The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Pentagon’s ‘deterrence’ strategy ignores hard-earned lessons about the balance of power

Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt at Naval Base Guam in April 2020. (Mass Communication Specialist Julio Rivera/U.S. Navy via AP)

Mike Gallagher, a Republican, represents Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District in the House.

The Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has called into question the credibility of U.S. commitments and the state of conventional military deterrence. But even before the Afghanistan surrender, the Biden Pentagon was already wrestling with increasingly unfavorable military balances of power, particularly regarding China.

In April, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin outlined a new model he called “integrated deterrence.” The concept, which will likely be the cornerstone of the Biden Pentagon’s forthcoming National Defense Strategy, includes admirable goals. Unfortunately, though, it ignores important lessons from recent administrations about what really works.

First, the defense secretary wants to integrate military and nonmilitary instruments of national power, especially diplomacy, across five domains of competition (air, land, sea, space and cyberspace), for use at the time and manner of our choosing. As Austin explained in a Post op-ed in May, integrated deterrence could “mean employing cyber effects in one location to respond to a maritime security incident hundreds of miles away.”

There is nothing new about this. Under the Trump administration, the Pentagon responded to Iran shooting down an American drone with a cyberstrike. Yet what ultimately reset the escalatory ladder was not a fancy theory of how “effects” in one domain impact another, but rather old-school, kinetic action in the form of a missile strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

Second, Austin wants to integrate new technologies into conventional deterrence. He believes advances in computing and artificial intelligence are changing the character of warfare itself — “enabling us to find not just one needle in one haystack but 10 needles in 10 haystacks, and share their locations on the spot with other platforms.” The same fantastical thinking fueled the Obama administration’s failed “Third Offset” strategy. Importantly, the then-head of Indo-Pacific Command Adm. Phil Davidson recently warned that China could invade Taiwan in the next six years. If this timeline is correct, betting on tomorrow’s transformative technology makes less sense than fielding reliable technologies that work today. Technology often fails in the Defense Department’s Taiwan war games, and a recent report analyzing the Pentagon’s new battle network strategy also found that it is not ready for prime time.

Third, Austin wants to better integrate the United States’ allies into our deterrent posture. Here Austin deserves credit for persuading Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to retain the Visiting Forces Agreement that provides access for U.S. forces and forging the AUKUS partnership with Britain and Australia. Yet our allies care less about diplomatic rhetoric than what our military can do, and images of the U.S. military heading for the exits in the face of a technologically backward force do not inspire confidence. The Chinese Communist Party is exploiting the Afghanistan surrender to tell Taiwan that the United States cannot be counted on in a cross-strait crisis. Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi recently expressed alarm at the growing military imbalance between the United States and China. And as President Barack Obama discovered after abandoning Iraq and embracing the Iran nuclear deal, misunderstanding the basic alliance structure in a lower-priority region can create chaos and thereby undermine any pivot to a higher-priority theater (i.e., the Indo-Pacific).

What we actually need to integrate is more conventional hard power — more ships, more long-range missiles and more long-range bombers in the Indo-Pacific. Giving Chinese forces certainty that we are targeting them is the most important task for restoring our conventional deterrence posture. This is where diplomacy and allies can help. To deploy teams of Marines tasked with targeting Chinese Navy ships from shifting positions throughout the Indo-Pacific, we need base agreements with Japan, Australia, the Philippines and other key allies, along with a plan for better using U.S. territories such as Midway and Wake Island. Congress can also help by breaking the rough three-way funding split between the armed services and growing the Navy — our highest-priority force in the Indo-Pacific — even if it means reducing overall Army end strength, while forcing the Army to defend air bases and logistics sites from threats such as low-elevation cruise missiles.

In every recent administration, the Pentagon has come up with new buzzwords. From the Third Offset, to Trump-era dynamic force employment, to integrated deterrence, most of these concepts serve as smokescreens for disinvesting in defense and making do with a force that is too small to meet global requirements. The jargon provides cover for political leadership that is too weak or too distracted to give the military what it needs to execute its missions or to make hard choices between military services that would free up resources for the main effort: deterring China from invading Taiwan. Platitudes — “Integrated deterrence means all of us giving our all” — cloud our thinking and give false hope that nonmilitary tools, new technologies and allies can substitute for hard power when it comes to denying aggression from our adversaries.