U.S. Air Force aircraft participate in a close formation taxi known as an "elephant walk" at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, May 5, 2020.

U.S. Air Force aircraft participate in a close formation taxi known as an "elephant walk" at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, May 5, 2020. Air Force Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes Montijo

Let’s Get Real About US Military ‘Dominance’

American strategists need to drop the assumption that the U.S. military will be the superior force in any given situation.

“We want to be the GOAT.” So said Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, in a meme that drew some derision on social media early last month. Most of the jeers appeared to concern the goat emoji used in place of the acronym for Greatest Of All Time. But what of the three-star’s broader message? While the sentiment is admirable, is being the "greatest of all time" a realistic goal for a service in its infancy, itself part of a military with a stagnant budget and evaporating technological advantages?

In recent years, several U.S. military services have set similarly aspirational but questionable goals in their strategies for the future. For example, the U.S. Air Force’s “vision for 2030 and beyond” called for “an Air Force that dominates time, space, and complexity in future conflict across all operating domains.” Meanwhile, other futures assessments have doubted the rise of the main U.S. competitor. “[F]or China to achieve superpower status, it will likely have to overcome a wide range of current domestic challenges to sustainable economic growth and power projection,” asserted the U.S. Army Futures Command. While China undoubtedly faces challenges, its path toward superpower status appears more assured than this Army assessment would suggest. It is true that demographic and other challenges that China faces are likely to undermine its great power status—but only long after it has achieved such status and surpassed the United States. 

It’s time for more realistic futures analyses in the U.S. armed forces. While the U.S. military may remain the dominant force across all domains in any location on any day of the week during any time of day, recent long-term trends dictate that that should no longer be the operating assumption of American military strategists in their futures analysis.

Relative rise and decline

More realistic analyses of power dynamics among militaries begin with understanding that power is a relative concept. The power of an individual or, in this case, a country depends on several factors: What type of power are we discussing, where, and who or what to which are we comparing it? The U.S. military, economy, diplomatic corps, and other instruments of national power remain strong and, in most cases, continue to grow or modernize. Yet, the same is true for China—but their growth is much faster, even if they have a way to go before reaching parity in military capabilities, for example. The result is China’s relative rise, and thus, relative U.S. decline.

This story is clearest when comparing each country’s recent economic growth. According to several forecasts, China’s economy will soon be the largest in the world when measured at market exchange rates, or MER. (It already is in terms of purchasing power parity, a correction meant to account for levels of development.) In 2015, The Economist Intelligence Unit projected that China’s economic size would surpass the U.S. by 2026. Two years later, a PwC report moved the transition date up one year. Both projections square with recent post-COVID-19 forecasts from our team at the University of Denver’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures, which also projects a U.S.-China economic transition as measured by GDP at MER in 2025 or 2026. 

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China already leads the United States in the worldwide trade in goods. Last year, it became the top trading partner of the European Union, an area where U.S. trade dominated only a decade ago. This is particularly important because, as international relations scholars Emilie Hafner-Burton and Alexander Montgomery note: trade “is not just about money or goods; it creates power politics, making poor countries worse off, robbing them of the material capabilities necessary to defend their interests in an increasingly integrated world marketplace.”

Through a diplomatic lens, China has made great strides in recent years. There is a case to be made that the U.S. remains dominant, and Chinese diplomats’ brand of “wolf warrior diplomacy” appears to be tarnishing rather than enhancing their nation’s reputation around the world. Still, China’s diplomatic rise is undeniable, and its pressure on corporations and countries alike to align their policies with its own preferences has become increasingly visible.

Militarily, the U.S. continues to retain a distinct advantage. But for how long? If “economic development improves a state’s ability to produce high-quality military equipment and skillful military personnel,” as political scientist Michael Beckley observed, China’s abilities to produce a world-class military should be expected to continue to grow at an impressive rate. The country’s growing military budget and scheduled production of increasingly advanced equipment are early signs that this will remain the case. These and other trends have led RAND researchers to recently conclude that there will soon be “a macro shift in the fundamental assumptions of how the United States wins wars—a shift away from the quantitative and qualitative advantages to which it has grown accustomed.”

In light of these combined realities—China’s economic, diplomatic, and military rise—it is imperative that U.S. strategists consider future scenarios where American might no longer matches that of China. More than consider them — strategists should assume that contestation will be the rule rather than the exception. Indeed, a future world with China as the leading power should be the base-case assumption, one that will only likely be avoided by severe destabilization within the Chinese Communist Party.

Getting real

Part of the purpose of planning is to identify priorities, prepare for what’s expected, and establish contingencies for when things go wrong. If nothing else, assuming that China’s power could soon far outmatch that of the United States is a useful thought exercise.

One peril in not considering more pessimistic scenarios for U.S. power relative to China is that it can lead to overconfidence. Moreover, this attitude leads to missed opportunities. Throughout its history, Russia has made the best of situations in which it was outmatched by leveraging what strategist William C. Fuller called the “advantages of backwardness.” Will the United States be able to use similar advantages in a conflict with an enemy that appears to have achieved overmatch? This question is difficult to answer without a considerable in-depth examination of what those advantages might be. Without crafting well-considered, detailed scenarios about what situation could lead to such an overmatch—not simply worst-case scenarios but base-case scenarios that appreciate the reality of China’s current trajectory—this question is difficult to even ask.

In preparing for contestation, what can the U.S. military do? The Navy has already started by requiring sailors to be proficient with the use of sextants for navigation in the event of a Global Positioning System blackout or spoofing. This approach uses service members’ abilities to think and operate independently, qualities readily available in such a highly educated force.

More broadly, each armed service should focus on its comparative advantage. U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s decision to change the Marine Corps from a land-based, tank-laden force to one that focuses more on its traditional mission—taking and holding denied areas in littoral and island-based combat—is a bold and impressive start. Marines should no longer be assigned to land-locked forward operating bases. The U.S. Army will instead bear the brunt of such missions. Where expeditionary airfields are concerned, U.S. Air Force Security Forces could help ease this burden if there were an expansion of the service’s Phoenix Raven and DAGRE programs.

In addition to greater emphasis on specialization and joint operations, U.S. military planners should consider greater collaboration with other militaries. Given their anti-submarine capabilities, Japan should be counted upon to lead such missions in East and Southeast Asia, should the need arise. Meanwhile, European allies that have been wary of maintaining spending and force authorization levels necessary to be useful in large-scale combat — Germany in particular — could be relied upon to specialize in humanitarian relief and other military operations other than war. This is not to say that these shifts would occur overnight or that they would be a panacea, but they would help the U.S. military shift away from a jack-of-all-trades posture, simultaneously preparing to fight or deliver aid at any location at any time (a posture not necessarily of its own choosing).

Finally, strategists should consider stricter strategic discipline. This could mean becoming involved in fewer conflicts. Other times it could mean letting the adversary set the pace in a conflict or make the next move rather than allowing an opponent with greater capacity or capability to force an error.

Pivot to malaise-ia 

There is no question that it will be tough for the U.S. armed forces to pivot from a mentality of being the best at everything, anywhere, and at any time to an attitude of being good enough and getting by with help from friends. At one point in time, failing to dominate the high seas would have been anathema to the strategic thought of the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, but, eventually, that day came. 

While U.S. forfeiture of its place as the world’s leading power is far from certain, the plausibility of such a scenario given recent and forecasted trends make considering it necessary, however uncomfortable for American strategists. Better to plan ahead and make the necessary adjustments ahead of time than, as was the case with the United Kingdom, recognize a great power transition only after the fact.

Collin Meisel is the Diplometrics Program Lead and Research Associate at the University of Denver’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures.