What Washington Gets Wrong About Deterrence

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly 15 months ago, two camps have consistently opposed American military aid. Not surprisingly, there were traditional anti-war activists and “restraint” advocates who opposed American military involvement in foreign wars. While these groups generally condemn Russian aggression, they note that Russia has not directly attacked the United States. As such, the costs of a protracted war with Russia and the risks of escalation outweigh the benefits of supporting Ukraine.

A second, but perhaps more interesting group, however, are the Chinese falcons. While much of the public’s attention has been focused on Ukraine, China has stepped up its military pressure on Taiwan and is using increasingly harsh rhetoric toward the United States. As a result, some Republican politicians, commentators, and conservative voters have drawn a causal link between the two stories. This transplanted story goes something like this. America’s provision of thousands of equipment, millions of rounds of ammunition and tens of billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine undermines its deterrence against China. Proponents of this story argue that the deterrent spent on one district came at the direct expense of another.

Restraint, however, is not a tangible object. Instead, it is a psychological state. While deterrence is not entirely divorced from tangible things like the deployment of platforms and ammunition depots, perceptions are more important than actions. This basic insight should help us better understand the perceived “trade-off” of containing China and fighting Russia. From a purely military perspective, Ukraine’s aid has not hurt Taiwan’s defense efforts as much as its critics claim. More importantly, on the psychological front, the war in Ukraine — and the tough response to the challenge by the United States and its allies — has strengthened America’s perception and deterrence capabilities.

Damage to containment?

Whether America’s aid to Ukraine actually comes at the expense of its ability to defend Taiwan if necessary is murky at best. It is true that the USA has already committed more than 100 billion dollars in aid to Ukraine. But as high as that number may seem, it’s about one-eighth of the Pentagon’s total defense budget, and less than half of the $100 billion comes from military aid; the rest is humanitarian. Furthermore, Congress voted that aid to Ukraine would come from supplemental funding, meaning that money spent to support Ukraine did not come at the expense of other Defense Department efforts, which include containing China.

Operationally, the Ukrainian war has exhausted the army’s arsenal. The US has sent thousands of Javelin anti-tank missiles, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, 155mm artillery shells and numerous HIMARS rocket launchers, howitzers, Bradley fighting vehicles, Abrams tanks and other weapons to Ukraine. It will take some time for the defense industrial base to replace these losses.

But these “losses” should be considered in context. Despite the war, the Army doubled the capabilities needed for the Pacific war, including long-range missiles and multi-task forces. Much of what the military has supplied to Ukraine has been older weaponry, which will eventually be supplemented by newer and possibly better gear. That will take time, of course, given the atrophy of the Western defense industrial base, but the process is slow. The war in Ukraine, for example, has prompted the US to correct a decades-old systemic flaw in its munitions production. And it is not only the Ministry of Defense that recognizes the shortcomings. Congress is also busy fixing the ammunition problem. In the long run, the United States may be better off than before the conflict began.

More importantly, geography dictates that deterring an invasion of Taiwan will largely fall to air and naval power, neither of which has had much, if any, impact on US aid to Ukraine. The Air Force’s most recent budget request increased the fleet of F-35 stealth fighters and the number of KC-46 tankers for range operations in the Indo-Pacific region. In December, the service unveiled its new long-range B-21 stealth bomber. Perhaps most importantly, the Air Force continues to buy more long-range munitions designed to dominate the air and sink ships.

The Navy offers a similar story. Like the Air Force, the Navy’s budget request for the upcoming fiscal year has increased by more than $11 billion. The service continues to buy more Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, Virginia-class attack submarines and a variety of other manned and unmanned naval and air systems, all designed for the Indo-Pacific region. As with the Air Force, few of these capabilities have been deployed to Ukraine. And while the Navy needs more of these capabilities, the defense industrial base suffers from a number of limitations, and so even if resources are redirected from Ukraine, it will not solve the naval shortfall overnight.

Adding to the already strong growth of the air force and navy is the dramatic increase in allied military capabilities caused by the war in Ukraine. While they count directly for Defense Department purposes, they also factor into the deterrence equation against China. For example, despite the war in Ukraine, a number of allies, including France and, for the first time, Germany, joined Indo-Pacific air exercises as Europe became more wary of the threat from China.

Ultimately, it is unclear to what extent the war in Ukraine harms America’s ability to respond to aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. In the short term, the war in Ukraine could affect the ability of the US to conduct ground war in the region, but as Secretary Robert Gates joked: Asia… they need to examine her head.” In the long term, US military forces, including ground troops, may be strengthened by the conflict in Ukraine.

Don’t sweat the details

In the short term, the war in Ukraine has depleted American supplies, particularly ground munitions. But this raises an interesting question. Perhaps not.

Policymakers too often think of military power in the crudest terms. For example: No series of hypersonic missile strikes by Russia has deterred the United States and its allies from helping Ukraine. Similarly, China has greatly expanded both its nuclear and conventional military arsenals over the years, but this does not appear to have weakened American willingness to defend Taiwan. Time and time again, it is the bigger picture, such as the likelihood of a conflict in national blood and wealth, that is important for deterrence, not the number of munitions or platforms in the arsenal. And so the focus should not be on stockpiles, but on how the war in Ukraine has shaped the broader strategic narrative of US capabilities and defenses.

In that case, what might those “big” impressions from Ukraine be? There are at least three of them. First, on a technical level, Western weapons, even relatively old systems, still work well. One need only look at the hundreds of thousands of Russian casualties and the nearly 10,000 Russian equipment damaged, destroyed or captured, including some modern systems, to see the tangible impact of American military aid. Given that Taiwan already receives billions of dollars in US military equipment, this should give Beijing pause.

Strategically, the war in Ukraine underscores that the West is neither as weak nor as divided as many have assumed. Before the war in Ukraine, it was an open question whether the US and its allies would fight. After all, the United States was embroiled in internal strife after a contested election and had just suffered a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan. Polls have shown growing isolation among the American public, fueled by “America First” sentiment on the right and anti-war progressives on the left. Two years ago, a slim majority of Americans would defend Taiwan if it were attacked, not particularly strong support, especially given that a war with China would almost certainly be long and bloody.

Despite the typical indifference to foreign policy, the American public has shown a remarkable and sustained interest in Ukraine a year later. That interest and support is important because military capability is only half of the deterrence equation. The other, and in some ways more difficult, aspect of the deterrence equation is demonstrating the will to use force.

Critics often point out that deterrence depends on the context, and a response to one crisis certainly does not predict a similar response to another. It is true. But in this case, recent history reinforces Taiwan-specific military investments and less tangible, no less important promises. The Biden administration has repeatedly promised a tougher response to China’s incursion into Taiwan than Russia’s response to Ukraine, and polls show a significant number of Americans would support such a move. That’s the cumulative deterrence effect, so that should be the goal.

First of all, the Ukrainian conflict shows that wars are fundamentally unpredictable. The war in Ukraine, which almost everyone thought would be over within days and offer a relatively clean victory for Russia, ended up dragging on for more than a year and put Vladimir Putin’s regime on increasingly shaky ground. That’s an uncomfortable context for any leader considering the use of force in the future, whether they’re sitting in Moscow, Beijing or Washington.

Avoiding strategic reductionism

At some level, critics of US support for Ukraine have a point. Containment of China is decaying. Unlike the US-Russian military balance, at least some military trends are moving in China’s favor. As a result, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, unlike President Vladimir Putin, can afford to be patient. Regardless of what the United States does in Ukraine, China will be harder to contain in the long run as its power and ambitions grow.

As a matter of policy, however, the key question is how the United States will use the tools it has today to maximize its deterrent effect. Operationally, the war in Ukraine has not upset the military balance against China. In fact, the United States has demonstrated that it can continue its capabilities targeting the Indo-Pacific while supporting Ukraine. Moreover, the war in Ukraine may even help in the long run if it prompts both the United States and its allies to realize that industrial warfare is not just a history book topic and to prepare accordingly.

More importantly, if deterrence is primarily a psychological effect, another important question is what is more important. no limits” impaling itself on a smaller, weaker neighbor.

In an increasingly unstable world, there is a tendency towards strategic reductionism. to focus on China as an “emerging threat” to the exclusion of everything else. Giving in to this temptation is wrong. As a world power, the United States faces many challenges. it simply lacks the luxury of choosing one opponent per region. But even given the right to choose, restraint is an elastic commodity. While the United States faces some binary strategic choices, containing China and fighting Russia in Ukraine is not one of them.

Rafael S.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Russ Scalf:

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