#16 - Forget “Near-Peer Adversary” - What's Old is New: Welcome to the Bipolar World
近似对手 - Jin4 Si4 Dui4 Shou3 - Near-Peer Adversary
Directly from the 29 November 2022 China Military Power Report: “The 2022 National Security Strategy identifies the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the only competitor with the intent and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order.” It is officially time to bury the term “near-peer adversary.” This language underestimates the aforementioned PRC threat. Simultaneously, its use inflates the threat capability of Russia, Iran, and North Korea, each of which are not truly near-peer. The PRC governs the largest economy, largest military, and largest population of any competitor or adversary of Washington in the history of the US. This alone should be enough to justify jettisoning the term, but let us take a deeper look.
Near-peer is derived from the post-Cold War American mindset. US power was globally dominant post 1945 and unparalleled after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. Every challenger to the US world order was either defeated in detail or heavily contained by US military forces. In hindsight, no single challenger ever truly matched US power. Yet the PRC is an unparalleled adversary.
To determine why, we will turn to Barry Posen’s landmark 2003 paper Command of the Commons. In it, Posen outlines the sources of US hegemony from a post-90s perspective, a time period in which most agree that the US was without peer. The following are the most salient points from the paper.
1. (From 2003) The US maintains complete command of space which allows Washington to collect information inland. Even if space assets were destroyed, the US would quickly destroy adversary assets and build back stronger.
1A. Four years after the publication of Commons, the PRC demonstrated anti-satellite capability. Since then, China’s missile inventory and space program have grown considerably, calling into question US ability to command space. It remains very unclear if US military forces will enjoy space dominance in any future fight. It is equally unclear if the US would be able to quickly destroy (more than just degrade) the Chinese space network. Washington could rebuild its space constellation, but it is also possible that the rebuild would not be rapid enough to provide support during a crisis scenario.
2. US airpower is able to strike targets deep inland.
2A. The proliferation of advanced Russian and Chinese air defense systems has significantly curtailed the operational freedom of American airpower since the 2000s. At the same time, the US has reduced its planned purchase of 5th generation aircraft by roughly half. US airpower’s ability to consistently strike deep targets on mainland China is not assured.
3. US ground forces have access to timely and high-volume airpower.
3A. In terms of airpower, Washington faces the same problems as above in 2A. It is unlikely that US forces operating in the first island chain will have access to airpower as was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US military spent twenty years fighting enemies with no air, missile, or space forces to speak of. US ground forces must adapt to operating in a contested environment.
4. US GDP is more than twice the size of any competitor.
4A. With Chinese GDP closing in on 75% the size of the US economy, this is clearly no longer the case.
5. The US has an advantage in the integration and management of large scale industrial and information technology projects.
5A. With the PLA building the largest Navy in the world and maintaining a momentary lead in missile range and quantity, it is unlikely that the US maintains the industrial advantage it once had. US weapons are arguably higher quality than the PLA’s and generally work as advertised, but there are shortfalls. In key industrial areas such as hypersonic missiles and automated ammo manufacturing, Beijing has thoughtfully created overmatch.
6. The US recruits and retains the most skilled and trained military members in the world.
6A. Quality of military manpower is likely to remain a US advantage for decades. The US has more capital per individual to invest in training and education than China. While the performance of Chinese battalions in combat is an open-ended question (even to planners in Beijing), US military units are emerging from twenty years of war while simultaneously maintaining high-tempo overseas operations. US military institutions have a proven track record of delivering combat units capable of fighting effectively (as well as training partners and allies to do the same, as in Ukraine). However, US military end strength is less than what will likely be required to deter or fight against the PRC.
7. The US advantage in nuclear attack submarines guarantees command of the seas.
7A. The US critical advantage in subs could arguably be the most operationally significant dimension of capability in a fight with the PRC. Under current projections, this advantage is eroding. Congress and the US Navy should form an emergency task force to right-size sub programs and acquisitions for this decade and the next. Significant additional funding and process refinement is required for this effort.
8. The US maintains an arsenal of highly specialized and effective aircraft dedicated to the suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD).
8A. As mentioned in 2A/3A, there are now hard limits on US airpower which apply equally to SEAD aircraft.
9. The US maintains a stockpile of advanced munitions.
9A. As we have seen during the Ukraine War, it is clear that the US as well as other NATO allies were never prepared to fight. US and allied ammunition inventories were maintained at 50% or below wartime requirements (this Congressional Research Service report released before Ukraine is highly instructive, see bottom of the report for conclusions). At this point in time the US certainly does not have a stockpile of the required munitions ready, though there are readily implementable ideas and plans to remedy this deadly error. Even if Beijing does not have a sufficient stockpile, the PLA is now also clued in and will begin manufacturing the required material. At best, this traditional US advantage is moot when a peer adversary has a similar stockpile.
10. US basing structure is unparalleled.
10A. This is generally still true. No other nation in the world retains the number and quality of overseas bases that the US has access to. This is a result of Washington and the American people’s enduring interest in making allies and building partnerships around the globe. Neither China nor Russia can currently attempt to rival American diplomatic acumen or genuine interest in making friends abroad.
Unfortunately, geography conspires to limit the effectiveness of current US basing structure within the region that matters, the first island chain. Recently announced basing plans in the Philippines and on-going cooperation with Taiwan and Japan help, but Taiwan is the archstone of the first island chain. Without US military forces based on Taiwan, Washington is not postured to deter Beijing.
Simultaneously, the PRC is attempting to open new military bases across the world at record pace. Ports, sites, and dual-use facilities in Djibouti, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka will only be the first step in a growing network of infrastructure in the decades to come. Ultimately, this basing network, even when fully developed, is still likely to fall short of US basing infrastructure. Bases will likely remain an enduring US advantage.
11. The US maintains a robust Combatant Command (COCOM) structure.
11A. Manpower quantity woes aside (as discussed in 6A), the COCOM structure is alive and functioning well, as evidenced by current operations throughout Europe and Asia. This command structure divides the world into separate regions each with a single overall military commander who reports directly to the President.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
Less than half of the traditional sources of US overmatch remain after twenty years of sustained preparation on the part of Beijing and Moscow. Particularly painful is the loss of air combat dominance, a key capability that much of US defense planning is built around. Congress and the US government will need to conduct serious planning and funding efforts to remedy these gaps where possible and plan to fight despite them when required. At the same time, Washington will need to rely on allies and partners more than at any time since WWII. It remains to be seen if NATO and the Quad are sufficient alliance mechanisms, or if these structures need to be replaced with a US-led global security architecture.
While the PRC has emerged as a peer competitor against the US, Washington must still prepare to deter and fight against a range of regional adversaries (Russia, Iran, North Korea). New defense concepts are required to address a threat landscape that contains one main adversary with multiple regional adversaries all working in loose coordination. Specifically, the Department of Defense needs to reverse the 2012 decision to abandon the planning construct to fight two major wars near-simultaneously. There is much work to be done and little time to accomplish it.