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Offsetting challenges to western military-technological supremacy: time for a new paradigm in European capability development

Image credit: U.S. Army

Image credit: U.S. Army

It is time that debates on capability development in Europe get to grips with the impending challenges to Western military-technological supremacy – and current United States (US) efforts to offset such challenges. For more than three decades, Americans and Europeans have rode comfortably on the assumption of unhindered strategic access and mobility across the globe. The foundations of that assumption are to be found in a series of US breakthroughs in communications and information technology, navigation and precision-guided weapons.

Back in the mid-1970s, the US Defense Department began to develop a strategy to offset the Soviet Union’s conventional military strength in Europe, which revolved around overwhelming mass on the battlefield. By leveraging US advantages in stealth technologies, computer networking, and the global positioning system, the Pentagon opened the path to the so-called revolution in precision-guided weaponry. Europeans followed suit by progressively incorporating emerging US technologies and operational concepts into their militaries through the 1980s and 1990s. The ‘reconnaissance-strike’ complexes generated by those technologies would allow the NATO allies to ‘see deep’ and ‘strike deep’ into Soviet territory – thus rendering Moscow’s emphasis on military mass all but obsolete.

The precision-guided revolution may have played an important part in accelerating the Soviet Union’s strategic decline. However, it was the end of the Cold War that actually opened the path for Americans and Europeans to claim the geopolitical dividends of their military-technological edge. Ever since the end of the Cold War, Americans and Europeans have drawn on their advantages in communications, navigation, and precision-guided weaponry to assert their strategic ownership over the ‘global commons’, i.e. the world’s oceans and seas, air, space and cyber-space. This has allowed them to move freely around the globe, as well as transit in and out of different operational theaters at their will.

The combination of military-technological supremacy and the absence of great power competitors gave the West a safe pass to expand its global geopolitical remit. For the better part of the last three decades, US and European security efforts have focused on so-called ‘out of area’ operations and follow-up state-building initiatives, whether in the Western Balkans, the Middle East, Afghanistan or throughout Africa. This has led Americans and Europeans to prioritise expeditionary military concepts and capabilities, but also look at ways to achieve greater coordination between military and civilian instruments – much needed for crisis management and state building purposes.

Today, the foundations of Western supremacy are beginning to erode. The reasons are manifold, and often interrelated. Much of it has to do with the return of good old-fashioned geopolitical competition. The rise of China in the Asia-Pacific and Russia’s comeback in Eastern Europe means Americans and Europeans have less strategic bandwidth to venture out of area – and must devote greater resources to the core business of defence and deterrence. In addition to that, the combination of intervention ‘fatigue’ and declining defense budgets in the US and Europe makes it harder to expense resources in costly expeditionary endeavours.

Arguably, the most serious and structural challenge to Western military-technological supremacy comes from the development and proliferation of so-called ‘Anti Access Area Denial’ (A2/AD) capabilities. Most notably, the increasing accuracy and proliferation of ballistic and cruise missiles threatens US forward bases and naval assets – and poses a particularly serious problem in the Asia-Pacific. The A2/AD challenge also features cyber and anti-satellite capabilities aimed at disrupting the communications and situational awareness of US and Western militaries.

The A2/AD challenge targets the military-technological foundations of Western geopolitical supremacy, insofar as it is aimed at denying Western military forces access and freedom of movement to certain operational theaters. A2/AD capabilities are being developed primarily by China and Russia, but are also being exported to countries like Iran, Pakistan or Syria.

The US has already begun to grapple with the implications of the A2/AD challenge. In late 2014, former Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel set in motion a new offset strategy aimed at developing the necessary capabilities to overcome Chinese (and Russian) advances in A2/AD. The new offset strategy dovetails with the Pentagon’s recent efforts to develop new operational concepts – such as Air-Sea Battle or Conventional Prompt Global Strike; and will incentivise ‘breakthrough technologies’ in the realm of cyber, energy-based weaponry, stealth or robotics. It has also spearheaded efforts to achieve a more efficient bureaucratic structure within the US military, and a more flexible relationship between the Pentagon and the US defense industry.

Beyond the A2/AD problem, mounting strategic, political and financial pressures are presiding over a shift in US defense strategy – away from the emphasis on “out of area” interventions of the last decades. Greater attention is being paid to the more ‘silent’ functions of military power, such as deterrence, defence, prevention, intelligence, military diplomacy, building partnership capacity, etc. This is not to say that the era of Western expeditionary operations is over. However, long-lasting and ambitious operations à la Iraq/Afghanistan are likely to be avoided and more ‘surgical’ forms of intervention prioritised, i.e. precision strikes, Special Operation Forces, cyber-attacks, etc.

In contrast to the US, Europeans seem to be stuck on a 1990s mind frame. This is perhaps especially true of the EU, where concepts like ‘external crisis management’ and ‘post-conflict stabilisation’ continue to largely mediate capability discussions.

Admittedly, NATO’s increasing emphasis on defence and deterrence represents an opportunity for a more dynamic debate on capability development in Europe. In order to strengthen the defences of Eastern Europe and contribute to deterrence there, Europeans should pay greater attention to ‘Air-Land’ capabilities (i.e. air combat, air defense, heavy armor and artillery, etc.), cyber-defense, strategic and theater missile defense or energy-based weaponry.

Insofar as NATO/EU territory may be a battleground itself (i.e. through air/underwater incursions, destabilisation, etc.) Europeans should also emphasise situational awareness and surveillance capabilities, which the most vulnerable countries in the Eastern Flank may lack.

Given the prospect that the NATO defence planning process reaffirms its influence over force planning and force structure in Europe, it is only logical that this feeds into European capability discussions, including in an EU context.

As far as power projection is concerned, perhaps fewer resources should be devoted to some of the flagship capabilities that the EU has been promoting for more than a decade, namely strategic airlift and sealift, air-to-air refueling or tactical airlift. Those capabilities are broadly aimed at enabling expeditionary operations in rather permissive strategic environments – and it is unclear to what extent they will be of much use as A2/AD capabilities begin to mature and proliferate.

For instance, air-tankers, military transport aircraft, and helicopters are distinctively non-stealthy, and therefore increasingly vulnerable in mature A2/AD environments. In this regard, greater emphasis should perhaps be placed on capabilities that can help project military power in more challenging operational environments, such as long-range strike, undersea warfare, stealthy aerial combat systems, special operations forces, cyber warfare, space defense and anti-satellite weapons, etc.

Vol. 7, No. 51 (2015)


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