"US Is Not Yet Ready For Great Power Conflict", Yet Still Plots Against China; WSJ

 Authored by Yves Smith via NakedCapitalism.com,

A vivid scene came in my first year Harvard MBA course, Business, Government and the International Economy, taught in my section by George C. Lodge, son of Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. George Lodge said he still remembered the day in 1968 when he realized there were limits to US power, that we could not fight a war on poverty, send a man to the moon, and fight a ground war in Asia at the same time.

"US Is Not Yet Ready For Great Power Conflict", Yet Still Plots Against China; WSJ

The lack of that insight still seems widespread inside the Beltway, with belief in American omnipotence renewed by the fall of the USSR and then the further decline of Russia in the 1990s.

Under a story initially published with a page-wide banner headline, The US is Not Yet Ready for the Era of “Great Power’ Conflict. The article curiously omits that it is the US that has been fomenting these clashes. And even though the URL banner on the article proper reads, The US is Not Yet Ready for the Era of “Great Power’ Conflict with China and Russia, the piece treats Russia dismissively, in passing, and treats escalating with China as a perfectly reasonable thing to do, not just now. We’ll turn to Russia in due course, particularly in light of Ukraine deciding Monday to try to break into the Bakhmut cauldron.

If you read the article carefully, you’ll see the reverse, that any meaningful improvement in US preparedness against China is based on hopium, like the US developing, manufacturing, and deploying new weapons that are on the drawing board or in early stages. Similarly, it fails to admit a huge weakness in the US dealing with China: that our Navy is badly overinvested in the floating pork known as aircraft carriers. Informed observers like Scott Ritter has said China has the capability to take them out without too much difficulty if they get within menacing range. Sinking only one aircraft carrier would result in roughly 6000 deaths, a humiliation the US would not tolerate. Ritter has long worried that our response would be to fire a tactical nuke at the Chinese hinterlands. Ritter is certain that China would immediately light up the entire US West Coast.

China has nearly complete control over the cobalt, lithium and rare earths supply chain. From raw material extraction to processing operations.

The point of this article may be to provide cover for a minor US de-escalatory move with China: that rather than having new House Speaker stir the Taiwan independence pot as Nancy Pelosi did with a visit to the island, the Taiwanese leader will instead come to the US to meet McCarthy.

Note the article repeats the CIA claim that China intends to invade Taiwan by 2027. Ex CIA analyst Larry Johnson has warned that the agency has outsourced a tremendous amount of its purported intelligence-gathering, which in Ukraine has resulted in the government retailing Ukraine propaganda. There’s no reason to think China will invade even it decides it has had enough. A blockade would do. That would also put the US, in the eyes of the international community, as being the aggressor were it to try to do anything about it, since just about no one recognizes Taiwan.

The belief among cynics was the CIA (or its pro-Taiwan sources) focused on 2027 as close to the end of the window when the US could challenge China over Taiwan, in light of the growth of the Chinese economy and among other things, its ship-building capability. But this piece implicitly throws cold water on this timeline and keeps hammering at the idea that the US can surpass China, when there’s no reason to think we can create and deploy a whole bunch of new-gen systems and upgrade our forces too.

The article is also heavily anecdotal, generally not a good sign in a story on a “hard” topic like geopolitics. It start with an Air Force lieutenant general realizing as a result of 2018 wargames that China had enough missiles to do serious damage to US bases in the region. It ominously continues:

Five years ago…the U.S. started tackling a new era of great-power competition with China and Russia. It isn’t yet ready, and there are major obstacles in the way….

Corporate consolidation across the American defense industry has left the Pentagon with fewer arms manufacturers. Shipyards are struggling to produce the submarines the Navy says it needs to counter China’s larger naval fleet, and weapon designers are rushing to catch up with China and Russia in developing superfast hypersonic missiles.

When the Washington think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies ran a wargame last year that simulated a Chinese amphibious attack on Taiwan, the U.S. side ran out of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles within a week.

The military is struggling to meet recruitment goals, with Americans turned off by the long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, potentially leaving the all-volunteer force short of manpower. Plans to position more forces within striking range of China are still a work in progress

Yet it lards that sober message with faith in eventual success via vaporware or hopium:

The U.S. military is still more capable than its main adversaries. The Chinese have their own obstacles in developing the capability to carry out a large-scale amphibious assault, while the weaknesses of Russia’s military have been exposed in Ukraine….

New tactics have been devised to disperse U.S. forces and make them less of an inviting target for China’s increasingly powerful missiles.

The Pentagon’s annual budget for research and development has been boosted to $140 billion—an all time high. The military is pursuing cutting-edge technology it hopes will enable the military services to share targeting data instantaneously so that U.S. air, land, sea and space forces, operating over thousands of miles, can act in unison, a current challenge….

Many of the cutting-edge weapons systems the Pentagon believes will tilt the battlefield in its favor won’t be ready until the 2030s, raising the risk that China may be tempted to act before the U.S. effort bears fruit.

We’ll interrupt this recap to point out that the US bizarrely assumes it will be able to gain meaningful ground on China, that China will either stand still or not progress as quickly. Yet if you look at the ASPI critical technologies study we cited yesterday, you will see China dominates in categories relevant to military hardware and battlefield coordination: advanced materials and manufacturing; artificial intelligence, computing and communications; defense, space, robotics, and transportation.

Back to the Journal:

Deterring China from invading Taiwan, a longstanding U.S. partner that Beijing claims as Chinese territory, defines the challenge….The U.S. needed to demonstrate it could prevent Beijing from seizing the island in the first place—a requirement included in the Biden administration’s National Defense Strategy issued in 2022…

A more recent wargame conducted by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff showed the U.S. could stymie a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and force a stalemate if the conflict was fought later in the decade, although high casualties on both sides would result. That simulation assumed that the U.S. would have the benefit of new weapons, tactics and military deployments that are currently being planned at the Pentagon.

So the US will only be able to fight China to a draw if US new wunderfaffen become operational soon enough and the US succeeds in executing a major revamp too.

More on capability-building:

The Army, which saw its electronic warfare, short-range air defense and engineering capabilities atrophy amid budget pressures and the previous decades’ wars, is moving to develop a new generation of weapons systems that can strike targets at much longer ranges. It is planning to deploy a new hypersonic missile in the fall though its utility against Chinese forces will depend on securing basing rights in the Pacific.

The Navy, which is confronting budget pressures, personnel shortages and limits to American shipbuilding capacity, is currently planning to expand its fleet to at least 355 crewed ships, a size still smaller than China’s current navy. In the near term, the U.S. will have around 290 ships.

A CBO report dated January 31, 2023 is much less bullish about hypersonic missiles, including their combat-ready date:

CBO reached the following conclusions:

Technological challenges must still be overcome to field hypersonic missiles. The fundamental remaining challenge involves managing the extreme heat that hypersonic missiles are exposed to by traveling at high speeds in the atmosphere for most of their flight (unlike cruise missiles, which fly in the atmosphere at lower speeds, or ballistic missiles, which mainly fly above the atmosphere). Shielding hypersonic missiles’ sensitive electronics, understanding how various materials perform, and predicting aerodynamics at sustained temperatures as high as 3,000° Fahrenheit require extensive flight testing. Tests are ongoing, but failures in recent years have delayed progress.

Both hypersonic and ballistic missiles are well-suited to operate outside potential adversaries’ antiaccess and area-denial (A2/AD), or “keep-out,” zones. The Department of Defense has developed a strategy to use accurate, long-range, high-speed missiles early in a conflict to neutralize the A2/AD zones being developed by potential adversaries, such as China and Russia. Both hypersonic missiles and ballistic missiles equipped with maneuverable warheads could provide the combination of speed, accuracy, range, and survivability (the ability to reach a target without being intercepted) that would be useful in the military scenarios CBO considered. However, many missions do not require such rapid strikes. For those missions, less costly alternatives to both hypersonic and ballistic missiles exist, including subsonic cruise missiles. Hypersonic weapons would mainly be useful to address threats that were both well-defended and extremely time-sensitive.

Again to the Journal:

The general [Clint Hinote] has pushed to equip cargo planes with cruise missiles to boost allied firepower, the use of high-altitude balloons to carry sensors and electric “flying cars” to carry people and equipment throughout the Pacific island chains—ideas that have led to experiments but so far no procurement decisions.

He thinks a future Air Force could rely more on autonomous, uncrewed aircraft and deploy fewer fighters.

Mind you, Russia went down that path a long, long time ago, resulting its layered offensive missiles and its best-in-breed air defense systems.

The cheery closing thought, from Hinote:

“I think we’ve got a recipe for blunting” a Chinese attack, he said. “I just think you have to reinvent your force to do it.”

Now if this article isn’t worrisome enough merely based on a careful reading for relying on magic technological saves or massive operational improvements, another big red flag is its few, scathing mentions of Russia. The article does acknowledge the danger of China and Russia cooperating and Russia’s strong capabilities in hypersonic missiles. But the references to Ukraine are dismissive:

…the weaknesses of Russia’s military have been exposed in Ukraine….

A conflict in the Western Pacific might also give Russia’s military, which has been badly battered in Ukraine, the confidence to carry out President Vladimir Putin’s goals of reviving Russian power in what it believes to be its traditional sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe.

Mind you, I do not believe this take is entirely or even mainly the result of Pentagon spokescritters hewing to the party line. My impression is most of them believe it. We discussed the latest Defense Intelligence Agency’s Worldwide Threat Assessment, particularly regarding its underestimation of Russia. If we can’t get that right, when we’ve been trying to gin up a war with them since 2014, why should we have any more confidence in our assessment of China?

The US is managing to talk itself into a different type of delusion with respect to Russia. Remember the Anthony Blinken interview with the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, which was widely depicted as presenting a peace plan? In fact it did no such thing. It was a formula for keeping the conflict going, just at a lower boil. As we wrote:

The Blinken/State vision seems to be:

US and NATO support Ukraine > *Magic* > War ends > US and NATO support Ukraine

We and others have speculated that Blinken’s peace gestures are insincere, merely to appease various constituencies that want to see the war end and also intended, if possible, to depict Russia as not interested in negotiating.

The latter claim is to a fair degree true, but that is due to the now-clear Western position that the most it is prepared to do is stop a hot war but continue arming Ukraine so as to restart at a convenient time. Russia recognized that it is at war with NATO and it needs a durable solution. Given the West’s stated lack of interest in a lasting peace, plus its pride over its duplicity, Russia has no choice but to keep going until it has prostrated NATO or alternatively, increased pressure on major fault lines (for instance, Douglas Macgregor has said NATO would fracture if Poland were to enter Ukraine).

Consider this section from a February Wall Street Journal story, in which NATO plans to make Ukraine an official, as opposed to de facto, NATO-lite member:

Germany, France and Britain see stronger ties between NATO and Ukraine as a way to encourage Kyiv to start peace talks with Russia later this year, officials from the three governments said, as some of Kyiv’s Western partners have growing doubts over its ability to reconquer all its territory.

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last week laid out a blueprint for an agreement to give Ukraine much broader access to advanced military equipment, weapons and ammunition to defend itself once the war ends…

A British official said another goal of the NATO pact would be to change the Kremlin’s calculus. If Moscow sees that the West is prepared to scale up its military assistance and commitments to Ukraine over time, it could help persuade Moscow that it can’t achieve its military objectives.

This must be one of the British officials that also believes (per British MoD press reports) that Russia has committed 97% of its armed forces to Ukraine and Wagner forces in Bakhmut are fighting with shovels

The West is completely open that it plans to keep arming Ukraine no matter what. It expects Russia to agree to a peace deal despite Ukraine being a ticking time bomb by design. It further expects Russia to negotiate when it’s becoming obvious that the US/NATO ability to supply enough artillery and equipment will drop off even further come sometime in the summer. Recall that the press has reported that Ukraine’s daily ammo fire has dropped from 3,000 to 4,000 shells to more like 2,000 and Ukraine is demanding 250,000 shells a month. Not only can the West not provide that, but even that is not enough to match Russia’s estimated 600,000 shells a month.

In addition, and due to the pressure of time, I was not able to confirm the sourcing, but in recent broadcast, Alexander Mercouris, citing a Western source (perhaps the BBC?) said Ukraine had only 300 artillery platforms, which he noted was down from about 1000 when the war started. If that it true, you can stick a fork in Ukraine. We pointed out that Russia had recently deployed a very effective counter-battery device called the Penicillin, which allowed Russia to detect the location of artillery fire using sound waves and ground impact. Unlike radar, the Penicillin does not put out signals that can be read, so it can’t be located and destroyed.

Since the Penicillin was put into production, various commentators have pointed out that Russia has been taking out many more weapons platforms. My impression from Dima at Military Summary is that the average is over 2 a day.

Even if only 2 a day, 60 platforms in a month is 1/5 of what Ukraine is alleged to have left. And as Brian Berletic has repeatedly documented, US weapons deliveries and the dollars attached to them keep falling, to the degree that the US has stopped disclosing the numbers of what it is sending, merely naming the type of weapon or support.

And so the delusion produces confused messages. Again from the February story:

President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he needed to start considering peace talks with Moscow when the three leaders met in Paris earlier this month, people familiar with the conversation said….

While London, Paris and Berlin see the possibility that Kyiv may have to seek talks with Russia after an expected counteroffensive this spring that could help it regain more territory, other Ukraine backers think there should be no negotiations as long as Russian troops remain on Ukrainian soil

Ukraine’s backers are acting like gamblers hoping they can wager their way out of big losses. No, Ukraine is not to sue for peace now. It’s to settle after a win, even if it were to prove to be a modest win, mainly for the sake of the face of its funders.

And how is that supposed to happen?

Russian officials have reported that Ukraine is massing more troops, up from 25,000 to now over 30,000 in Zaporzhizhia, presumably to try an offensive to the south, aimed either at Melitopol or Mariupol. The wags speculate that Ukraine will assemble 40,000 and perhaps as many as 60,000 men, with the target time expected to be late March/early April.

But these troops will be short on tanks, ammo, and air cover. And Russia has been building major fortifications in the region since Surovkin took over in October, and per Alexander Mercouris, has about 90,000 there now. If an attack looked likely, Russia would almost certain increase its force level there.

And while Ukraine is supposedly preparing for its big, last ditch counter-offensive, it is also wasting more men and materiel in Bakhmut. Russia has achieved operational encirclement. Men can’t get out without serious survival risk. But Ukraine announced Monday it is still contesting Bakhmut, most experts believe by attempting to force open a transportation route. But even if they succeed, to what end? If they can get enough troops out to recover the cost of forcing open a corridor, that might be a worthy gamble. But if they think they can do more than further delay the full capture of Bakhmut, it’s more evidence they have lost their minds.

For much more detail on the grim state of play in Bakhmut, see Moon of Alabama’s new post Why Bakhmut Is Falling.

Now of course wars are uncertain, and perhaps Russia will make a spectacular blunder. But absent that, it’s hard to see any reason for Russia to end the war before its aims are met. And the US and NATO keep feeding more cannon fodder into the Russian killing machine.

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