy exports. Its vaunted military has failed to meet expectations and in many ways has proven incompetent. It is being bled white in Ukraine. And its political system has no plan for leadership succession.

Strategy must recognize these weaknesses and realities. But will it? Claiming that this is a battle between democracies and autocracies, likewise, is a false dichotomy that is not helpful as a strategic foundation. The president's forthcoming visit to Saudi Arabia exposes the fatal flaw in this argument as the kingdom remains highly autocratic.


But the United States seems destined to continue on its current course. One of the few areas Republicans and Democrats in Congress agree is that more defense is needed whether or not that is the most appropriate response. That means the United States will confront two major powers simultaneously as the centerpiece of its strategy and attempt to field a military it cannot afford as part of that plan.

The United States has been there before. Vietnam, Afghanistan and the second Iraq War may not have been second fronts or Operations Barbarossa. But they failed.

Unless China or Russia implode or fundamentally change regimes, however unlikely, is the current U.S. strategy destined for a similar outcome? More importantly, is anyone thinking about that?

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "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." Follow him @harlankullman.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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