hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 3 March 2017

Can America Win Again?

“Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it”.

Alphen, Netherlands. 3 March. It was fascinating watching President Trump on TV speak last night aboard the brand new, and mighty $13bn, 104,000 ton aircraft carrier, USS Gerald R. Ford. The ship looks almost as good as Britain’s new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, albeit with a far less sexy name. President Trump returned to a theme he has been exploring for some time; can America win again?

What is ‘war’? To my mind there is no question that the United States and its armed forces would prevail in a major shooting war with another major state if (and it is a big if) that war did not go nuclear. In a war with Russia that went beyond a Russian land grab in Eastern Europe, the nuclear button would almost certainly be pressed and quickly, in which case everyone would lose. Even a limited war with Russia (if there could be such a thing) would be tinged by the threat of Armageddon. This is made clear by the Russian Chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov and his so-called Gerasimov Doctrine.

The USS Gerald R. Ford is clearly a vital platform for maintaining the ability of the US military to project power world-wide and thus deter ‘bad hombres’ from embarking on military adventurism, particularly against America’s NATO Allies or its allies in Asia-Pacific. The problem is that wily old Gerasimov has also been working on perfecting a new form of warfare specifically designed to keep the carrier’s strike force bedecked.

Hybrid war is war that is short of war. In hybrid war disinformation, destabilisation, and disruption, as well as the possible use of unconventional force and economic coercion are employed as part of strategy to undermine, intimidate and coerce adversaries. The use of what conventional force and, heaven forbid nuclear force, would only come as a last resort. Other states, most notably China, are also looking to blind-side American military power by employing such strategies against the many open seams of Western society. This is most notably via cyber-attacks, but also through the use of new technologies such as artificial intelligence. As yet neither the US nor NATO have a credible defence against such warfare, as evidenced by the deep concerns in Washington over alleged Russian efforts to interfere with the US presidential elections. 

For all that the focus of President Trump has thus far been on another kind of ‘war’ against the likes of Al Qaeda and Islamic State. In such a war an ‘asset’ such as the USS Gerald R. Ford is extremely useful. A carrier that can launch up to seventy aircraft from a neutral sea-base offers political leaders real power, flexibility, but above all political discretion. Any planned attack can be cancelled at the last minute if the intelligence changes with very few needing to know, not even the 4000 strong crew of the ship.

The problem is one of strategy. The US ‘defeats’ President Trump has been implying in his various speeches took place in Iraq and Afghanistan against forces (Al Qaeda, Taliban) that take far more than even a fleet of mighty aircraft carriers to ‘defeat’. Indeed, progress against such enemies takes years of consistent, effective political strategy, leverage over allies, the development of tailored intelligence, and the nuanced use of diplomacy, policing and military force, as well as a sustained campaign of intelligent strategic communications and public diplomacy. ‘Progress’, for there is unlikely to be clear cut victory or even overt success during such a campaign, also takes oodles of bucks. That is, after all, why there are still some 8400 US troops in Afghanistan.   

Two things come out of the imagery of President Trump making such a speech on the USS Gerald R. Ford. First, it signals to adversaries that the US will again re-assert both the right, the will, and the capacity to act if it believes its interests and those of its friends are threatened. Second, the commitment to ending sequestration and hiking the US defence budget to over $650bn a year also suggests the US is going to reinvest in the forces needed to enforce Pax Americana the world over, although I doubt America will see a return to the 600 ship Navy the President implied.

However, and this is where I part company with President Trump, for US strategy to work America must exert influence across the entirety of the security and defence spectrum, and by extension the civil and military security-space. That means the 4 ‘D’s: defence, deterrence, diplomacy and dialogue. These are the four essential and balanced pillars upon which US security and defence policy must be built. Cutting the State Department or USAID to further fund an expanded US military would be self-defeating if not carefully considered; the security equivalent of disrobing Peter to beef-up Paul.

President Trump is right that uniquely strong American armed forces are the hard power that underpin and guarantee all other forms of American, and indeed Allied, power. And, given that the US is the world’s only global power, the US needs armed forces that are far more capable than all the other regional powers it may have to engage. However, if President Trump increases American hard power at the expense of American soft power and influence the result will certainly be the retreat of American influence, and quite possibly the retreat of America itself.

President Trump needs to strike a better balance between US hard and soft power. If he does that there is every chance America will again ‘win’ by making America and the world more secure. Oh, and convince its mangy European cousins to stop being such wusses and to get their collective strategic mojo back. After all, the US needs effective allies because in historical terms the US is only the West’s third most successful Pax after Pax Romana and, of course, Pax Britannica!  

Can America ‘win’ again? You bet, if America is smart about power!

Julian Lindley-French   

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