The unmanned surface vessels Mariner and Ranger maneuver in the Pacific Ocean during Integrated Battle Problem 23.2, on Sept. 16, 2023.

The unmanned surface vessels Mariner and Ranger maneuver in the Pacific Ocean during Integrated Battle Problem 23.2, on Sept. 16, 2023. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse Monford

Use 'hedge forces' to break the Pentagon's force-structure death spiral

The U.S. military must move away from exquisite general-purpose units and weapons.

Many have criticized the Biden administration’s fiscal 2025 defense spending proposal as insufficient to its time, because U.S. allies and partners are under attack in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. These critics—and the administration officials who say Congressional budget caps have tied their hands—miss the bigger picture: America’s military is in a force-structure death spiral.

After decades of pursuing ever-more-sophisticated ships and aircraft, spurred most recently by the need to pace the People’s Liberation Army, the Defense Department has fielded a force that is now too expensive to grow. Next year, the Pentagon plans to retire more ships and aircraft than it will buy, just as it did this year. With new platforms like the Next Generation Air Dominance fighter, DDG(X) destroyer, and SSN(X) submarine on the horizon, this trend is likely to continue, ultimately shrinking the U.S. military to a small force optimized to counter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. 

The Pentagon can only arrest the trend toward fewer, more sophisticated platforms by changing its approach to force planning. Instead of pursuing a “one size fits all” military that can both pace China and deal with other situations around the world, the DoD will need to increasingly tailor forces for specific regions or events. And the most urgent and obvious place to start is with the Taiwan-invasion scenario.

Hedging, not dominating

The fundamental challenge facing U.S. forces is the erosion of the dominance they had enjoyed since the end of the Cold War. Today, technology proliferation and the geostrategic advantages enjoyed by “home teams” like China or Russia that lack global responsibilities have undermined U.S. military advantages. 

To stay ahead, Pentagon budgets privilege high-end systems and platforms that can survive and fight at long range and in the most contested environments. They are more expensive to buy—and yet the real problem is these ships, aircraft, and ground formations cost more to crew, operate, and maintain than their predecessors. This challenge will only get worse due to shortfalls in recruiting and industrial base capacity. 

As many analysts have argued, Congress could simply increase defense spending, but that would address the symptoms, not the underlying disease. To pull out of its force-structure death spiral, the DoD will need to slow or shrink its efforts to field new cutting-edge crewed ships, aircraft, and vehicles. 

For almost all situations the U.S. military could face in the near to-mid-term, the current generation of multi-mission platforms is sufficient. But there are some scenarios, like a short-notice Chinese invasion of Taiwan, that are beyond the reach of today’s force at acceptable levels of risk. As multiple recent wargames suggest, although Taiwan’s defenders would likely succeed, they would only do so with substantial losses that would leave the U.S. force ill-prepared for subsequent aggression. 

To hedge against the risk posed by a Taiwan invasion, the DoD could complement the existing force with a dedicated unit designed to disrupt and slow the Chinese assault: a “hedge force” that could slow, disable, or even sink some PLA amphibious vessels and troop transports, and make the rest easier targets for long-range U.S. fires. Due to the threat from China’s air and missile forces, this hedge force could be entirely uncrewed and act essentially as a mobile minefield in areas near Taiwan’s coast. Earlier this year, prospective Indo-Pacific commander Adm. Sam Paparo proposed a similar approach of creating a “hellscape” in the Taiwan Strait to help stop a Chinese invasion. 

The technology for a hedge force is available today and affordable. As Ukrainian troops showed in the Black Sea, uncrewed vehicles can effectively deny areas to a capable adversary and in a challenging electromagnetic environment. And the cost to buy and own a viable hedge force is on par with that of two DDG(X)s or a single SSN(X).

By increasing uncertainty for PLA leaders, a hedge force could improve deterrence against China. Perhaps more important, by making long-range attacks more effective, a hedge force would reduce the risk to U.S. forces and potential losses, which could improve the credibility of U.S. security guarantees to allies. 

Stopping the death spiral

Incorporating hedge forces into defense planning would do more than help manage the risks posed by a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. As Pentagon leaders grapple with the end of U.S. dominance, more scenarios will emerge that are beyond the capability or capacity of the general-purpose U.S. military. Dedicated groups of uncrewed systems or manned-unmanned teams could be applied to situations like the threat of Russian submarine attacks against the U.S. East Coast or countering missile and drone attacks in the Middle East. 

Creating dedicated units for specific geographies and scenarios runs counter to decades of DoD force planning, which has pursued standardization and efficiency since the Soviet Union fell. With the era of U.S. military dominance ending, the DoD will need to embrace the specialization of hedge forces or risk losing America’s capacity to protect its allies and interests.

Bryan Clark and Dan Patt are Senior Fellows at the Hudson Institute.