U.S. Air Force personnel at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, September 2020 Kayla White / U.S. Air force Central Command Public Affairs / AP
For almost a decade, U.S. defense officials have deemed the return of great-power competition to be the most consequential challenge to U.S. national security. In 2012, during the Obama administration, the Defense Department announced that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations,” such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, marking a sharp departure from the United States’ post-9/11 defense strategy. In 2016, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter highlighted a “return to great-power of competition.” And in 2018, the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy crystallized this shift: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” it declared, with a particular focus on China as the pacing threat.
Yet despite such a widespread and bipartisan acknowledgment of the challenge, the U.S. military has changed far too little to meet it. Although strategy has shifted at a high level, much about the way the Pentagon operates continues to reflect business as usual, which is inadequate to meet the growing threats posed by a rising China and a revisionist Russia. That disconnect is evident in everything from the military’s ongoing struggle to reorient its concepts of operations (that
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MICHÈLE A. FLOURNOY is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of WestExec Advisors and Co-Founder and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Center for a New American Security. From 2009 to 2012, she served as U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.