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US Military Strength Is Disappearing Little By Little

December 31, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

A series of minor disasters throughout the year have driven home a single, awful truth: the US military is becoming impotent. Little by little, the coercive effect of overwhelming high tech intervention is no longer making a difference in many trouble spots. The ongoing power struggle in Libya is illustrative; a self-declared national leader and former CIA asset, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, has been trying to conquer the western half of the country for the past several months. Haftar enjoys material support from US allies (Egypt and the UAE) and enemies alike with Russia unconcerned about hiding its patronage.

In its current disorder Libya is a vortex of arms trafficking and a robust slave trade driving migrants to Europe and elsewhere. The US, by the way, has spent decades stabilizing North Africa yet the Trump administration has no credible plan for Libya despite the apparent risks it poses to the region. This scatter-brained Trumpian approach is in action elsewhere.

A less controversial event that signaled the US military’s waning strength was a lavish parade in Beijing. On October 1 the PLA marked 70 years since its historic victory in the Chinese Civil War that pitted it against the Kuomintang. But the epic parade in Tiananmen was more than just a ceremony–it advertised dozens of new weapons entering service with China’s air and ground forces. Two specific models stand out. First was a jet-powered combat drone carried on a trailer; evidence that China has inched ahead of the US in a technological niche where it lagged behind just eight years ago. The drone named the GJ-11 is a flying wing design with stealth characteristics. Meanwhile, no branch of the US military is fielding a similar drone even when defense contractors have rolled out successful prototypes. Iran and Russia, on the other hand, are busy fielding their own stealthy UCAVs such as the Saegeh and the Okhotnik.

The second Chinese weapon of note at the October 1 parade were the missiles identified as DF-17’s. These were carried on TELs and armed with hypersonic warheads. Speculation is still rife on whether the DF-17 is as menacing as it appears and some critical voices have concluded it’s a mere intermediate-range missile. Yet Russia’s own progress with its Avangard hypersonic vehicle and its invincibility against current missile defenses shows that US rivals are betting on hypersonic weapons to level the odds in their favor. Besides the telling evidence from the last military parade in Beijing this year saw a crucial milestone for China’s navy. After years of breakneck production in state-owned shipyards its current fleet surpassed the US Navy in actual size. The only drawbacks the PLAN faces at this point are having a few genuine expeditionary vessels and even fewer nuclear-powered combatants like supercarriers and SSBNs.

Of course, some skeptics have pointed out this imbalance doesn’t matter. The US Navy enjoys uncontested access to the world’s oceans and maintains strong alliances with many foreign navies. Yet what can’t be ignored is the single domain where the US Navy is supposed to contain China–the so-called Indo-Pacific–is fortified with layers of aerial, coastal, and sub-surface defenses that neuters any serious naval action directed by American leaders. Thanks to sprawling artificial islands and missile-armed bombers an undeclared stalemate now prevails over the first island chain.

As if China isn’t a big enough headache a travesty has unraveled in the Korean Peninsula. After two meetings spent reassuring each other President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un have gone their separate ways, with few consequences. Except now Pyongyang boasts a modernized arsenal of precision missiles that threaten South Korea’s whole territory and the US forces stationed there. Once again, the US military has no effective countermeasure to defeat the new generation of North Korean ballistic missiles and rocket artillery Kim gloats about. The same weakness is apparent in the other side of Eurasia where US bases in Iraq and the Gulf are soft targets for Iranian missiles.

The likelihood of an Iranian deep strike on a vulnerable location came true on September 14. Without warning salvos of cruise missiles and drones hit Saudi Arabia’s busiest oil processing facilities. Disinformation had a role too with Yemen’s Ansar Allah claiming responsibility when the evidence later pointed to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Beyond the embarrassment of reeling from the after effects, Saudi Arabia’s US-made anti-aircraft and missile defenses were useless. For all the Trump administration’s bravado and reassurances the actual response by the US military, with its considerable assets in Europe and the Middle East, amounted to nil. The same as when an Iranian SAM downed an RQ-4A BAMS-D Global Hawk in the Strait of Hormuz in June. As the year drew to a close Iran kept escalating and encouraged attacks on US bases by its militias in Iraq.

But the limits of US military power didn’t hit rock bottom until October when Trump, always unpredictable, ordered American forces to quit Eastern Syria and leave their Kurdish allies unprepared for Turkey’s onslaught. In a bizarre turn of events from October 9 onward a major NATO ally carved a buffer along its southern frontier, killing hundreds and displacing thousands. Indiscriminate Turkish air and artillery bombardment endangered US special forces who were trying to evacuate. As Ankara and Washington, DC tussled the situation in Eastern Syria reached absurd heights when Russian soldiers joined their Turkish counterparts to police the newly occupied territory. Taking the sum of these sudden reversals and surprises leads to a simple conclusion. The US military, given its outsized reach and global deployments, finds itself with little room to act decisively anywhere.

On top of these multiple disappointments US soldiers are stuck fighting in Afghanistan with its negligible strategic value. Turns out the sober voices eulogizing the United States’ fall from grace since 2016 were correct. Its long glorified military strength is on the wane for all to see.

For the reader’s benefit, here’s a bullet point summation of the US military’s weaknesses:

  • The early advantage in unmanned aircraft is gone.
  • China is able to produce more equipment and weapons than the US’ own military-industrial sector.
  • Geopolitical rivals now possess supersonic and hypersonic missiles.
  • US anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses are unreliable.
  • US air and naval strength is diminishing and is deterred by newer non-allied technology.
  • US civilian leadership makes poor decisions.

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