Congress is finalizing the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018. The White House and Pentagon emphasized readiness over modernization in their budget proposal. The future of U.S. military technological superiority relies on the funding it receives; withholding cash won’t be sustainable for much longer as China throws near-limitless amounts of money at military research and development programs. If the U.S. intends to maintain military superiority through technological superiority, it has to fund it.
The United States military has been adapting to fight unconventional wars against globally dispersed non-state actors for over two decades. Peacekeeping operations in the 1990s, the Global War on Terror in the 2000s, and now the campaign to defeat ISIS has driven Pentagon procurement and doctrine toward fighting small wars.
Two events shocked the American national security community and redirected the Department of Defense to once again focus on high intensity conventional war – the Russian annexation of Crimea and the drastic modernization of China’s military.
In 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the Defense Innovation Initiative – now known as the Third Offset Strategy. The direction of the U.S. military would focus on outpacing our adversaries’ technological development in order to maintain America’s asymmetric military edge. As Secretary Hagel argued, technological superiority has been the foundation of U.S. military dominance for decades.
Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel listens to a briefing from DARPA officials at the Pentagon
The Third Offset is a reaction to Russia and China devoting a substantial amount of resources to counter U.S. military advantages through military modernization and technological investment. They are particularly concerned with U.S. air and sea dominance as well as the massive command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (C4ISR) advantage it possesses. C4ISR is the collection of capabilities that allow our military to excel at information dominance, battlespace awareness, and rapid decision making.
Chinese military modernization programs have focused on the ability to implement an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy. A2/AD is the deployment of weapons systems and military forces in a region with the intention to see an adversary’s risk calculation breach “high” or “unacceptable” levels during planning in order to prevent regional intervention all together. China has devoted resources and manpower toward creating massive air defense bubbles with high-end surface-to-air missile systems.
Chinese militarization of the South China Sea and investment in advanced anti-ship ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons is an attempt to implement a region wide A2/AD strategy aimed at pushing the United States away from its shores and beyond the first island chain.
The Chinese HQ-9, a surface-to-air missile unit
The A2/AD threat is real and it poses a real challenge to U.S. military operations should there be a conflict with China. In 2009, the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force collaborated on a new operational concept to counter A2/AD problem sets called AirSea Battle (ASB). It outlines a concept that seeks to ensure freedom of action in the global commons. ASB aims to develop networked, integrated forces capable of attack-in-depth to disrupt and destroy adversary forces in a contested environment. The objective is to enable concurrent or follow-on operations as part of a larger conflict designed to clear a path through an adversary’s defenses.
The ASB title was dropped but the concept lived on and continued to evolve. In 2016, the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC) was developed. JAM-GC is an update to ASB that changes joint force operations and focuses on enhanced all-domain integration across services in order to develop a force that can ensure freedom of action in the global commons despite increasingly sophisticated A2/AD threats.
The rate at which America’s near-peer competitors, especially China, are able to keep pace with military technology development is worrisome. The United States’ ability to act freely and project global power is at stake, and with that, its status as the global superpower. China is ahead of the U.S. on hypersonic weapon development, quantum communications, and long range anti-ship missiles. The Chinese also continue to steal U.S. and allied technical information on weapons systems and advanced technologies. Most notably, hundreds of gigabits worth of technical drawings and engineering information on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter were stolen by Chinese hackers.
The U.S. military must continue to think about countering conventional adversaries through unconventional means. The United States still maintains a serious advantage over the Chinese in C4ISR, sub-surface warfare, high-performance aircraft, air and sea-lift capabilities, and precision-guided munitions, not to mention our network of regional allies with modern militaries. However, these advances alone are not enough to counter China’s advances and ensure U.S. military dominance in a contested environment.
A B-2 bomber and two F-117s fly in formation
Investment in the Third Offset is critical to enabling the U.S. warfighter uninhibited access to the battlefield wherever it may be. JAM-GC is good at addressing the near term environment that U.S. may have to fight in, particularly in the Asia-Pacific. The emphasis on deep strike capabilities with U.S. strategic bombers and long-range standoff weapons confronts the reality that near-shore naval operations will be too risky at the onset of a conflict.
Procurement of the B-21 bomber, long-range anti-ship missiles, and a heavy investment in naval drones will enable U.S. forces to penetrate China’s A2/AD bubble and operate freely. However, these weapons are a long way away from being fielded and require the funding necessary to become fully operational .
In the meantime, the Department of Defense must continue to support joint efforts to create, implement, and continue to update an operating concept that will ensure U.S. military superiority in contested environments using the equipment it has right now. Decades of counterinsurgency operations have degraded the U.S. military’s ability to compete with China. JAM-GC in conjunction with the Third Offset will be the difference between a successful first engagement and crippling defeat. If war breaks out, maintaining the technological edge will ensure that the United States is ready to fight and win.
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Michael Montemalo is a master’s candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He is in the Security Policy Studies program, specializing in defense analysis, strategic concepts, and military history. Michael focuses regionally in East and Southeast Asia, with an eye on China. He writes on maritime security issues, military technology, and geopolitics. He is from Rochester, New York.