Terrorism and Middle East insurgencies are not going away. Yet in the 21st century, the United States must understand it faces a return of a serious national-security concern that shaped the last century: the risk of great-power conflict.
The Defense Department’s new military strategy acknowledges this by noting the implications of the renewed rivalry with China and Russia. The possibility of a major war with great powers, like World Wars One and Two, is “growing,” according to the U.S. National Military Strategy released this month.
Consider, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is back on high alert after Russia’s land grab in Ukraine, while the United States and China are competing in an arms race over the Pacific Ocean. When the nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently testified before Congress about the most critical security threats, he led with Russia, not Islamic State.
Yet the U.S. defense establishment still has one foot in the past and only a tentative one in the future. The Pentagon talks the talk of military innovation to deal with this new mix of threats but doggedly pursues costly weapons programs anchored in dangerous past compromises. Not only are the weapon systems unlikely to deliver well in today’s conflicts, they also could become vulnerabilities exploited by America’s adversaries during wartime.
The risks of these old ways of thinking were highlighted recently when a test pilot’s report was leaked to the War Is Boring website. The report revealed that an F-16 fighter — with 40-year-old technology — had bested the Pentagon’s planned new warplane, an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, in simulated combat.