For roughly the last ten years, military analysts from across the political spectrum and around the world have warned about the growing vulnerability of one of the foundations of U.S. military power that underwrites its global hegemony: the ability to forward deploy forces anywhere on the planet relatively unchallenged.
That matters for a very simple reason, as a retired senior U.S. intelligence analyst explained to TAC: “If America can’t get to the fight, is deterred from fighting, or if its forces are destroyed on the ground before Washington can fight, the days of America being called a superpower are over.”
Thanks to a proliferation in stand-off weapons—such as various types of Chinese missile platforms—the ability to utilize key aspects of U.S. military power abroad is slowly and effectively being constrained, whether it be stationing forces, traversing the high seas, or flying high in the sky.
Thanks also to the relative difficulty and expense in negating what are cheap, highly-accurate and now relatively easy systems to build, the United States for the first time in decades could find itself militarily defeated by peer-competitors such as China, Russia, or taking heavy losses from regional opponents such as North Korea, Iran, or others in select military scenarios.
In short, U.S. hegemony—regionally or even globally—could one day be challenged or swept away by a salvo of cheap Chinese, Russian or Iranian ballistic missiles.
The warning signs have been apparent for a long time now. However, this budding challenge has been lost as America has taken on foes that have no ability to challenge U.S. military buildups or overseas operations, masking the problem. For example, the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, various so-called war on terror campaigns using drone technology, the military campaign against the Islamic State, various air strikes against Syria—all showcase a U.S. military whose deployments were unchallenged or utilized weapons platforms where defenders did not have the range to strike back.
And yet, that false sense of military security fades away quickly when one looks at the U.S. military strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific. Here, Washington’s abilities to contest Beijing’s growing power in areas like the East and South China’s Seas as well as any potential struggle over Taiwan, are clearly in relative decline. China has developed its armed forces with the specific goal of negating the military value of U.S. bases around the region. They’ve made major investments in various ranges, levels of sophistication, and sheer numbers of cruise and ballistic missiles, part of a military strategy called anti-access/area-denial, or A2/AD. U.S. bases in Okinawa all the way to what was recently thought of as the relative safety of Guam in the mid-Pacific Ocean, are all now in range of Chinese rocketeers.
As a former senior Pentagon official told TAC: “Most, if not all, U.S. military bases in a conflict with China would be made inoperable for long stretches of time in any sort of protracted war—and perhaps damaged to such an extent that they could be rendered unusable.”
In fact, a recent demonstration of Chinese military muscle should serve as a stark warning. Beijing last week demonstrated its so-called ‘aircraft-carrier killer’ missiles—the DF-21D and DF-26B, splashing them down in the hotly contested South China Sea. The missiles, firing from different locations in China, are highly mobile and have ranges of roughly 1,800 to 4,000 kilometers, respectively. And while the missiles were not tested against non-cooperative maritime targets, the test did show that such weapons are operational, ready for combat operations, and have, at the very least the necessary command and control, logistical and operational knowhow to work in a testing environment.
Even more worrying, the DF-26 can be used to attack land and sea targets—with either conventional or nuclear weapons.
The U.S. military faces a similar, although less dire, situation in the Middle East with Iran. Tehran, while it does not have the resources, technological base, or sheer capability to copy China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy, has built up a potent force of offensive ballistic and cruise missiles to challenge U.S. military superiority over the last several decades, like it did effectively in Iraq.
In fact, in a war game I was a part of some years back, Iran was able to sink multiple U.S. warships and an aircraft carrier in the opening hours of a conflict thanks to the ability to overwhelm U.S. missile defense systems with an overwhelming amount of ordinance.
The good news is that the U.S. military for some time has been aware of the problem—a challenge that is now front and center in the Pentagon’s strategic thinking, as was made clear in the recently launched 2020 China Power Military Report. Over the last few years operational concepts like Air-Sea Battle, JAM-GC and big increases in military spending have laid the ground work to ensure America can relearn how to fight in contested military environments, a skill that has clearly atrophied thanks to a focus on terrorism and counterinsurgency doctrine.
However, with China and other investing in new generations of now-hypersonic ballistic missiles, I would argue it is an open question whether U.S. military forces will have the same ability to deploy wherever and whenever they wish—especially in Asia, the Middle East or even in Europe. And that can only mean that the days of U.S. hegemony are clearly under threat.
Harry J. Kazianis is a Senior Director at the Center for The National Interest, Executive Editor of The National Interest and a Contributing Editor for 19FortyFive. Follow him on Twitter: @Grecianformula.