The United States and its NATO allies are playing a critical role in Eastern Europe, ensuring that the Ukrainian military remains well supplied, and the Ukrainian state economically functional. However, the US is no longer the “arsenal of democracy” it was in the 1940s, nor is it the industrial power it was until the 1980s.
Russia, moreover, is not the only threat to American and allied interests. China poses an equal, if not greater, threat. As the Ukraine war settles into a long attritional phase, the US must ensure it has the capacity to support Kiev in its fight against Russian imperialism while maintaining the supplies to counter China in a future Pacific war.
In a fundamental respect, the US administration has recalibrated, shifting to a new strategic heuristic. This is remarkable, both in general and given specific circumstances.
All policy stems from a worldview, a series of general assumptions about the nature of man and political interaction, and specific assumptions about political actors and their interest. Inertia drives the American policy establishment, particularly in foreign affairs.
Presidents have the unique ability to shift agendas, although their power is not unlimited. See, for example, the State Department’s bureaucratic resistance to the George W Bush administration’s long-term planning for Iraq. More than the caricature of neoconservatism that was in vogue at the time, this prosaic political infighting placed the US in a severely adverse position after the 2003 invasion.
Some executives can overcome inertia and impose a new policy: Richard Nixon did so vis-à-vis China, Ronald Reagan executed a similar shift toward the Soviet Union. In each case, the president in question established a new strategic heuristic.
However, once a strategic heuristic is determined, it does not change, even if the policies that stem from it fail. Typically, transformative events shift strategic heuristics.
Dwight Eisenhower, despite his strategic irrationality during the Suez Crisis, shifted tacks in his final three years, scaling up explicit Soviet containment strategies in the Middle East. Jimmy Carter, faced with the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, revived military assistance programs in the Middle East and Latin America, and ironically prepared the policy establishment for Reagan’s radical shift in 1980.
Barack Obama, by contrast, stayed the course in Eurasia, consistently ceding the initiative to America’s adversaries and refusing to modify his worldview.
Biden and Ukraine
Joe Biden’s presidency has revealed him not as a great statesman, but rather as a reflexive anti-interventionist deeply skeptical of American power. This should shock no one, given his record on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and what we know of his role in the Obama administration.
Similarly, the Biden team seemed unable to craft a coherent strategy. This is unsurprising, given Biden’s foreign-policy staff: With the exception of Lloyd Austin, until 2016 an army officer, all established themselves during the Obama years.
One would have expected Biden to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 as his Democratic predecessor did in 2014: Briefly admonish Russia rhetorically, impose token sanctions, and leave Ukraine to its fate. To its great credit, this is not what the Biden team has done.
It prepared a sanctions package and pressured recalcitrant allies, namely Germany and France, to comply. It directed US intelligence to support Ukraine, increasing Ukrainian combat power. Most critically, since late 2021, the Biden administration, followed closely by the equally fragile Boris Johnson government in the UK, has poured military equipment into Ukraine.
Initially it offered light systems like shoulder-launched anti-tank and anti-air missiles. Then it offered loitering munitions and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). Then it agreed to the transfer of Soviet-era heavy equipment, particularly air defenses.
Now, it provides Ukraine with NATO-grade field artillery and ammunition, counter-battery radars, older armored vehicles, and potentially anti-ship missiles.
The Biden administration clearly remains conscious of the potential for escalation. But unlike six weeks ago, it no longer believes that expansive NATO military support to Ukraine will provoke a Russian nuclear response.
Perhaps the US will green-light a MiG-29 sale soon, a measure that it publicly killed in early March. Moreover, the US is training Ukrainians to use their new systems.
Clearly, a heuristic has shifted. The Biden administration no longer deems support for Ukraine inflammatory. Rather, it is morally and strategically critical.
The US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization provide Ukraine with crucial strategic depth. If Western aid continues, Ukraine will remain in the fight. Its expansive territory and the quality of its military still preclude a rapid Russian breakthrough.
By arming Ukraine, and providing it economic support, the US and its allies have forced Russia to contend with a much more dangerous adversary than the Kremlin confronted in 2014 or expected to confront in February.
Western support must be sustained to be effective. The Ukraine war’s operational and strategic realities all point to an extended conflict, one that lasts at least until 2023, and perhaps longer.
High-intensity ground combat will subside in several weeks once Russia’s offensive in the Donbas either stabilizes a new front line or is defeated by a Ukrainian counterattack. But Putin will not walk away.
Ukraine will remain under constant military pressure over the summer, and Russia will return for another round of fighting in the fall or winter, after its most recent conscript class is trained and equipped, and perhaps after a general mobilization. American and allied support must continue, perhaps indefinitely, to ensure that Russia does not erode Ukrainian resistance over time and subjugate the country.
The Taiwan question
Does Biden’s policy shift stop at Ukraine? The US and its allies face an equally significant adversary that has not yet made its geopolitical move.
The China question remains entirely unresolved. Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China (CPC) still eye Taiwan, hoping to absorb the “renegade province” much like Vladimir Putin sought to return Ukraine to Russia’s imperial sphere.
Just as resolving the Ukraine question in Putin’s favor would solidify his legacy and secure his regime, resolving the Taiwan question in Xi’s favor would elevate him to Mao Zedong’s status. Moreover, Taiwan is strategically critical.
More so than Ukraine toward Russia, its sovereign existence bars China’s guaranteed access to the World Ocean and gives the US and its allies a commanding position in the Western Pacific. In turn, Xi and the Party believe that the US and its allies will object to their imperial conquest for strategic and ideological reasons. A cross-Strait conflict carries every expectation of becoming a general war.
Xi is unlikely to make his move in the next nine months. Until October or November, the 20th Party Congress will be his undivided focus. It is the final opportunity hostile elements within the CPC possess to remove Xi from power.
If he is re-elected as China’s paramount leader, he will rule indefinitely, exercising absolute control over the Party and the country. This helps explain the CPC’s insistence upon draconian Covid control measures and its “zero-Covid” policy. Like Putin vis-à-vis Ukraine, Xi has expended so much political capital on defeating Covid-19 through centralized Party control that he must stay the course or lose credibility.
However, after the Party Congress, Xi may return to external pursuits. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is not prepared fully for a Taiwan assault.
Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine demonstrate its need to improve combined arms integration, accelerate UCAV development, expand conventional long-range fires, and improve air control capabilities. But barring an American collapse, China has a relatively short window of opportunity.
The US is in the process of modernizing its naval forces, reorienting its military posture toward China, and creating a durable alliance system to contain a Chinese military threat. The Ukraine war has split American attention, turning it back to western Eurasia, rather than eastern Eurasia. This will not last indefinitely.
The PLA would like to wait until it has modernized further and expanded its traditional amphibious assault capabilities to attack Taiwan. Nevertheless, at the summit, politics and strategy are one.
Chairman Xi may deem it more reasonable to capitalize on American inattention now than wait another five to seven years, risking a more coherent US-led coalition that opposes Chinese aggression, and a more effective American military that can defeat a PLA invasion.
Supporting Ukraine in a long war requires accessing American high-end weapons stocks, cultivated over years or decades. The US has sufficient stocks to sustain Ukraine for the next nine to 12 months. But inventories are declining.
The US has already sent a third of its Javelin anti-tank missile stockpile to Ukraine – around 7,000 weapons, 5,500 of which were delivered after February 24 – and a quarter of its Stinger portable anti-air missile stockpile. Lockheed Martin’s facility in Troy, Alabama, that produces Javelins can make 2,100 a year. Raytheon has produced only a limited number of Stingers since 2000, when the Pentagon bought its final batch.
Neither of these weapons will be as critical in the immediate future. The war’s next phases will involve either static defenses or wide-area combined arms actions, in which armored vehicles and heavy artillery are crucial. Nevertheless, Stingers and Javelins will still be needed, as will ammunition and heavy weapons systems. Ukraine’s shell expenditure already has increased, and it will lose some of its new artillery to Russian counter-battery fire.
Moreover, the most critical weapons the US can offer, anti-ship missiles to allow Ukraine to break a Russian blockade of Odessa and contest its control of the Black Sea, are in limited supply. Their stocks would also be needed in a Sino-American conflict, which will be a sea war, not a land war.
Additionally, America’s allies rely on the US for defense-industrial capacity in peacetime. Europe will seek to rearm. Japan needs missiles, Australia submarines. Taiwan needs armored vehicles, missiles, artillery and aircraft. These demands will place stress on an already brittle defense industrial base.
The delays have already begun: This week, Taiwan announced it would seek interim options now that M109 howitzer will be delayed until 2026 at the earliest, as opposed to next year.
The way forward
If we Americans are to fight and win a global confrontation against Russia and China, the US must again become the arsenal of democracy. Three steps are needed to achieve this.
First, the US should encourage smaller producers to step in alongside the mega-conglomerates that currently dominate Western defense production. In the 1990s, the US consciously shrank its industrial base, creating a government-sanctioned oligopoly. Breaking up the big defense providers is impractical. Rather, the US government should provide incentives for those large defense manufacturers to work with new smaller firms, while also sponsoring some smaller companies akin to venture capital funding for startups.
Second, the US should work with its allies to identify dual-use infrastructure. Throughout the Cold War, the American defense industrial base relied on the additional capacity of civilian industry, a legacy of the national mobilization that won the World War. Modern defense production is more complex.
However, there are some industries particularly suited to dual-use production. Shipyards and automotive plants are clear examples. This would have the added upshot of attracting new labor talent and mitigating the challenges of an aging workforce.
Third, the US and its allies must ensure older equipment stays at a sufficient level of readiness to cover shortfalls. Ukraine, for example, has employed 200 donated M113 armored personnel carriers to great effect, although they are old and lightly armored. Similar equipment should be maintained as “surge” capacity in the event of a high-end conflict.
Successful defense depends on a host of things: political will and leadership, diplomacy, allies, strategy, appropriate technology, resolute commanders, a vigorous defense industrial base, and unreproachable logistics—to name a few.
It also – as Winston Churchill reminded Franklin D Roosevelt – rests on the “tools” of war.
“Give us the tools,’ the British prime minister said in a February 1941 speech in Parliament, “and we will finish the job.”
Notwithstanding hopes and prediction, the world faces again the prospect of major combat at sea and on land. Not only for its allies’ sake but for its own security, the US must rebuild its arsenal.