March 21, 2023
War on the Rocks
Defense strategists have long held that rigorous — if not ruthless — prioritization is the key to success. Frederick the Great captured this sentiment best when saying: “Little minds try to defend everything at once, but sensible people look at the main point only; they parry the worst blows and stand a little hurt if thereby they avoid a greater one. If you try to hold everything, you hold nothing.”
The 2022 National Defense Strategy’s prioritization is crystal clear: China, not Russia, is the Defense Department’s top priority. Yet as the Russia-Ukraine war rages on and the Defense Department continues pouring resources into the effort, is this a failure of prioritization that bends or breaks the strategy? No. It’s the opposite. A counterintuitive result of the war in Ukraine is that it enhances the Defense Department’s ability to outpace its top strategic competitor, China.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is causing regional instability in Europe with global implications that directly affect U.S. interests. The war is also a horrific tragedy and atrocity that has shattered the lives of millions, and the stories of individuals directly affected are heartbreaking. For security and humanitarian interests, it is therefore right and good for the U.S. government to aid in the defense of Ukraine.
As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky correctly noted, U.S. security assistance to Ukraine is an “investment.” In return, the Biden administration is defending a democratic nation from autocratic aggression and facilitating the destruction of the Russian military, but not just that.
The Defense Department’s actions to support Ukraine today are stimulating the capability development and organizational change needed to deter a China-Taiwan war tomorrow. In particular, the experience of supplying weapons and intelligence to a partner nation in midst of a conflict improves the U.S. military’s ability to do so for Taiwan. The logic of the U.S. defense strategy calls for the Pentagon to build off this momentum and institutionalize these nascent changes, not walk away from them. If it does, the benefits of supporting Ukraine will outweigh the costs even when evaluated through the narrow lens of how this war affects Taiwan.
The 2022 National Defense Strategy identifies China as the nation’s most consequential strategic competitor and “pacing challenge” for concept and capability development in what President Biden calls the “decisive decade.” Citing the president’s guidance in the 2022 National Security Strategy, the U.S. defense strategy rationalizes that China is the only state with both the ambition to reshape the international order and the power to do so. By contrast, Russia is identified as a
secondary security priority and an “acute threat” in large part because its invasion of Ukraine undermines regional stability in Europe and presents a real risk of nuclear escalation.
The war in Ukraine makes this acute threat a significant resource demand. Since the expansive Russian invasion in February 2022, the U.S. government has committed to provide Ukraine with $32.2 billion in security assistance (equipment, training, maintenance, and sustainment), and more is likely on the way. Moreover, there are added yet nontrivial costs for U.S. operations and maintenance to station over 20,000 additional U.S. troops in Europe to support the war effort and deter Russian attacks on NATO territory.
The Biden administration has noted that U.S. arms for Ukraine have “in no way” affected the provision of arms for Taiwan. This is technically correct because military aid to these two allies is supplied via different pathways — Taiwan by foreign military sales and Ukraine by excess defense stockpiles. For example, Taiwan has purchased Stinger missiles directly from Raytheon on multiple occasions, while Ukraine received Stinger missiles directly from existing Defense Department stocks. But there are real tradeoffs between supporting Ukraine and Taiwan.
The administration’s position discounts the fact that changes in authorization and a reduction of existing stockpiles will squeeze production and likely cause competition between Ukraine and Taiwan for future arms. Or that much of the equipment provided to Ukraine — such as air defense systems, coastal defense systems, and unmanned aerial systems — could instead help improve Taiwan’s ability to defend against a concerted Chinese attack today. Or the opportunity cost of exerting political capital in Congress for a defense of Taiwan supplemental appropriation. Or that senior government officials and organizations only have so much mental bandwidth and crises like Ukraine (or the Islamic State before it) tend to draw attention like the ball at a children’s soccer game.
Many China hawks criticize the U.S. government’s degree of resourcing for Ukraine’s defense. They view significant elements of it as a zero-sum tradeoff with resourcing efforts to deter war with China. Given the substantial U.S. investment in the Russia-Ukraine war, these critics rightly question whether the Defense Department is actually prioritizing China and Taiwan and faithfully adhering to its own strategy. The China hawks’ logic rests on four critical facts. First, the 2022 National Defense Strategy prioritizes China above Russia, a point the drafters have underscored well into the war. Second, Beijing is determined to reunify with Taiwan, peacefully if possible, but by force if necessary. Third, the military balance is in doubt and likely eroding — America is not adequately prepared for a Taiwan fight. Fourth, senior members of the Biden administration, intelligence community, and military have stated that China plans to have the ability to seize Taiwan by 2027 (if not 2025) and its plans to absorb Taiwan are on a “faster timeline than previously thought.” Therefore, China hawks reason, devoting resources to Ukraine — or anything else — that could otherwise be used to bolster Taiwan and establish a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific runs counter to the administration’s own stated strategic aims.
Independent of whether 2027 is an accurate assessment of when China may be planning to use military force to reunify with Taiwan, the gravity of the situation calls for the Pentagon to
support Taipei with a sense of urgency. The flaw in the China hawks’ logic is that it fails to account for how the Defense Department’s investment in Ukraine provides a real and tangible sense of urgency rather than a conceptual one. Coming to the defense of a nation in the throes of war is simply more galvanizing than planning to support a nation from a hypothetical attack, even if that hypothetical attack is highly plausible in the near-term. The urgency with which the Defense Department is moving now is creating the change necessary to substantially improve its ability to deter and, if necessary, defeat China in war.
Wars create space for new ideas and experimentation that bend or ignore prohibitive processes or policies. Given the current state of force modernization within the Defense Department, such space is desperately needed. Since the reemergence of great power competition in 2014 (when Russia seized Crimea and China militarized the South China Sea), the Defense Department has spent considerable energy reaching out to the commercial sector to draw on advanced technologies that can enhance military capabilities. For a host of reasons, including acquisition obstacles, cultural resistance, stringent Congressional oversight, and uncertainty about how capabilities will work against China or fit into an “aspirational” U.S. operational concept, these efforts have yet to achieve their desired results. Eight years later, the department’s budget request for fiscal year 2023 emphasized investments for research and development into breakthrough capabilities more than investments in novel weapons systems that are ready for full-scale production. The recently released budget request for fiscal year 2024 importantly shifts its focus to procurement, but there are still simply too few prototypes that cross the “valley of death” and are adopted at scale. The trajectory is sound but the pace too slow.
Militaries around the world are observing Ukraine to draw lessons about the future character of warfare. Presumably, the Chinese military is paying as close attention to the war as the American military is, and both are engaged in passive learning from Russia’s and Ukraine’s development of improvised solutions on the battlefield, use of loitering munitions and Artificial Intelligence, and performance in urban conflict. U.S. capability development has certain advantages over China’s. The Defense Department is directly supporting the conflict, so it is actively learning about supporting a partner during a conflict and the effects of various U.S. weapons on the battlefield. Direct support helps the Defense Department understand what actually works, and therefore is ready to be scaled. Or that which can be procured from the commercial sector already at scale.
The Russia-Ukraine war is creating a sense of urgency to break down barriers to the Defense Department’s partnership with the commercial sector. This cooperation is, for example, leading to an “explosion of activity” in European Command to adopt more commercial solutions; integrating data streams from multiple commercial vendors; and sharing this information with Ukrainian forces via a mesh of Starlink’s space-based satellites to provide actionable intelligence to operational and tactical decision-makers. Furthermore, the urgency of war is breaking down bureaucratic stovepipes within the Defense Department that limit data access. The department is now fusing data to create a common operating picture of transportation operations, including a key hub delivering weapons to Ukraine. The war is even enhancing cross-vendor collaboration
for “MacGyver solutions” such as that between L3 Harris and Raytheon for the VAMPIRE counter-drone system.
Few of the Defense Department’s capability enhancements are new technological inventions. Rather, they are new uses of existing technology or adoption of technology at greater scale. Not all these specific capabilities would be useful in a China conflict but some, such as better leveraging of commercial space-based communications and sensors, certainly would be. More importantly, the Defense Department must capture these organizational changes within policies and processes so they are not one-offs or crisis response efforts. The department has a long history of demonstrating how it can overcome roadblocks during crises, but the past eight years show how it struggles to do so during peacetime. Locking in these nascent organizational changes will make the department more adept at adopting innovative capabilities in a timely manner and at scale.
The war is also exercising the Defense Department’s ability to conduct security cooperation with a partner nation — and other allies and partners around the world — during a high-intensity conflict. Despite U.S. support in training and equipping Ukraine before the war, there has been a much deeper level of cooperation on operational planning, intelligence sharing, and materiel support provided during hostilities. Much of this is only possible because Ukraine withstood the initial siege of Kyiv. It was only after the early tide turned that U.S. security cooperation intensified and by all accounts it continues to be refined and improved over the course of the war. In a plausible scenario where China attempts to seize Taiwan via a fait accompli, Taiwan may not be able to withstand the initial assault without significant U.S. security cooperation. Materiel support must be provided in advance. However, political constraints that limit the level of official engagement between the U.S. and Taiwanese armed forces mean that strategic planning and intelligence sharing would likely be immature prior to the onset of hostilities.
Given the magnitude of the challenge that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army poses to Taiwan, the margin for error in ensuring effective strategic planning and information sharing with Taiwan is extremely low. In particular, the use of information — and the ability to gather, transmit, process, and act on it and prevent adversaries from doing so — is of critical if not utmost importance in a potential China war. The Defense Department must have well-honed processes to provide essential information to Taiwan and allies like Japan and Australia, while also drawing on their sensor and communications grids to create a coalition-wide common operating picture. The Ukraine war is providing the Defense Department with important experience streamlining key aspects of this process. The department has been clear that it is not providing targeting information to Ukraine — an added level of precision and timing that would likely be critical in a war with China. Nonetheless, if these organizational changes can survive beyond this war and the U.S. government can apply them to Taiwan, the department could merge key elements of its sensing and targeting networks with Taiwan’s and significantly increase the effectiveness and resilience of both in the face of attacking Chinese forces.
The realization that great powers have substantial staying power that can turn a short, sharp war into a protracted battle of attrition is hardly new. For example, before the Russia-Ukraine war it was well documented that U.S. stockpiles of precision-guided weapons were insufficient for a
war with China. Some critical weapons were projected to run out in days or weeks of high-intensity combat. They actually did run low in conflicts against non-state actors — which has damning implications for a war against a great power.
But realizing a problem is different than experiencing it first-hand. The U.S. and allied industrial base are straining to produce munitions and key supplies. This effort is highlighting bottlenecks and areas where performance must improve to support a war with China. Certainly, such a conflict would stress the industrial base in different ways — air- and sea-launched missiles might be in greater demand than artillery shells, for example. But some steps the Defense Department is taking to support Ukraine will be generalizable such as accelerating contracting processes, multi-year production contracts, and multi-country procurements. Bolstering the U.S. and allied industrial base and accelerating the process of getting weapons in the hands of those that need them will put the department in a better position to sustain a prolonged war with China.
While the importance of reputation to credibility is hotly debated, America’s support for Ukraine certainly does not hurt. In the aftermath of the Afghanistan exit, many questioned the accuracy of U.S. intelligence, competence of the U.S. military to provide security assistance, and strength of U.S. security commitments to allied and partner nations. U.S. support for Ukraine may be reversing such perceptions.
The U.S. intelligence community scored an early coup by correctly informing the world about Vladimir Putin’s decision-making and even the Russian war plan prior to the invasion. While it didn’t fully convince all allies and partners, this success stands in contrast to perceived past U.S. intelligence failures like the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Moreover, extensive U.S.-led security assistance provided to Ukraine since 2014 is clearly having positive results on the battlefield. The fact that the United States is making real sacrifices and rallying allies and partners behind Ukraine — a country with which it had no formal security guarantee — is significant. Japan, Australia, and the Philippines are likely taking note of effective U.S. leadership in the coalition supporting Ukraine. Were China to invade Taiwan, U.S. intelligence would need to provide indications and warning to prepare Taiwan, the United States, and other allies and partners like Japan. Timely and accurate warning could also rally global public opinion toward imposing diplomatic and economic sanctions on China. Continued domestic support for Ukraine in the United States, and particularly in Europe despite refugee flows and spiraling energy costs, should affect Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s calculus of whether the United States and its allies and partners would maintain the will to fight for Taiwan over time. Furthermore, that the war is a “catastrophic strategic disaster” for Russia might add to doubts China could have about invading Taiwan.
The war is creating long-term opportunities to reduce U.S. investments in Europe that could accelerate execution of a China-focused strategy. The more the Russian military is destroyed on the battlefield and its industrial base “hobbled” through economic sanctions, the more difficult it will be for Russia to reconstitute its conventional force structure. As others have noted, this provides an opening for a reduction of U.S. forces in Europe, should European allies make the necessary investments in their armed services and defense sectors. Russia will remain a threat to European security so long as Putin remains in power, and the threat may be graver — a smaller
conventional force may provide less of a buffer before Russia contemplates nuclear options. But for the next five to possibly 10-plus years, NATO will retain conventional military dominance in Europe. Consequently, NATO will retain a favorable military balance of power in Europe even with a reduction of U.S. force presence from pre-war levels.
The Defense Department has thus far actually increased U.S. force presence in Europe in response to the war. But adhering to the defense strategy’s priorities warrants informing NATO allies that the post-war direction the Pentagon is inclined to take involves European force presence reductions below pre-war levels. This would not necessitate a change in the leading role of the United States in NATO. Rather, it is a logical conclusion that a reduced conventional threat in Europe can be addressed with fewer forces. The risk to the 2022 National Defense Strategy is that the Defense Department does the opposite. Similar to how superfluous rotations of forces to the Middle East after March 2019 undermined the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the department could find itself sustaining a presence in Europe that might crowd out investments that would have more value in the posture-starved Indo-Pacific.
To realize the U.S. defense strategy, the Pentagon must ensure resources are appropriately prioritized to maintain deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. But good strategies aren’t deterministic plans. They’re flexible heuristics that help organizations manage complex and uncertain futures. Ignoring Ukraine to focus on Taiwan isn’t discipline, it’s myopia. The way in which the Defense Department is supporting Ukraine — leading a coalition to support a partner nation in the throes of conflict with arms and information — means that the United States will be better positioned to defend Taiwan in the future, not in spite of Ukraine but because of it.
A year after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is fair to ask if there are only marginal learning gains to be had at this protracted stage of the conflict. But the Defense Department has not crested the learning curve just yet. Among other things, the United States and its allies are experiencing how to train new recruits who will immediately be pressed into combat, expedite training on sophisticated weaponry, and repair war-torn equipment. So long as the department continues to improve its ability to support Ukraine, benefits for Taiwan will accrue.
How and when the Russia-Ukraine war ends is unclear, and risks, particularly of escalation, remain. Nevertheless, mixed in with the unspeakable human tragedy of this war is real momentum for widespread change in the Defense Department and its allied and partner counterparts. This momentum, along with the continued freedom of the Ukrainian people and the diminution of the Russian Armed Forces and Putin’s kleptocracy, is the dividend from investments in Ukraine. The key now is to spend it wisely.
Jim Mitre is a senior international/defense researcher and director of the International Security and Defense Policy Program at the RAND Corporation.