LONDON – Over the past year, the Pentagon has talked a lot about refocusing on an era of “great power competition”, moving from a focus on Iraqi and Afghan-style counterinsurgency to countering China and Russia.
Throughout March, the U.S. military was showing what that really means.
U.S. soldiers were arriving in Germany to pick up tanks and armored vehicles stored in Europe before heading to Poland for exercises. Earlier, hundreds of U.S. Marines from the 31st Marine Expedition Unit flew 965 km in a training exercise for seizing a small Japanese island, and set up artillery and an airbase to then conduct further strikes and troop movements. It was a high-profile demonstration of a tactic known as “island hopping” that was first honed against Japan in World War II and is now seen by the United States as key to any future war with China.
Nuclear-capable B-52 bombers have been deployed to Europe and Asia to drive home the message that Washington is prepared. Last week, several repeatedly crossed the Baltic, including circling the Swedish island of Gotland, which European states have long feared might be a Russian objective in the event of any war. Two B-52s also flew over the South China Sea twice in little more than a week, again a significant uptick in activity.
The audience for these military moves, however, may go beyond America’s potential foes in Moscow and Beijing. Pentagon military chiefs — some now reaching the end of their term in office and about to be replaced with U.S. President Donald Trump’s appointees — are expressing frustration over funding, technology, the current administration and wider American industry. Their message has been simple: that Russia and China are seeking to subvert Washington’s place in the world, that they have the means and will to do so, and that the U.S. is not doing everything it needs to in response.
Speaking at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank recently, outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford said both Russia and Beijing were trying “to establish pre-eminence, if not outright hegemony, in their geographic areas and both (are) trying to assert greater influence on the world stage.”
To do so, he said, they were marrying considerable military investment and innovation with economic, diplomatic, political, cultural and other forms of power — and the U.S. was not doing so nearly as well.
U.S. military chiefs want more resources and more support for, and from, allies. They also want the support of some of the U.S.’s largest companies, especially tech firms, to recognize the threat, back the U.S. military and reduce ties with China in particular.
The loss of the U.S.’s long-running military technical edge is clearly a major concern within the Pentagon. Military chiefs have become increasingly open in their opposition to going through with U.S. sales of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to Turkey, a NATO ally now seen as moving closer to Moscow. Turkey is also looking to buy Russia’s S-300 air defense system and there are concerns in some quarters that integrating the two will simply mean the secrets of the cutting-edge U.S. jet are compromised.
The Pentagon’s 2020 budget makes clear that both the president and his commanders are focused on acquiring a host of high-tech new weapons that they see as part of a new era of great power rivalry. The greatest divide between them, however, may be over how to handle the U.S.’s much broader alliances. Trump has long accused U.S. partners of paying too little for defenze. Pentagon chiefs are broadly supportive of attempts to make other nations spend more, particularly in Europe, but they also view the U.S.’s alliances as central to its own defense. Stepping back U.S. military support, they worry, could make attack by Moscow, Beijing or other enemies more likely.
Recently Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan denied there were plans to push ahead with charging U.S. allies 150 percent of the cost of hosting U.S. troops on their territories. But U.S. officials have been pushing ahead with talks with Poland on “Fort Trump,” in which Warsaw would explicitly pay Washington for the presence of the U.S. armored division.
The Trump administration’s budget strips 10 percent from the European Deterrence Initiative, which provides funding for U.S. training and pre-positioning of equipment on the continent. That could make the kind of high-profile military presence exercises that are currently underway more difficult in the future. It would also appear to run counter to advice from Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Curtis Scaparott, who last month testified that he wanted more U.S. military assets based in Europe.
The Trump administration clearly isn’t going to stop its efforts to get more money from U.S. allies — its latest gambit is an $8 billion loan fund to friendly states to buy U.S.-built weapons systems. The Pentagon is clearly similarly wedded to a global military presence it deems vital to confronting two increasingly assertive powers.
They will have to learn to manage that tension. Otherwise, they risk such convoluted mixed messaging that they may increase the risk of war.
Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues.
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