Linnaea Mallette /

The US Is Unprepared to Mobilize for Great Power Conflict

In an era of lightning wars and easy-to-reach civilian populations, U.S. planners are giving mobilization far less attention than it requires.

The “fully mobilized Joint Force,” the National Defense Strategy tells us, will be capable of “defeating aggression by a major power; deterring opportunistic aggression elsewhere; and disrupting imminent terrorist and WMD threats.” Yet neither that document, nor U.S. planners in general, are sufficiently grappling with certain mobilization challenges that could prove decisive in a future great power conflict.

There are a few reasons for this shortfall. While U.S. strategists have in the past tended to assume that overmatch will flow from military-technological superiority, this may be no longer feasible, given advances in Chinese military innovation. Tomorrow’s conflicts are also likely to begin far more quickly than wars of the past, allowing little time to shift from a peacetime to a wartime posture and thus necessitating greater concern for competitive mobilization. In addition, efforts to disrupt U.S. critical infrastructure and sow disinformation among the American population to undermine national resolve may be prominent features of future geopolitical competition. 

Future conflicts could start rapidly and without warning. Surprise attacks could target U.S. battle networks, satellites, and logistics support in order to undermine C4ISR capabilities, while preventing or impeding power projection. In such a scenario, the American homeland is unlikely to be spared. The attacks of an adversary against U.S. critical infrastructure could cause major damage and disruption in ways that could undermine overall morale and create major impediments to mobilization. Given these threats and these apparent vulnerabilities, the resilience and survivability of the U.S. homeland must remain a core priority. So too, the U.S. military, which has become accustomed to operating in much more permissive environments in its recent history, must also be prepared to mobilize and operate under such demanding conditions. 

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If, for instance, U.S.-China conflict were to occur over an attempted PRC invasion of Taiwan, the Chinese military would be operating within close proximity to its homeland and able to draw upon full military and industrial resources. Conversely, the U.S. military would confront the considerable challenge of projecting power at much greater distances. American supporting infrastructures that would enable logistics and large-scale transportation, particularly TRANSCOM, would remain incredibly vulnerable to disruption or interference in the process.

Of course, the worst-case scenarios with which we are concerned remain unlikely, but preparation is vital to bolster deterrence. For instance, under most circumstances, Chinese leaders would prefer to defend their core interests and advance their strategic objectives through deterrence or coercion, aiming to “win without fighting.” Ahead of and during a confrontation, the beliefs and support of the American people should be considered a center of gravity—and likely target of attempted subversion. In this regard, the question of national mobilization must also take into account these concerns of societal resilience. 

Going forward, the U.S. government should improve its preparations along several lines of effort, especially in light of China’s construction of an architecture for whole-of-nation mobilization, involving extensive integration of military and civilian resources. The PLA’s recent reforms in its command structure and organization are intended to facilitate the integration of peacetime and wartime preparations. If a future conflict were to be protracted, China may have a comparative advantage in sustaining the fight, particularly considering the growing strength of its economic and industrial capabilities, including notably in shipbuilding. And China is also working to erase the U.S. military’s advantage in human capital. 

What next steps should American policymakers consider for competitive mobilization? Our suggestions highlight potential directions for continued implementation of the National Defense Strategy.

Modernize the Selective Service System

Scenarios of large-scale, protracted warfare that would require a new draft appear unlikely but hardly unimaginable. U.S. planning for mobilization does not appear to include adequate attention to the role and potential employment of the Selective Service System. Today, U.S. Joint Force plans do not include its use as an option. Anachronistic in certain respects despite some recent improvements, the SSS is unable to access the full range of talent and skillsets available in the U.S. population, talent that will be increasingly important in future conflict scenarios. It ought to be expanded to register not just men of 18 to 25 years, but to include Americans of all genders at least up to age 35. The character of conflict—and the role of women in the military—has changed dramatically since its establishment, and this system must adapt in kind. 

The SSS could be made even more useful by creating an option for “front-line service”: a more flexible type of service for Americans who want to volunteer to be quickly mobilized in a crisis, conflict, or emergency, yet who are unable or unwilling to commit to serving on an active or ongoing basis through the Reserves or National Guard. These front-line defenders could engage in an annual or bi-annnual exercise that practices the procedure for their mobilization and provides basic training. The system could include a survey where registrants could detail their skillsets and relevant professional or operational experiences, which could be applied across the board for all registrants or limited to those registering for “front-line service.” This new option for selective service could help adapt the system, including to augment such critical specialties as cyber defense. 

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Practice and Demonstrate Mobilization

The American approach to mobilization should be adapted to prepare for scenarios of high-end conflict that could involve fighting against one, or even two, great powers. The deepening alignment and military-to-military cooperation between China and Russia should be taken into account in planning, war-gaming, and requirements for mobilization. Such scenarios must be carried over into force development projections and understandings of end strength and human capital requirements needed in the military. The U.S. military must not only consider a new American way of warfare but also continue to reevaluate how mobilization fits into overall defense strategy. It will be essential to establish a fully comprehensive plan for mobilization that includes a vision of sustainable end strength, the establishment of skeleton units for quick mobilization, and the right mix of combat arms and highly skilled positions.

The United States must ask itself if it is fully capable today of mobilizing at scale and rapidly redeploying forces for a scenario of great power conflict, particularly at a time when the character of warfare is changing. The answer is, at best, uncertain. Although the U.S. military has the benefits of extensive operational experience, the speed, agility, and flexibility of American capacity to mobilize and fulfill logistics and transportation requirements under extreme or demanding conditions is difficult to evaluate. 

During the Cold War, this question was answered by—and forces given crucial training through—the annual Exercise Campaign REFORGER. A modern revival of REFORGER for the Indo-Pacific theater could provide those answers today, as well as improve deterrence. Such an exercise would also reveal and allow for the mitigation of any shortcomings in logistics, transport, and force levels that could identified in the process. The points of strain of larger-scale mobilization could also be examined in such an exercise: nearly two decades of conflict have demonstrated that the active duty/reserve mix has been a significant burden to the Reserve Component. If allies and partners from NATO and from the Indo-Pacific were invited to participate, such exercises also could contribute to improving interoperability. 

Prepare for Whole-of-Nation Mobilization 

At present, the United States appears to be lacking the planning and a cohesive strategy that could be required for whole-of-nation mobilization—nor could mobilization of this nature be structured or undertaken effectively without the designation of a high-level organization with a clear mandate for such an undertaking. Joint Publication 4-05, which was revised last fall, provides important guidance for mobilization of the total force. But there is no comparable framework that delineates the role of other government and commercial stakeholders in mobilization. Although the authorities provided by the Defense Production Act can be leveraged to this end, the lack of planning and a modern institutional mechanism to undertake industrial and technological mobilization could undermine the American capability to do so at the speed and scale of military relevance. 

Whereas China’s National Defense Mobilization Commission has the responsibility and is actively undertaking peacetime preparations to coordinate resources in the event of a war, there is no comparable commission in the United States today. The U.S. government should explore new mechanisms for mobilization that could leverage the efforts of multiple elements of government, as well as relevant industry stakeholders. In the process, there may be critical lessons to be learned from the history of U.S. industrial mobilization during World War II, including the key role that American businesses played at that time, that might inform this endeavor.

The United States should explore options to deepen public-private partnerships that might facilitate new directions in technological mobilization. Increasingly, the critical technological capabilities that might provide a key edge to the U.S. in a future conflict are the remit of companies that have varying and complex relationships with the U.S. national security establishment. To facilitate closer partnership with the evolving “national security innovation base,” the Department of Defense might consider creating a modern-day advisory commission to concentrate on issues of mobilization, which might include not only the relevant government stakeholders but also a range of industry participants, including those from critical emerging sectors. 

In its totality, the process of undertaking national mobilization would involve incredible complexity in the planning, management, and coordination of human, industrial, and innovation resources at scale. Today’s advances in artificial intelligence (AI) can provide tools that may prove well-suited to such a task. There are tremendous opportunities for the U.S. military to improve its use of big data and improved information sharing in support of logistics, transportation, and overall mobilization in order to reduce inefficiencies, pursuant to the Department of Defense’s new AI Strategy. A strategy for mobilization ought therefore to prize the collection of data that comprehensively characterizes the resources available for mobilization (e.g., logistics support, equipment, personnel with high-priority skillsets), along with the integrity and security of that data. 

Often, projections of future warfare concentrate on the technologies that are anticipated to reshape the character of conflict. However, this evident enthusiasm for innovation must not come at the expense of strategy, planning, or a recognition of the essential human element of warfare. Although technological advancement is essential to contest and perhaps maintain overmatch, warfare remains an endeavor that is inherently human. The challenge of deterring or winning against great power adversaries will demand more robust preparation for potential mobilization of human resources and the industrial and technological capabilities to support them. Not only the tip of the spear but also the shaft and the strength to throw it are essential elements for the future of American military power.