During the Cold War, the Pentagon built the greatest naval and air forces the world had ever seen, endowing the United States with the superpower ability to land huge military forces anywhere in the world, at any time, whether invited in or not.
So it was that Washington, using its armada of aircraft carriers, cruise missile-launching submarines, fast cargo ships, long-range bombers, airlifters, and air refueling fighters, could eject the Iraqis from Kuwait (1991), bomb Serbia (1999), kick over the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (2001), and knock off Saddam and his cronies (2003). Everybody else had to meekly follow along (or sit on the sidelines).
But now the party's over. The United States, Pentagon strategists say, is quickly losing its ability to barge in without permission. Potential target countries and even some lukewarm allies are figuring out ingenious ways to blunt American power without trying to meet it head-on, using a combination of high-tech and low-tech jujitsu.
At the same time, U.S. naval and air forces have been shrinking under the weight of ever more expensive hardware. It's no longer the case that the United States can overwhelm clever defenses with sheer numbers.
As Defense Secretary Robert Gates summed up the problem this month, countries in places where the United States has strategic interests -- including the Persian Gulf and the Pacific -- are building "sophisticated, new technologies to deny our forces access to the global commons of sea, air, space and cyberspace.''
Those innocuous words spell trouble. While the U.S. military and strategy community is focused on Afghanistan and the fight in Marja, others – Iran and China, to name two – are chipping away at America's access to the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf and the increasingly critical extraterrestrial realms.
"This era of U.S. military dominance is waning at an increasing and alarming rate,'' Andrew Krepinevich, a West Point-educated officer and former senior Pentagon strategist, writes in a new report
. "With the spread of advanced military technologies and their exploitation by other militaries, especially China's People's Liberation Army and to a far lesser extent Iran's military and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the U.S. military's ability to preserve military access to two key areas of vital interest, the western Pacific and the Persian Gulf, is being increasingly challenged.''
At present, "there is little indication that China or Iran intend to alter their efforts to create 'no-go' zones in the maritime areas off their coasts,'' writes Krepinevich, president of the non-partisan think tank, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
What will save America's bacon, Gates and others hope, is something called the Air-Sea Battle Concept. Problem: It has yet to be invented.
The most worrisome of the "area denial/anti-access'' strategies being deployed against the United States (and others) is by China, which groups its defenses under the term "shashoujian,'' or "assassin's mace.'' The term refers to an ancient weapon, easily concealed by Chinese warriors and used to cripple a more powerful attacker.
In its modern incarnation, Krepinevich explains, shashoujian is a powerful combination of traditional but sophisticated air defenses, ballistic and anti-ship missiles, and similar weapons to put at risk nearby U.S. forces and regional bases, together with anti-satellite and cyberwar weapons to disable U.S. reconnaissance and command-and-control networks.
Dennis Blair, the top U.S. intelligence official, described these developments in detail in a report to Congress
last month, adding that taken together, they "improve China's ability to execute an anti-access and area-denial strategy in the western Pacific.''
Iran's area-denial arsenal includes coastal and inland missile batteries, ballistic missiles to threaten U.S. bases and Arabian oil facilities, mines and shallow-draft missile boats
that can quickly swarm around heavy, slow-moving U.S. warships. Iran's ability to threaten any would-be invaders, or simply to shut off access to the Gulf, would be enhanced if it acquires a nuclear weapons capability, which some analysts believe could happen
within President Obama's current term in office.
As these new challenges have grown, America's air and naval forces have been quietly shrinking, a function of the staggering increase in complexity and cost of the hardware. Although other factors are at play, the bottom line is that the Pentagon can afford fewer planes and ships because each one costs more and more. As former Lockheed Martin chairman Norm Augustine pointed out in 1983
, the cost of a fighter aircraft has quadrupled every 10 years, since the dawn of the age of aviation.
fighter, for instance, originally cost about $35 million each (adjusted for inflation). It is being replaced by the F-35, currently priced at $266 million each. The pattern holds for the F-22, which the Pentagon has bought to replace its F-15s, and the B-1 and B-2 bombers built to replace B-52s and F-111s. Small wonder the Air Force inventory of fighter-attack planes and bombers has sagged 20 percent during the past 15 years from 2,073 to 1,649.
The Navy also has fallen victim to the rising-cost, falling-inventory phenomenon. During the Vietnam War it boasted 932 warships. By 1985 the Navy could barely maintain 571 ships (despite the Reagan administration's rallying cry of a "600-ship Navy!''). Today's Navy has dwindled to 283 expensive warships.
Robert Work, currently the under secretary of the Navy, pointed out as a private researcher last year that not only is the current naval force inadequate for a bust-in-the-door mission, the Navy's plans for a larger future fleet are still
inadequate – and unaffordable to boot. The Navy's planned future fleet of 313 ships, he wrote in a major paper on naval strategy
, "lacks the range to face increasingly lethal, land-based maritime reconnaissance/strike complexes (networks), or nuclear armed adversaries.'' And, he said, it ignores the growing challenge of China's shashoujian.
Anyway, Work added, "the signs are that the Navy's plans are far too ambitious given likely future resource allocations ... the Navy needs to scale back its current plans; they are simply too ambitious for expected future budgets.''
So what's the plan? The plan is to develop a plan, for now being called the Air-Sea Battle Concept. The idea is based loosely on a strategy the Army came up with during the Cold War when the generals realized they were out-manned and out-gunned by the Red Army. Their solution was AirLand Battle
, based mostly on the early work of Army Gen. Donn Starry, who advocated using closely coordinated air and ground combat power to attack deep into the enemy's rear at the outset of the fight, rather than waiting for the enemy to advance up to "the front.''
AirLand Battle became a reality after much headbutting among senior generals not willing to share the glory (or the budget dollars). It arguably helped to deter Soviet aggression in Europe. And it proved highly successful in Desert Storm and in the invasion of Iraq.
The hope for Air-Sea Battle is to achieve similar synergy by joining naval and air power with space and cyberspace war-fighting capabilities for "defeating adversaries across the range of military operations, including adversaries equipped with sophisticated anti-access and area denial capabilities,'' according to the Pentagon's most recent strategic plan, the Quadrennial Defense Review
, published earlier this month.
If that sounds vague, it's because there's not much behind the words. A laconic sentence in the QDR hints that no one has any idea what Air-Sea Battle might mean in practice: "As it matures, the concept will also help guide the development of future capabilities needed for effective power projection operations.''
Last fall, the leaders of the Air Force and Navy, two services not known for cozy relations, signed an agreement to share work on this concept.
They immediately recruited a small working group, which set off on a listening tour to hear the views of senior U.S. commanders on what Air-Sea Battle should look like.
While the Air-Sea Battle task force is at work, Iran's extremist Revolutionary Guards are slowly taking over control of the government
, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, suggesting that Iran's keep-out defenses will continue to be hardened. And China's work on cyberwar continues
As all that unfolds, the Pentagon's attention will be elsewhere. Gates has directed that the Defense Department's strategic and budgeting focus in 2011 be directed at fighting "the wars we are in today,'' in Iraq and Afghanistan.