If the 20th century was the era of tanks, planes and bombs, the 21st is shaping up to be a time when bits, bytes and “soft power” are becoming weapons of choice.
That’s according to retired Air Force Gen. Phil Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and now a distinguished professor at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.
If America’s “near peers” — particularly Russia and China — have learned anything from observing the U.S. in recent conflicts, it’s that they don’t want to try and match American military strength mano a mano.
Instead, they rely on “asymmetric methods and indirect means,” as one Russian strategist puts it, Mr. Breedlove warned in an Atlanta Council on International Relations luncheon Nov. 5.
“Our competitors have seen that they cannot meet us on a battlefield when we are ready to fight,” Mr. Breedlove said, noting how the world has watched the U.S. plant its feet and coordinate air, land and sea power with devastating effect, often with decisions made in real-time back in Washington thanks to tremendous computing power and space-based communications equipment.
“What they want to do is fight us where we aren’t or fight us where we’re weak,” he said.
The Online Battlefield
Especially with Russia, that battlefield is increasingly moving online, and the Russians have gotten a lot of bang for their cyberspace buck meddling with the prevailing ways Americans get their information.
One of their biggest objectives: undermining American faith in their democratic system, and exposing its shortcomings to a world that once looked to the U.S. for leadership.
“How do you think they’re doing?” he said to an ACIR audience at the Capital City Club. “Pretty well.”
The mobile phone been a key “attack vector,” he said, saying that Americans fill social media accounts accessed primarily via these “echo boxes” with ideological voices similar to their own.
This supposed reliance on technology makes it a perfect (and relatively affordable) target for Russian disinformation campaigns, and it doesn’t take an army of skilled hackers.
Mr. Breedlove cited the so-called Mizzou Incident, where Russian-backed Twitter accounts and bots generated and spread rumors that the police had beaten a young black boy and were patrolling the University of Missouri’s campus with Ku Klux Klan members. That helped spark discord in the real world.
Missouri was a warm-up to extensive Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, which has been the center of a probe that has dogged the Trump White House.
“They were involved in our last election, and they are involved in this election, and again, they are out there on our campuses,” Mr. Breedlove said the day before the U.S. midterm elections in which the Democratic Party won back a majority in the House of Representatives while the Republicans widened their lead in the U.S. Senate.
Meanwhile, Russia has pushed the limits of the international community, putting “force back on the table” by annexing the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine, poisoning a former spy with a nerve agent on British soil and establishing a foothold in the Middle East through its backing of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, all with minor consequences.
“Russia is going to attack us in every one of our nations to the degree that they can get away with, until they reach a pushback that is too hard to take,” he said.
China may be less explicit, but its island-building operations in the South China Sea represent another effort to take any potential fights away from the Chinese mainland, Mr. Breedlove said.
China is also challenging U.S. technological supremacy while positioning itself as a backer of the global trading system as the U.S. pulls back from key multilateral institutions.
Biggest Threat? Budget Concerns
So, how should the U.S. counter these threats?
“If I was to tell you right now what threatens us in a military sense more than anything else, it’s our budget and our deficit.”
For one, Mr. Breedlove said, it should reinvest in longstanding alliances like NATO, which he says is here to stay, despite turbulence in recent years under the Trump administration.
“I think NATO has been one the most successful alliances in the history of the world. If we choose to change that, we will live with the consequences of changing that.”
The U.S. must also “recapitalize” and modernize its military. The Air Force, which is “smaller and older than the day it was born,” provides a primary example, according to Mr. Breedlove, a former pilot.
“The mother of the last pilot to fly a B-52 has not been born yet,” he said, pointing to what he thinks will end up being a hundred-year run for a plane introduced in the 1950s.
But it also needs to recognize that the firepower that won last century’s wars won’t be sufficient alone; potential adversaries are now outpacing the U.S. in key technological fields and they’re fighting holistically to avoid meeting on the battlefield.
“We have to think as much as we have in the past, if not more, about disruptive technologies.”
The U.S. can’t respond in extremes, swinging from simple economic sanctions to using the military as a hammer. Instead it must take a more “whole-of-government” approach toward issues like Russian aggression or radical Islamic terrorism.
“We are attacked in a balanced way, and we reply in completely unbalanced ways that are typically very politically acceptable,” he said.
At the core of these issues, he said, is finding the political will to truly equip the U.S. military. While China and Russia are both one-party states, electoral swings and unchecked partisanship in a democratically elected Congress affects the American ability to budget and plan for the long haul.
“If I was to tell you right now what threatens us in a military sense more than anything else, it’s our budget and our deficit,” Mr. Breedlove said.
That has to change, as the country’s military spending must be predictable and its debt under control in order to afford the strong military needed to address threats around the world, he said.
“Our replies cannot be measured in two-year election cycles. If they are, we will get the result that we deserve, sadly. We require a bi-partisan way ahead, and we need it to be not about political parties but about a national reply to international problems, and we need to make it not just America’s way forward but a way forward of a Western alliance or a Western coalition.”