Contrary to popular belief, the United States has the means to check China’s naval expansion. China’s defense expenditures have risen for decades, but the United States still spends almost as much on its navy and Marine Corps alone as China does on its entire military, excluding its internal security forces. American combat units bear many burdens besides preparing for a U.S.-Chinese war—but so do China’s. China shares sea or land borders with 19 countries, ten of which have ongoing territorial disputes with Beijing. Patrolling these borders bogs down hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops and drains at least a quarter of China’s military budget. Although China would have home-field advantage in a war in East Asia, it would also face a more daunting set of tasks. Consider a conflict over Taiwan in which China would need to seize and control territory in order to win, whereas the United States would just need to deny China that control—a far easier mission.
Given these enduring U.S. advantages, a consensus has emerged among defense experts about how to deter China. Instead of waiting for a war to begin and then surging vulnerable aircraft carriers into East Asia, the United States could install a high-tech “minefield” in the area by prepositioning missile launchers, armed drones, and sensors at sea and on allied territory near China’s coastline. These diffuse networks of munitions would be tough for China to neutralize and would not require large bases or fancy platforms. Instead, they could be installed on almost anything that floats or flies, including converted merchant ships, barges, and aircraft.
The United States has vast resources and a viable strategy to counter China’s military expansion.
Defense analysts have touted this approach for more than a decade. Yet the U.S. military still relies overwhelmingly on small numbers of large warships and short-range fighter aircraft operating from exposed bases—exactly the kinds of forces that China could destroy in a preemptive air and missile attack. To make matters worse, Washington has been exporting this flawed system to its allies. Taiwan’s purchases of U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets and Abrams tanks, for example, have depleted funds from the island’s army and ground-based missile forces, its primary defense against a Chinese amphibious assault.
In the opinion of many military experts, U.S. leaders face what should be an easy choice. They can rapidly shore up the military balance in East Asia by flooding the region with low-cost shooters and sensors, or they can continue to fritter away resources on extraneous missions and expensive weapons systems that are sitting ducks for China’s missiles. The question is: Why doesn’t the U.S. defense establishment see things the same way?
The problem starts at the very top and flows down through the ranks. Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. presidents have allowed (and often encouraged) the Department of Defense to morph into the Department of Everything. The U.S. military now performs dozens of missions besides preparing for great-power war, including development assistance, disaster relief, counternarcotics operations, diplomatic outreach, environmental conservation, and election security. American military personnel operate in nearly every country on earth and perform almost every conceivable job.
This broad mandate has turned U.S. combatant commanders into what The Washington Post reporter Dana Priest has described as “the modern-day equivalent of the Roman Empire’s proconsuls—well-funded, semi-autonomous, unconventional centers of U.S. foreign policy.”
They oversee sprawling mini-Pentagons, travel the world like heads of state, and handle a wide array of issues. Instead of advocating the relatively cheap and easy deployment of cruise missiles that would be crucial in a war with China, they instead push for big military units and massive military platforms (such as aircraft carriers and destroyers) that can handle a variety of peacetime missions.
As the defense expert Mackenzie Eaglen has shown, combatant commanders constantly request the use of such platforms, and the services run their forces ragged trying to meet those demands. As a result, the U.S. military has maintained a wartime tempo of operations throughout the past two decades, even after drawing down from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with some units currently being sent on deployments at nearly three times the Pentagon-recommended rate. Not surprisingly, accidents and mechanical failures have surged. From 2006 to early 2021, the number of U.S. service members killed in accidents—5,913—was more than double the number killed in combat. In 1986, operations and maintenance costs consumed 28 percent of the Pentagon’s budget; they now drain a whopping 41 percent, which is more than twice the budget share available to buy new weapons systems. These trends have set off a vicious cycle in which the Pentagon spends more and more to maintain fewer, older, and increasingly obsolete forces.