More “Great Power” Competition!

Near-Peers? Peers? Competitors? Great Powers?

W.J. Astore

A colleague who teaches at one of America’s many war schools tells me that great power competition is trendy again, the U.S., it goes without saying, being the greatest power of all, and China and Russia being the main “near-peer” rivals to greatness.  The competition, of course, is defined primarily in military terms and is measured, at least at the Pentagon, by the amount of money Congress allocates to each year’s defense budget.  Thus the U.S. military, in (falsely) arguing that it’s falling behind the Chinese navy in ships, for example, establishes the quick-fix solution as lots more money for the U.S. Navy to build more ships.  Similarly, the Air Force wants more F-35 jet fighters, B-21 nuclear bombers, and new land-based ICBMs, also measures of “greatness,” and the Army wants 500,000 troops on active duty, presumably because it’s a nice round number, even as it’s failing miserably to meet yearly recruiting goals, forcing it to settle on a force of roughly 450,000 (more or less) effectives.

Naturally, the solution is never to downsize the mission given a somewhat smaller force; it’s to do whatever is possible to expand the pool of recruits, even if that means “fat camps” and remedial teaching to help potential soldiers reach weight goals and test scores so that they qualify for basic training.  Too fat or too dumb?  Join the pre-Army!  Lose weight fast and get smart quick so that you too can eventually enlist and be sent to foreign lands to kill people.

Recruitment shortfalls is a micro issue garnering attention in Congress even as the macro issue of China and Russia as great power competitors serves as a welcome change of subject from colossal military failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And there’s the rub: the U.S. military has learned nothing from those failures except, as Barack Obama might say, to look forward, not backward, and to inflate China and Russia from regional powers to near-pears or even to peers.  As my war school colleague put it to me, somewhat ambiguously, “they” have big battalions and lots of nukes and have shown the will to use them, so America must be ready to respond in kind.  Yet the only country to have used nukes against cities is the United States at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the U.S. continues to outspend China on weapons and war roughly by a factor of three and Russia by a factor of ten. 

So, which country is really driving all this militarized “competition” among the so-called great powers?

The Cold War, Rebooted and Rebranded

In my latest for TomDispatch.com, I tackle the Pentagon’s latest proclivity for “near-peer” conflicts, the near-peers being China and Russia, which conveniently serves to justify huge war budgets in perpetuity. It’s the Cold War, rebooted and rebranded, with a new generation of nuclear weapons thrown into the mix to make things even more interesting. As they say, what could possibly go wrong?

What follows is an excerpt that focuses on a “Star Trek” episode that has much to teach us:

In the 1970s, in fact, I avidly watched reruns of the original Star Trek. Lately, one episode, “A Taste of Armageddon,” has been on my mind. It featured two planets, Eminiar VII and Vendikar, at war with each other for 500 years. Here was the catch: those planets no longer used real weapons. Instead, they fought bloodlessly with computer-simulated attacks, even as citizens marked as “dead” had to report to disintegration chambers in a bizarre ritual meant to keep the peace through a computer-driven holocaust. The peoples of these two planets had become so accustomed to endless war that they couldn’t imagine an alternative, especially one that ended in a negotiated peace.

So many years later, I can’t help thinking that our country’s military establishment has something in common with the leaders of Eminiar VII and Vendikar. There’s so much repetition when it comes to America’s wars — with little hope of negotiated settlements, little talk of radically different approaches, and a remarkably blasé attitude toward death — especially when it’s largely the death of others; when foreign peoples, as if on another planet, are just “disintegrated,” whether by monster bombs like MOAB or more discrete Hellfire missile strikes via remotely piloted drones.

What gives? Right now, America’s military leaders are clearly turning back to the war they’d prefer to be fighting, the one they think they can win (or at least eternally not lose). A conventional warlike state vis-à-vis those near-peers seems to play to their skills. It’s also a form of “war” that makes loads of money for the military-industrial complex, driving lucrative acquisition decisions about weaponry in a remarkably predictable fashion.

Near-peer “war” remains largely a fantasy set of operations (though with all-too-real dangers of possible conflagrations to come, right up to nuclear disaster). In contrast, real war, as in this century’s terror wars, is a realm of chaos. So much the better to keep things as predictable as possible. Fresh and original ideas about war (and peace) are unlikely to prove profitable for the military-industrial complex. Worse yet, at an individual level, they could damage one’s chances for promotion or, on retirement, for future posts within the industrial part of that complex. It’s a lot healthier to salute smartly, keep planning for a near-peer future, and conform rather than fall on one’s sword for a dissenting idea (especially one related to peace and so to less money for the Pentagon).

Please read the article in its entirety here at TomDispatch.

On Eminiar VII, “casualties” of computer war willingly enter disintegration chambers to die as a way of keeping “peace”