Let’s be clear. America is not the world’s babysitter, its sheriff, or its first-responder. The U.S., however, is a global power with global interests—one admired the world over for its model of democracy. We have to meet our responsibilities. We can’t expect others to safeguard them.
And America does share common concerns with its allies and like-minded partners. Despite many differences, our family of nations believe in human liberty, elected governments and free enterprise. How can we work together to protect that common ground?
Framework for a Force
In an era of great power competition, if free nations don’t cooperate in protecting their own equities, they will always be at risk. Indeed, that’s what we are really competing over: spheres of influence where either freedom or authoritarianism is the governing principle of practice. The great powers divide between forces that fight for “open” spheres that allow for the free exchange of goods, peoples, ideas and services without malicious intent, and those that want “closed” spheres where they call all the shots, principally to protect their interests.
So it’s worth asking the question: If we could design an “open sphere,” what would “right” look like? Wouldn’t it be resilient, sustainable and adequate to provide credible conventional and strategic deterrence? Wouldn’t it be capable of dissuading both disruptive major regional conflicts and catastrophic global war?
It’s tempting to narrowly focus on just one theater, say the Indo-Pacific, and concentrate our efforts there. But it’s more complicated than that. More than one critical theater matters. The great islands of productivity, commerce, and interconnectivity knit the nations together with the air, sea, space and cyber “commons” connecting them. Without all the links in the global chain, Europe, the Greater Middle East, and the Indo-Pacific, it is hard to even get around the globe. For starters, any global footprint would seek to forestall major disruptive conflict in these theaters and ensure the surety of the commons connecting them.
Further, the world needs a stable Atlantic region, the geostrategic and economic area encompassing the Atlantic Ocean from Greenland to Antarctica. The region includes the world’s most prosperous industrial democracies, emerging nations sharing political and economic freedom, as well as the nations of the Global South that need to be persuaded to securely join the Western camp. This is freedom’s backyard. Like troopers sallying forth from a fort, if there isn’t a secure base to operate from, it’s hard to do much sallying.
In an age of great power competition, freedom of maneuver in the Atlantic space can’t be presumed. It must be protected. Security concerns, which run from “gray zone” tactics to conventional conflict, need to be addressed in an integrated manner.
Finally, the U.S./Canadian heartland matters. The surge of interest in the homeland security faded with the memories of 9/11. That thinking needs to change—the defense of physical space, secure borders, cybersecurity, secure supply chains, energy independence, resilient infrastructure and productive economies are heartbeat of the force posture engine.
The global footprint will look very different in different parts of the world. The peoples, geography and requirements are different. Different, however, doesn’t mean absent. A global laydown that gaps any of these spaces is telling our competitors where competing will be easier for them and where they can make trouble for us. Putin and Xi are masters at identifying opportunities and filling them. Their agents are already calling in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hard power matters a lot. If the good guys can’t demonstrate they can prevail in conventional competition in multiple critical theaters at the same time, conventional and strategic deterrence will fail. Hard power is also important to serve as the great enabler for soft-power initiatives from economic engagement to diplomatic efforts. Accessible, adequate hard power is the great power currency reserve that gives confidence to invest and cooperate with reduced risk.
How much hard power do we need? China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea share a goal—“winning without fighting,” fearing a direct military confrontation with the U.S. Our goal is for them to never change their minds, to never let them think a key objective can be taken by arms.
Based on a framework where the free world covers all its bases, what would an adequate footprint and our contributions and those of friends, partners, and allies look like?
Partnerships. In the Indo-Pacific, in partnership with Japan, Australia and India, the U.S. has to have the capacity to deny China military dominance and deter conflict with conventional forces in key flashpoints (e.g. the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, the South China Seas and Straits of Malacca) as well as defend the commons and undersea infrastructure. The “Quad” must bear the lion’s share of responsibility. We don’t need a formal military alliance, but the Quad must have complimentary capabilities and coordinated military planning. The U.S. and Japan, for instance, should have an integrated war plan for the defense of Taiwan.
Stronger Forward Presence. Given the importance of forward presence in the day-to-day great-power competition efforts to increase presence have to be more immediate and robust. The problem is too few ships and conflicting near-term operational demands on an under-sized fleet. The Quad needs immediate and sustained fixes including both naval and Coast Guard assets, as well as expanding logistics support, making the military footprint more flexible and durable.
More Counter Anti-Access Capability. We need to forward-base more submarines in Guam and ramp-up rate of production of the Virginia-class attack submarine, as well as investing in a carrier-based long-range strike stealth drone. Other initiatives could include accelerating the procurement of land-based anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as fielding Marine and Army units with that capability, fielding mobile anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and deploying more powerful long-range strike systems on mobile ground launchers.
Accelerate air and missile theater defenses. In particular, get going now, avoid getting bogged down in the minutia of the architectural details and staring deploying the most realistic and feasible systems, like the Aegis Ashore on Guam. There may even be a solution to use one of the Navy’s Aegis capable cruisers that they hope to decommission to provide an interim capability.
Quad Plus. Sustainable deterrence requires avoiding the “free rider” problem. The Quad has to work with other regional partners to build-up their self-defense capability, most critically to police territorial waters and airspace. In addition, the Quad must lead in blocking the expansion of Chinese infrastructure facilitating Beijing’s power projection.
Out of Area Allies. While there is no operational role for NATO in the Indo-Pacific, individual nations can help by sharing theater infrastructure, intelligence, diplomatic support, and capacity-building, particularly in the Pacific Islands. France, for example, which holds strategically significant overseas territories and could be a valuable partner.
Greater Middle East
Collective Security. There is a need for a regional security architecture not as formal as NATO, but more structured than the Quad. The U.S. must remain engaged in the region in a sustainable manner, being able quickly deploy forces for critical missions (e.g. ensuring freedom of transit in the Hormuz). The expectation, however, is that collective security and economic integration would allow regional partners to develop adequate collective security to provide conventional deterrence and air and missile defense.
Arab-Israeli normalization has created the opportunity to build a robust regional security structure. It is time to return to negotiations for an expanded agreement that not only addresses hard-core security issues but also opens space—including in the economic and political dimensions—to build trust and confidence among members.
Collective Security. There is no realistic alternative to security in the transatlantic community outside of NATO. The three key tasks development tasks for the force posture are reinforcing collective security in the Baltics; expanding capacity in the Black Sea region; and making the alliance stronger and more capable. As with the Quad, while NATO is the overarching framework, it is both strengthened and more flexible if it nests layers of multilateral and bilateral security cooperation, planning, training and exercises, including with the European Union.
Expanding Capacity. The debate over burden sharing needs to expand to deploying real capabilities. It is time to make an irrevocable commitment to the 30-30-30-30 plan, fielding 30 battalions, 30 fighter squadrons and 30 ships ready to deploy within 30 days. This would address both capacity and readiness issues. The U.S. and Germany should be pioneering creative partnerships to advance this goal.
Forward Defense and Follow-on-Forces. NATO must have a force structure capable of both defending forward and rapidly reinforcing with the capacity to overcome efforts to block access to the theater.
Countering China. NATO does not need a force structure for China, but it does need programs and capabilities to limit its ability to interfere in NATO’s areas of operations. In particular, NATO must have secure, reliable and resilient infrastructure to support military operations.
The Atlantic Region
Forward Basing. American forward deployed bases dotting the periphery of the Atlantic are strategic beacons whose diplomatic, military, and strategic importance should not be overlooked for short-term financial expediency. Take a long-term strategic view of key locations that serve as barriers to expanding Chinese and Russian influence in the region.
Partners Plus. The U.S. should partner with European nations that have infrastructure and capabilities throughout the operational space. For example, Washington can work with the British to determine the best way that the British Overseas Territories located strategically throughout the Atlantic region can be used to improve security.
Africa and Latin America. The U.S. must shift its footprint from counterterrorism and theater security cooperation to countering China. Focus engagement on strategically important countries that will collaborate with U.S., Canadian, European and Indo-Pacific partners. We must also allocate its finite resources as efficiently as possible, identifying amenable countries and critical strategic assets, such as ports, and then fully and deeply engage.
Arctic. The region is becoming an increasing area of competition for China and Russia. The U.S. and Canada need a common response. Neither has all the infrastructure it needs to safeguard its interests. Both want the region to develop in a cooperative manner that promotes prosperity, environmental stewardship and peace. That won’t happen if China and Russia have their way, which is why Washington and Ottawa must roll up their sleeves, forging a common strategy and integrated force plan.
Homeland. The Department of Defense must revise the concept of “homeland” defense, establishing appropriate roles and missions and developing the forces structure support them. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI must reorient resources on homeland transnational security threats, including both state and non-state actors. The southern border must be secured.
Strategic Force Structure. In the near term, strategic deterrence will be achieved through the U.S. strategic arsenal and missile defenses not arms control. Further, a robust and modernized “triad” contributes to both enhancing conventional deterrence and dissuading nuclear proliferation. Indeed, reducing U.S. strategic forces would create a more “permissive strategic environment.” In particular, a weaker strategic force would exacerbate the threat of China’s growing nuclear arsenal as well as the North Korean and Iran nuclear programs.
Best of All Possible Worlds
A global footprint can provide a suitable solution for protecting our vital interests. Critics will argue it is unaffordable. They are wrong. Without security, there is no prosperity. Together, the NATO countries, and key Middle and East Indo-Pacific partners alone, comprise well over 50 percent of the world’s GDP. The resources are there. Defending a free world is feasible.
Critics will argue that nations, including the U.S., lack the will to muster these resources. Time will tell. The alternative is lost freedom and prosperity or the catastrophic loss of life or both. In the end, no free people want to be a suburb of Beijing, Moscow or Tehran or see their community figuratively crumble into a smoldering ruin. The alternate of a free, secure and flourishing society is far more acceptable.
A suitable, feasible, and acceptable global force posture can’t solve the world’s problems or eliminate its evils, but it can ensure this and the next generation peace and prosperity in their time.
This piece originally appeared in 19fortyfive