The Strategist Six: Thomas Mahnken

Welcome to The Strategist Six, a feature that provides a glimpse into the thinking of prominent academics, government officials, military officers, reporters and interesting individuals from around the world.

As both an international affairs specialist and a historian with a strong interest in the world’s navies, how do you view this time of rapid change and strategic tension?

The historian in me says that from the not too distant future we’ll look back and see 2017 and the time around it as a turning point in the way we think about navies and warfare. The world is increasingly characterised by peacetime great-power competition. China is aggressively pursuing its interests on its periphery and beyond, Russia is active on its periphery and beyond. They are investing in new capabilities and working in many ways to challenge the world order that’s prevailed for decades. Such changes are already driving the size and composition of the US Navy and other fleets.

How serious is the threat of great-power war?

While this world is characterised by peacetime competition between the US, China and Russia, competition isn’t the same thing as conflict. Nor does competition necessarily lead to conflict. But while the possibility of great-power war is remote, it’s not inconceivable, and the possibility is growing. The consequences could be enormous, with implications for world order. This situation is largely outside the professional experience of senior civilian policymakers and military leaders. Few of those now in uniform were serving in 1989.

As a historian, I am perfectly comfortable thinking in terms of large numbers of years or small numbers of decades. But for a military, a quarter of a century is a professional lifetime. Expertise works its way out of the system fairly rapidly. The lessons of the past can both inform and mislead. We can’t ignore the past, but neither should we be captured by it. And the fleets that the United States and its allies possess today were developed for very different circumstances than we face today and will face in the future. The need for presence, deterrence, reassurance and warfighting will endure, but they may look much different than they do now.

 How did we get to this?

The current situation can only be fully appreciated if we look back over the past quarter century. The US experienced a period of geopolitical dominance after the end of the Cold War that’s rare in world history. It possessed unilateral military advantages, particularly in precision-strike and information capabilities. In the 1991 Gulf War, the US was able to assemble a large and capable multinational coalition and use its military advantages to great effect to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. The quarter century that followed can be divided into two parts—the 1990s, a period of ‘hyperpower’; and from 9/11 on, a period with a focus on irregular warfare. US advantages have eroded at the strategic, operational and tactical levels as economic and military power has diffused. We now face a more level playing field, at the strategic, operational and tactical levels.

 Where are we going, and what does that mean for navies?

For the first time in decades, a strong argument can be made that the requirements of great-power war should be the most important test of the adequacy of our force structure and posture. It would feature adversaries armed with nuclear weapons, precision-strike systems, and cyber and space capabilities.

How would that war be fought and what would its consequences be?

Such a war would likely look much different from recent wars. Among its likely features would be high attrition, and consequently the need for social and industrial mobilisation to support the war; non-kinetic and potentially kinetic attacks on homelands; and disruption of the global economic system. It would require forces with depth and resilience to fight, accept damage and recover; an industrial base capable of supporting protracted operations, including producing munitions; and a logistical system able to operate in contested environments and defence of the homeland, including networks and military bases. Great-power war is just a possibility, albeit one that is marginally more likely today than in the past. I would argue that we are not well prepared for the situation of sustained great-power competition that we find ourselves in.

How do we prepare to deter, or to fight, such a conflict and would it be survivable?

First, there’s a need to become reacquainted with old concepts: deterrence, risk and political warfare waged by others who attempt to influence our populations directly and covertly. Second, there’s a need to adapt traditional concepts to 21st-century conditions, to include interdependence, globalisation, media, unmanned platforms and artificial intelligence among them. It will require that we think more consciously about the time dimension of strategy—what we show to the outside world and when, and conversely what we choose to conceal and when; that we think strategically about maritime geography and how we can use it to our advantage; that we deepen allied interoperability to deter and reassure, as well as to make us more effective if we have to fight side by side; and that we think anew about how navies can effectively deter great-power aggression by denying a competitor the prospective fruits of aggression.

We need to explore ways to create uncertainty and impose costs on our competitors in peacetime and to develop new ways of war to regain a competitive advantage. We need to seek ways to remove the level playing field to our benefit. We have to be very serious about it—even if all we seek to do is deter. If you want peace, prepare for war. I do think forces will be able to survive if they adapt the right way. Part of that is striking the right balance between a platform’s lethality and its size and visibility. A lot of navies are underinvested in lethality or overinvested in size, so you’ve got big, lucrative targets. I think the US Navy, with its distributed lethality, is trying to right that balance. We’re purchasing more small surface combatants, more frigates, but we want them to be more lethal than the littoral combat ship currently is. You want to force an adversary to expend lots of ordnance to destroy a relatively unlucrative target.

We need to study the history of great-power competition and conflict and assess thoughtfully the similarities to and differences from the past. We need to rebuild (and, in some cases, just build) intellectual capital and capabilities to deal with the era that we are in, and are likely to be in for the foreseeable future.