U.S. Defense Strategy: “Contain and Engage” Beats “Deter and Defeat”

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March 26, 2019 | Originally published by Date Line: March 26 on

March 18 (UPI) — The National Defense Strategy published last year sets great power competition as the foundation for planning and thinking and directs the Department of Defense to “deter and if war comes defeat” a series of potential adversaries topped by China and Russia.

When asked about his most important priorities, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said, “China, China,China.” And Russia is not far behind.

Iran, North Korea and violent extremism are also on the list. If rumblings from Pyongyang lead to ending the denuclearization negotiations, China may have a rival for the number one priority. However, the NDS is lacking in one very crucial area.

What will it take to deter and defeat China or Russia if war were to come? As the Commission on the NDS pointedly and tartly observed, no operational concepts have been developed to answer this question. Of course, U.S. combatant commanders have contingency and war plans. Yet, think about this question of deterring and defeating for a moment.

First, barring a catastrophic event, neither China nor Russia have any interest in starting a war. War could easily be global. In China”s case, war would be economically destructive in the extreme cutting that country off from its markets and trading partners. As Russian doctrine makes clear, war is likely to be nuclear. Hence, who could “win” such a war in the thermonuclear age is probably meaningless.

Chinese and Russian leaders fully understand these conditions. As a result, their strategies are directed at the so-called gray areas well short of actual conflict. China”s “belt and road” and militarization of offshore islets are exhibit A. Russian “active measures” and interference in Western politics as well as the pressure in Ukraine are exhibit B. And how effective has deterrence been in constraining these actions? The answer is not much.

The ultimate test of any military force is the ability to fight even though war may never occur. If there are other criteria why then is a military needed? However, an effective strategy need not and should not be based on the certainty of going to war. And that strategy should also take into account means to block, counter or prevent potentially damaging actions well short of the actual use of force.