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U.S. military in 'crisis,' could lose a war to Russia and China, report warns

The U.S. "could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets in its next conflict," the National Defense Strategy Commission says.
Image: US airstrikes in Syria
Two U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors fly above Syria in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in February.Colton Elliott / EPA

The United States faces a "crisis of national security" because its historic military supremacy has eroded drastically, leaving it likely unable to fight more than a single war at a time, according to a congressionally chartered report released Wednesday.

"U.S. military superiority is no longer assured and the implications for American interests and American security are severe," said the report, which was issued by the National Defense Strategy Commission, an independent agency whose board is appointed by the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

The report concludes that the Defense Department isn't financially or strategically set up to wage two wars at once and could even lose a war against China or Russia individually.

"The U.S. military could suffer unacceptably high casualties and loss of major capital assets in its next conflict," it said.

The commission's co-chairmen — Eric Edelman, who was undersecretary of defense during the presidency of George W. Bush, and retired Adm. Gary Roughead, a former chief of naval operations bridging the Bush and Obama administrations — are scheduled to testify before both Armed Services committees later this month.

Johnny Michael, a spokesman for the Defense Department, said the agency welcomed the report, calling it "a stark reminder of the gravity of these issues, and a call to action."

"The department will carefully consider each of the recommendations put forward by the commission as part of continuing efforts to strengthen our nation's defense, and looks forward to working with the commission and the Congress to do so," he said.

In a post for the Atlantic Council, a nonprofit international affairs policy institute, Edelman wrote Wednesday that "China and Russia, seeking regional hegemony and global power projection, are pursuing military buildups aimed at neutralizing U.S. strengths,

Image: Eric Edelman
'The United States has significantly weakened its own defense due to political dysfunction and decisions made by both Republicans as well as Democrats,' wrote former Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman, the commission's co-chairman.Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency/Getty Images file

At the same time, "the United States has significantly weakened its own defense due to political dysfunction and decisions made by both Republicans as well as Democrats," he wrote, citing defense budget cuts "with pronounced detrimental effects on the size, modernization, and readiness of the military."

President Donald Trump last week asked the Defense Department to cut $16 billion next year from its budget, which currently is at $716 billion — a 2¼ percent reduction.

"U.S. forces will need additional resources to train to high levels of proficiency across a broader and more technologically challenging range of potential missions than in the recent past, particularly those missions focusing on advanced military threats from China and Russia," the commission wrote.

But money isn't the only roadblock, it concluded.

The commission welcomed the National Defense Strategy (PDF), a summary of U.S. military goals that Defense Secretary James Mattis released in January.

The unclassified public version of the strategy document was widely criticized for being short on specifics, including force levels and cost, and the commission urged that more of it be declassified so it could be "used as a benchmark for measuring implementation of the strategy."

The document "points the Department of Defense and the country in the right direction," the commission said, but it "does not adequately explain how we should get there."

The 116-page report identifies outer space and cyberspace as particular problem points, among many others.

"Because of our recent focus on counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency, and because our enemies have developed new ways of defeating U.S. forces, America is losing its advantage in key warfighting areas such as power projection, air and missile defense, cyber and space operations, anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare, long-range ground-based fires, and electronic warfare," it said.

"Many of the skills necessary to plan for and conduct military operations against capable adversaries — especially China and Russia — have atrophied."

The report closes with a jarring warning:

"The costs of failing to meet America’s crisis of national defense and national security will not be measured in abstract concepts like 'international stability' and 'global order.' They will be measured in American lives, American treasure, and American security and prosperity lost. It will be a tragedy — of unforeseeable but perhaps tremendous magnitude — if the United States allows its national interests and national security to be compromised through an unwillingness or inability to make hard choices and necessary investments.

"That tragedy will be all the more regrettable because it is within our power to avoid it," the panel said.