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Will America Lose the Next War? Assessing the Controversial RAND Report’s Findings

“While there is always a need to diligently study possible avenues of attack and areas of concern, the conclusion that America could lose the next war is click-bait fear-mongering.”

With the end of the year coming, it is important to maintain perspective. Analysts can get wrapped up in the most recent terror bombing, political campaign, or controversy of the day. But taking a step back and assessing long term trends and needs matters as well.

A recent RAND study did just that and concluded that America would lose the next war because of a faulty strategy and failure to modernize and position their forces in key ways. This has caused quite a bit of controversy in policy circles.

The current American policy aims to fight two regional wars at the same time. RAND posits that between the ongoing war on terrorism, the threat of a nuclear North Korea, and an aggressive China and Russia, that strategy is misguided and doesn’t allocate the resources needed to fight should a war begin. At the very least, RAND argues the U.S. should prepare to fight one major power and one regional war, while at the same time having enough resources to fight the war on terror.

The U.S. already spends a good deal of money on its military, and more than many of the next nations combined. Though the amount of money spent is not the only factor. China cooks the books so their funding looks lower, and the attacks of 9/11 show that low-tech and low-cost attacks can still be very effective. War is not simply a math problem determined by who spends the most money, but how resources are matched with strategy to form a capable fighting force.

The current American policy aims to fight two regional wars at the same time.

The U.S. already recognizes the threat from China to the point that their anti-access area denial strategy (A2AD) is almost a buzz word in the policy community. To counter this threat the U.S. already conducts freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea to uphold the rule of law and prevent China from establishing de facto control of disputed territory there.

The U.S. also continues to upgrade its missile defenses, including extended range on Aegis cruisers and F35 fighters. RAND argues that America needs to improve those processes and do even more. They need more ground-based jammers, mobile air-defense missiles, and F35s that are truly combat capable (which means they need to overcome a multitude of technical issues).

On top of that, air and naval bases needs more built in resiliency. They need repair kits, bomb shelters, and redundant communication systems. The ships need better close-in defenses such as rail guns. These are necessary to counter a Chinese strategy that relies on hundreds and even thousands of missiles, some of which can hit Guam.

In the event of war, China is expected to launch these missiles at key elements of U.S. expeditionary forces such as airfields, ports, logistics hubs, and carrier strike groups. With U.S. forces paralyzed, or denied access to Taiwan, the South China Sea, or disputed islands around Japan, China would have a free hand in seizing key territory in what they call the “first island chain.” If this strategy is successful, China would have seized the territory they wanted by the time American forces recover, and could present the world with a fait accompli similar to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

War is not simply a math problem determined by who spends the most money, but how resources are matched with strategy to form a capable fighting force.

The geography of the Baltic members of NATO places the U.S. in a similar problem, with the potential for Russia to rapidly seize key territory before America can properly respond. In extensive war games, RAND concluded that Russia could field as many as 25 battalions within 10 days, compared to 17 for NATO. That doesn’t sound like an insurmountable difference, except that NATO forces are overwhelmingly light and thus heavily outgunned by the Russians. War gaming found the Russians would capture Riga, the capital of Latvia, within 48-60 hours.

To counter this, RAND suggested additional heavy battalions in the region that are forward-deployed and pre-supplied. If NATO did this, according to the report, they wouldn’t have to rely on faulty thinking, such as having a light screening force advance in the face of massive Russian fire to seize airfields that will then supply reinforcements that come later. The heavy forces will be ready to respond, and they will provide the key elements that force Russian heavy units to slow their advance, get off roads, and concentrate their forces for battle, all actions which make them better targets for superior NATO air power to degrade the force.

America and NATO should also focus on short range air defense. War games show Russia, much like China, would use submarines and land-based long range missiles to hit valuable logistics, communication, transportation, and airfields early in war to create confusion and a window of Russian opportunity. NATO has already deployed short range air defenses (SHORAD), which can counter attack helicopters and air support attack planes (similar to the American A10), but the U.S. also needs back up GPS systems that can resist jamming from Russian cyber units.

The additional forces in Eastern Europe should provide America with the means to act as a proper deterrent. In this region, RAND provided the most solid advice, as I asked over a year ago if the current NATO brigades in the Baltics are just a speed bump.

It is important, however, to consider the limits of their analysis. Hardware is fairly easy to assess. The speed of missiles, the range of sensors, and the amount of Aegis destroyers are all fairly certain and quantifiable. But how they are used is not. Wars are not simply a math contest and generals are not mathematicians. Strategy, training, and the element of surprise matter just as much, if not more than the systems themselves.

This is where the RAND report falters. They provide a chilling picture of material imbalance and possible scenarios such as China’s invasion of Taiwan in 2020. But they don’t account for the training and professionalism of the U.S. military. For example, American pilots have been flying missions as part of the war on terror for almost 20 years. While the planes may need spare parts, the average fighter pilot has thousands of hours of combat experience.

In contrast, Chinese leaders are worried their pilots are “dumb” due to simplistic training exercises that discourage initiative. China hasn’t fought a war since a 1979 border skirmish with Vietnam, which means that only a handful of its senior leadership has any combat experience.

Russian forces seem potent and dangerous, but they have their own set of problems as well. They have an aging population and a limited economy that has difficulty even funding normal business whenever the price of oil falls, which suggests they have little staying power in a major war. Russia has modernized some elements of its army, but the bulk of its soldiers (about two-thirds), are under-trained, underpaid, and ill-equipped. Soldiers are reported to defect, and in the past they sold weapons on the black market to supplement their incomes.

While there is always a need to diligently study possible avenues of attack and areas of concern, the conclusion that America could lose the next war is click-bait fear-mongering.

The operations in Syria revealed “systematic” technical problems with many of the systems they have upgraded. And their advanced Armata tanks have significant production problems as well (maybe it can take the F35 out to dinner and compare notes on their dysfunction).

In short, both China and Russia, the two major powers about which RAND warns, have significant capabilities on paper, but there is also significant evidence that they are little more than paper tigers. The study makes significant points about the need for the U.S. to equip and deploy its military in specific ways to counter potential threats. But their advice can be distilled as being more of the same, such as anti-missile technology, heavier units deployed in the Baltics, and better missile interception.

While there is always a need to diligently study possible avenues of attack and areas of concern, the conclusion that America could lose the next war is click-bait fear-mongering. The RAND report makes some good points, but ultimately they overstate their conclusions and fail to account for the human factor of war.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Morgan Deane

Morgan Deane is a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst. He is the author of the forthcoming book Decisive Battles in Chinese history, as well as Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon.

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