Two decades of counterinsurgency battles did not prepare the United States Military for a Great Power confrontation. The Pacific is no place for short-range counterinsurgency systems, after all, and those weapons are useless deterrents against China.
By Richard Aboulafia for Foreign Policy
Major weapons-related news grabbed headlines twice over the past few months. First, a small horde of light aircraft and other weapons was left behind in the hasty U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Then, the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom partnered together in an effort known as AUKUS to create a small fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia’s navy.
These developments illustrate the two ends of the conflict spectrum: counterinsurgency and great-power competition. They also show how global conflict and weapons procurement often follow a cyclical pattern: For centuries, great powers have swung back and forth between these two poles. Now, as its “pivot to Asia” takes shape, the United States is in the middle of exactly this cycle—and its past two decades of prioritizing weapons for counterinsurgency warfare hasn’t done it any favors as the risk of confrontation with China only grows. The Pacific is no place for short-range counterinsurgency systems, after all, and those weapons are useless deterrents against China.
The weapons in Afghanistan are perfect illustrations of what’s needed for one end of the conflict spectrum. Abandoned light military transports, old-model helicopters, tactical unmanned aircraft systems, and propeller light attack aircraft are the kind of relatively inexpensive equipment used for low-intensity conflicts in remote locations—also known as counterinsurgency warfare, nation building, or (way back when) Queen Victoria’s Little Wars. These weapons don’t have any deterrent effect. They are simply used for fighting, and, once abandoned, they have nearly zero use. Their technology is unsophisticated, and without spare parts, they quickly become nonoperational.
The AUKUS submarines, by contrast, are at the opposite end of the conflict spectrum. They are useful for deterrence against—and, if necessary, conflict with—peer adversaries, such as China. They have much greater ranges, firepower, and, most of all, survivability. Tracking submarines is something of a black art—one Beijing has very little experience in and very little dedicated equipment to accomplish.
There is no overlap between these two types of newsworthy weapons. Nuclear submarines have little or no place in a counterinsurgency fight with, say, the Taliban. Neither do high-end fighter jets, hypersonic missiles, or stealth bombers. And the small transports, aging Black Hawk helicopters, and Super Tucano turboprops abandoned in Afghanistan have zero relevance in a great-power confrontation. They’d be liabilities in a Pacific war, not assets.
These two types of weapons and the news that bring them to your newspaper reflect the conflict cycle—not just in the United States but in other great powers. After a major conflict, such as the Napoleonic Wars, the World Wars, or the Cold War, many states believe big enemies have somehow been permanently vanquished and peer and near-peer adversaries are no longer a problem. They assume that given global security needs and resource constraints, weapons and force structure decisions should focus on counterinsurgency. Then, a more serious adversary comes along that reveals all of these assumptions to be a colossal mistake.
Consider the past 20 years in U.S. defense. After a post-Cold War decade of shrunken defense budgets, defense spending soared after 9/11. Adjusted for inflation, the federal budget for fiscal year 2000 was $464 billion. This increased to $820 billion by fiscal year 2011. It has since stayed relatively high—above $700 billion for the past few years, including the Biden administration’s first budget.
Most of this growth went to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider the Air Force and Navy, the two military services least involved in those wars. According to the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, between fiscal years 1990 and 2003, the Air Force’s budget averaged 24 percent of total U.S. Defense Department spending (minus the space and other spending over which the Air Force has little control, much of which has now been transferred to the Space Force). In the same period, the Navy’s share was 31 percent of the budget. The Army got 25 percent.
But after the defense budget surged, these budget shares changed radically. Between fiscal years 2004 and 2013, the Army’s share grew to an impressive 34 percent. The Air Force, deducting most space spending, fell to just 20 percent, and Air Force leaders who attempted to preserve funding for great-power systems lost their jobs.
The Navy’s share of the budget fell to 26 percent, and very little went to heavy weapons like ships and aircraft. That share would have fallen further if it wasn’t rescued by Marine Corps spending—the Navy pays for the Marines, and since Iraq and Afghanistan were mostly land wars, the Marines, along with the Army, did the bulk of the fighting.
Today, as U.S. troops are out of Afghanistan and largely out of Iraq, there is strong, growing bipartisan concern over China as a rising power. As with past cycles that saw great powers surprised by the emergence of a peer adversary, such as Britain and France with Germany in the decades leading up to World War I, the consensus on China as a threat—rather than as an emerging market or non-threatening but rising power—has been relatively sudden. As billionaire George Soros wrote in an August Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “relations between China and the U.S. are rapidly deteriorating and may lead to war.”
The U.S. military is not particularly well prepared for a confrontation with a strong and growing possible adversary. Over the last 20 years, heavy spending went to lightly armored vehicles, body armor, tactical and short-range reconnaissance systems, and short-range transport helicopters. Little was spent on the kind of strategic tools that make a great power great.
The Air Force is the best example of this. In the 1990s, the United States created the world’s best air dominance combat aircraft: the F-22. Rather than buy 750 of these—the original plan—production ended at just 187 aircraft, with the last one delivered in 2012, largely due to the counterinsurgency wars taking priority. Indeed, over the past decade, the argument that “it hasn’t even been used in Iraq or Afghanistan” was made by people against the F-22 and against funding other high-tech weapons. Similarly, the remarkable B-2 stealth bomber was terminated at 21 aircraft, down from the original 132. As a result of these and other cuts, the average age of Air Force aircraft is nearly 30 years old. This means increasing sustainment costs, massive bills for upgrade work to keep aircraft effective with modern technology, safety concerns due to aging airframes and systems, and of course the massive bill awaiting Washington when the geriatric jets need to be replaced.
Washington’s current situation is just the latest round of strategic amnesia by a great power. In the 1960s, the United States committed prodigious resources to fight communist guerrillas in Vietnam, even as Soviet power became a serious threat to Western Europe. Meanwhile, U.S. forces in Europe were at mere “tripwire” levels; it was generally believed that since the United States committed only weak forces to NATO, the only recourse to a Soviet invasion of Europe was the use of nuclear weapons—which may, or may not, have been true.
To this day, some believe the biggest question about the Vietnam War was how the United States could have won with better counterinsurgency techniques rather than the far more important question of whether Vietnam was a better use of resources than defending close Western allies against a direct peer adversary. If Americans had paid more attention to the latter, Vietnam could have become a useful lesson about the dangers of being strategically diverted by counterinsurgency.
U.S. and U.K. military postures reflected a similar pattern before World War II. After several decades of fielding small forces around the globe for relatively minor contingencies, the rise of Germany and Japan as serious strategic threats proved a major shock.
It goes back well before that. In the century after the Napoleonic Wars, Britain focused on small wars in places like, well, Afghanistan. By the early 1900s, its military was not well equipped for a confrontation with a peer adversary like Germany. Actor Rowan Atkinson’s Captain Blackadder, of the BBC series Blackadder Goes Forth, said it best: “I’d had 15 years of military experience, perfecting the art of ordering a pink gin and [propositioning women] in Swahili, and then suddenly, 4 1/2 million heavily armed Germans hoved into view. That was a shock, I can tell you.”
The situation today is merely another example of this phenomenon. The Afghanistan withdrawal was poorly executed and a human tragedy. But the Trump and Biden administrations both made the same wise decision: to get the U.S. military out of wars that have nothing to do with superpower confrontation or even major geopolitical concerns. Afghanistan isn’t even particularly relevant to counterterror operations these days, as counterterrorism expert Paul R. Pillar recently argued in Foreign Policy. But most of all, there are pressing concerns in the Pacific.
Now, the defense budget is again focusing on the systems that make the United States a great power. The last Trump administration budget and the first Biden administration budget feature all-time, record-high spending on research development test and evaluation, the part of the budget that creates new, high-tech weapons and the technology base for creating new systems. The Air Force will get its Next Generation Air Dominance fighter and its B-21 bomber, making good those drastic F-22 and B-2 cuts. The nuclear triad—land-launched missiles, submarines, and aircraft—will be recapitalized. And every Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in the country will have its pick of lightly armored vehicles—perfect for counterinsurgency and exactly nothing else—as lawn ornaments.
This strong defense budget trajectory, with a renewed emphasis on more capable, high-tech programs and other strategic tools, is part of a historical cycle. It also represents an opportunity for the United States to reflect on this cyclical pattern, learn from past mistakes, and hopefully stay focused on serious, long-term national interests.