Will America Lose Its Next War?
National Defense in a Dangerous Era
Taiwan’s navy has been destroyed. So has its air force. But the consequences of the Chinese military’s invasion don’t stop there.
American military bases in the region have been attacked. Dozens of our ships and those of our Japanese allies lie at the bottom of the Pacific. So do hundreds of aircraft.
Our communications networks have been severed, leaving much of our military operating in the dark. And America will run out of supplies of several key munitions within the first few days of the war.
According to one senior American military commander, the Chinese military “ran rings around us … they knew everything we were going to do before we did it.”i
This isn’t pulled from a novel.
This isn’t the Chinese military’s fantasy of how an invasion of Taiwan would play out.
These were the results of a war game conducted by America’s own Department of Defense.
“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”ii That was Teddy Roosevelt’s famous advice about how America should conduct itself in foreign affairs.
Translation: Don’t go looking for a fight … but be ready if one comes looking for you.
Americans tend to take it for granted that we are, in fact, ready. After all, we’re by far the global leaders in military spending.iii
And the historical record shows that, even when we start out on shaky footing, America can be ready to defend ourselves and our allies in no time.
As the country ramped up for World War II, we increased spending on the Army by more than 5,000 percent in just two years.iv The result of our incredible mobilization: a system so efficient that we were producing a new B-24 — a long-range bomber with over a million and a half parts — every 63 minutes.v
The result of that? Victory over the Nazis and Imperial Japan.
It's a legacy that Americans are rightly proud of. But also … it was 80 years ago.
How confident can we be that America could defeat the aggression of a major power today?
Well, if you ask the experts … not very.
Analysis from leading defense scholars has warned that there’s a serious prospect that we could lose our next war.vi And that analysis came even before recent attacks on American allies put even more pressure on our military resources.
Another group that’s sounding the alarm about our readiness? Our men and women in uniform.
In a 2020 survey of the Army, only about 40 percent of generals said they were confident that troops under their command would be ready to deploy, fight, and win anywhere in the world immediately.vii Amongst some of the most combat-hardened troops that number was under 20 percent.viii
Now, those kinds of sentiments would be cause for concern at any time. But they’re especially worrying now.
The CIA has reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping expects his military to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027.ix And as that war game we told you about earlier indicates, there are major concerns about whether the United States would be able to fulfill its pledge to defend the island.
The good news: Not all the analysis coming out of the Pentagon looks so dire.
The bad news: Their more optimistic scenario is one where we fight to a draw. With heavy casualties on both sides. And even that assumes weapons and resources that we won’t have available until years from now.x
Now, regardless of what you think about the wisdom of a potential conflict with China, the reason this is so unsettling is because it’s not actually a question about what the military should do. It’s a question about what the military can do.
Why is it unclear whether the world’s most powerful fighting force could actually win a war with a major adversary?
Actually, there are a lot of different answers to that question.
First, there’s the matter of hardware. It’s not just that we’re waiting on new technology to give us a military advantage. We’re also doing a lot of waiting for … well, for pretty much everything. Whether it’s producing new weapons or maintaining existing ones, we’re badly behind.
The Navy is so backlogged on maintaining its fleet that it’s the equivalent of 15 ships being out of service each year.xi
A decade-long analysis of 49 different types of aircraft used by the military found that only four of them consistently met their readiness goals. Twenty-six of them never met readiness standards in any of those 10 years.xii
Recent war games estimate that the U.S. would need between 800 and 1,200 long-range anti-ship missiles for a conflict with China. We currently have 200. At the current rate of production, we could get to 1,000 … by 2032.xiii
And there are vulnerabilities related to where we get our supplies too. The Air Force’s new F-35 fighter jets, for instance, have a magnet component with an alloy almost exclusively manufactured … in China.xiv
There’s another problem here though. Even if the military gets all the resources it needs … who’s going to use them?
In 2022, the Army fell 15,000 troops short of its recruiting goal.xv In 2023, it’s projected to happen again — and to happen to the Navy and the Air Force as well. The Pentagon estimates that only 23 percent of youths age 17-24 can meet the military’s standards.xvi More importantly, fewer than 10 percent are even interested in joining. xvii
Where does that leave us? Vulnerable.
A 2020 Defense Department report admitted that China’s military has pulled even — or even surpassed — America’s on several fronts.xviii The number of ships in the Chinese navy is set to dramatically outpace those in America’s.xix And China’s defense spending has been increasingxx while America’s has remained flat — and has actually shrunk as a percentage of the overall economy.xxi
Americans hold a wide range of views on our proper role in the world. Some of us want the country to be a military powerhouse capable of taking on even the most formidable adversaries. Some of us want a quieter, more modest role on the global stage.
But if we split the difference? If we talk like a superpower without taking the necessary steps to back it up?
Well, that would be speaking loudly … and carrying a small stick.
- "‘It Failed Miserably’: After Wargaming Loss, Joint Chiefs Are Overhauling How the US Military Will Fight" (Tara Copp) — Defense One
- Address of Vice President Roosevelt, Minnesota State Fair, Minneapolis, Sept. 2nd, 1901 — Theodore Roosevelt Center
- Countries With the Highest Military Spending Worldwide in 2022 — Statista
- Mobilization — U.S. Army Center of Military History
- "War Production" (Ken Burns) — PBS
- "U.S. Military Capabilities and Forces for a Dangerous World" (David A. Ochmanek, et al.) — RAND Corporation
- "Ready To Fight Tonight? Not So Much, Some Army Troops Say" (Jack Detsch) — Foreign Policy
- "CIA Chief Says China Has Doubts About Its Ability To Invade Taiwan" (Dustin Volz) — Wall Street Journal
- Navy and Marine Corps: Services Continue Efforts To Rebuild Readiness, but Recovery Will Take Years and Sustained Management Attention — U.S. Government Accountability Office
- Military Readiness — U.S. Government Accountability Office
- "America’s Arsenal Is in Need of Life Support" (Bradley Bowman and Mark Montgomery) — Defense News
- "The Pentagon Is Freaking Out About a Potential War With China" (Michael Hirsh) — Politico
- "The Military Is Missing Recruitment Goals. Are Thousands Being Unnecessarily Disqualified?" (Jennifer Barnhill) — Military.com
- "U.S. Military Works To Enlist Recruits Who Have Faced Behavioral Challenges" (Nancy A. Youssef) — Wall Street Journal
- Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 — U.S. Department of Defense
- "10 Ways the United States Is Falling Behind China in National Security" (Mackenzie Eaglen) — American Enterprise Institute
- Estimated Expenditure on the Military in China in Current Prices From 1990 to 2022 — Statista
- Defense Spending as a Percent Of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — U.S. Department of Defense
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- Defense One
"‘It Failed Miserably’: After Wargaming Loss, Joint Chiefs Are Overhauling How the US Military Will Fight" (Tara Copp)
- Theodore Roosevelt Center
Address of Vice President Roosevelt, Minnesota State Fair, Minneapolis, Sept. 2nd, 1901
Countries With the Highest Military Spending Worldwide in 2022
- U.S. Army Center of Military History
"War Production" (Ken Burns)
- RAND Corporation
"U.S. Military Capabilities and Forces for a Dangerous World" (David A. Ochmanek, et al.)
- Foreign Policy
"Ready To Fight Tonight? Not So Much, Some Army Troops Say" (Jack Detsch)
- Wall Street Journal
"CIA Chief Says China Has Doubts About Its Ability To Invade Taiwan" (Dustin Volz)
- U.S. Government Accountability Office
Navy and Marine Corps: Services Continue Efforts To Rebuild Readiness, but Recovery Will Take Years and Sustained Management Attention
- U.S. Government Accountability Office
- Defense News
"America’s Arsenal Is in Need of Life Support" (Bradley Bowman and Mark Montgomery)
"The Pentagon Is Freaking Out About a Potential War With China" (Michael Hirsh)
"The Military Is Missing Recruitment Goals. Are Thousands Being Unnecessarily Disqualified?" (Jennifer Barnhill)
- Wall Street Journal
"U.S. Military Works To Enlist Recruits Who Have Faced Behavioral Challenges" (Nancy A. Youssef)
- U.S. Department of Defense
Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020
- American Enterprise Institute
"10 Ways the United States Is Falling Behind China in National Security" (Mackenzie Eaglen)
Estimated Expenditure on the Military in China in Current Prices From 1990 to 2022
- U.S. Department of Defense
Defense Spending as a Percent Of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “The U.S. Is Not Yet Ready for the Era of “Great Power” Conflict” (Wall Street Journal)
- “The Pentagon is Freaking Out About a Potential War With China” (Politico)
- “The Age of American Naval Dominance Is Over” (The Atlantic)
- “Rebuilding the Navy for the Pacific” (National Review)
- “America’s Military Depends on Minerals That China Controls” (Foreign Policy)
- “The All-Volunteer Force Is in Crisis” (The Atlantic)