As the war in Ukraine marches on with no end in sight, the Biden Administration is increasing support for Kyiv, providing additional billions in financial assistance as well as more sophisticated weapons systems.
During his recent visit to Ukraine, President Joe Biden reaffirmed America’s unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Meanwhile, the Washington defense establishment has largely dismissed Russia as a long-term threat to U.S. and NATO security.
In their minds, Russia has not only lost the war in Ukraine, but has been so ground down by Ukraine’s resistance that it will not pose a threat to NATO for years to come. This view does not match the reality on the ground.
Current U.S. discussions of strategy, force structure, and procurement programs focus obsessively on China. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is considered an aberration, a one-off version of World War I. Only one scenario matters: Beijing’s attempt to seize control of Taiwan. The value of current forces and the relevance of planned weapons programs are being judged almost solely on their ability to sink Chinese ships. Consequently, many of the capabilities that are dominating the Russia-Ukraine conflict – tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery, and rockets – are being disparaged. So too are the forces, primarily resident in the U.S. Army, that would be the centerpiece of any future major land conflict.
The Russian army’s poor performance in the initial phases of the war in Ukraine came as a surprise to virtually the entire U.S. defense community, as did the inability of the Russian air force to gain air superiority. The war has also exposed problems with the Russian military’s logistics, command and control, intelligence, cyber warfare, and naval operations. Nevertheless, Russia successfully occupied 18 percent of Ukraine and continues to grind away at Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine’s successful resistance is viewed in the West not only as an end in itself but as a means to further the strategic goal of weakening Russia’s military to the point that it cannot pose a threat to NATO in the future. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made this point publicly as early as April 2022 when he said, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”
Now, many in the Washington defense community, particularly in the Pentagon, see this strategy as having succeeded. They believe that the threat to NATO is substantially diminished. In their minds, the future security environment is all about containing China and building capabilities designed to fight in the Indo-Pacific region, a theater that will be dominated by air and naval forces.
The current attitude toward the Russian military may, in part, be a backlash to previous overestimation of Russian capability. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, famously predicted at the start of the Russian invasion that Kyiv “would fall in 72 hours.”
Now, the pendulum has swung to the other side. Many in this town are dismissive of the Russian army’s current capabilities or the future threat Moscow could pose to its neighbors. General Milley declared that “Russia has lost; they’ve lost strategically, operationally and tactically, and they are paying an enormous price on the battlefield.”
But is General Milley correct in his assessment?
As in previous wars, the Russian military today has demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of its initial setbacks. In response to stiff Ukrainian resistance supported by assistance from the West, the Russian army has reverted to Soviet-era tactics and techniques. In particular, this means relying on mass and brute force to overwhelm its adversary. Moscow has the financial resources, population, and industrial base to replace its current losses, rebuild its military, and outlast Ukraine, even if the latter continues to receive Western support.
More than that, the Russian military has shown the ability to innovate in the middle of a conflict. It rapidly embraced the use of drones both for reconnaissance and strike and has developed tactics and techniques to counter Ukrainian drones. It altered the way it employed fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to take Ukrainian air defenses into account. It has also developed a lethal counter-battery capability.
Nevertheless, the argument that its invasion of Ukraine has diminished Russia as an acute military threat to NATO is likely to play a role in current debates on both the size and composition of future U.S. defense budgets. If the threat posed by Russia has been substantially diminished, would it not make sense to reduce funding for Army modernization, particularly for capabilities such as tanks, armored fighting vehicles, field artillery, and aircraft? If NATO is secure and the China threat demands an increase in the size of the Navy, long-range platforms for the Air Force, and expanded air and missile defense, can the size of the Army be reduced?
At the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and its NATO allies made the mistake of believing that the era of large scale, high-end combined arms warfare was over. As a result, the U.S. withdrew most of its forces from Europe. NATO nations not only reduced defense spending but divested themselves of precisely those capabilities now central to the conflict in Ukraine, particularly tanks, tube artillery and air defenses. Now, all those misguided actions are being reversed.
Any attempt to make U.S. Army force structure the “bill payer” for additional capabilities to fight China needs to be resisted. This is likewise the case for efforts to curtail upgrades to current platforms such as the M1 Abrams main battle tank, the Stryker, the Paladin self-propelled howitzer, and the Apache attack helicopter. An additional lesson of the Ukraine conflict is the critical need for Army modernization, including for both long-range assault and armed reconnaissance aircraft, long-range precision fires, expanded air and missile defenses, more drones and air-launched effects, effective counter-drone weapons, and secure networking and cloud computing capabilities down to the tactical edge. The U.S. Army needs more budget resources, not fewer.
It is a colossal strategic mistake for the U.S. defense establishment to see Russia as defeated and its military as a hollow force. Could NATO have lost 100,000 men and 1,500 tanks as the Russian army has and remain a coherent military force? I do not think so. It is even more dangerous to make decisions regarding acquisition programs, force structure, and the share of budgetary resources to be devoted to each of our military services on the basis of the premature determination that Russia has lost the war.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. This first appeared in RealClearDefense.