WASHINGTON — While the U.S. engaged in counter-insurgency warfare in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria, China and Russia watched and learned.
They were not watching just to learn how to conduct similar operations. They were watching to identify U.S. military vulnerabilities, then build their militaries accordingly.
And that is what they have done, the general nominated to head U.S. Central Command and others have said.
Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, in line to assume U.S. Central Command next year, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the past two decades of U.S. counter-insurgency warfare cost the Pentagon readiness against peer competitors Russia and China.
More critically, it gave Moscow and Beijing the ability to designate their military dollars to programs specifically tweaked to pierce seams in the Pentagon war machine, he said this week.
McKenzie’s candor reinforced concerns among some senators of that very danger.
“After years of studying the United States military, they (Russia and China) have identified our vulnerabilities and have found ways to exploit them,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz) said last month. Kyl was a a member of the National Defense Strategy Commission, which studied the National Defense Strategy and determined that America’s military superiority “has eroded to a dangerous degree,” the commission said.
The commission report, released in November, said the Pentagon’s focus on counter-insurgency operations caused a falling back “in other critical areas such as missile defense, cyber and space operations, and anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare,” the report said. “Many of the skills necessary to plan for and conduct military operations against capable adversaries — especially China and Russia — have atrophied.”
“Russia and China … have aggressively modernized their forces, including nuclear weapon arsenals. They routinely take actions to threaten, coerce, and intimidate us and our allies,” Kyl, now a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said.
One area that has been in the news this week underscores that strategy. Both China and Russia are engaged in major operations to secure the Arctic as their domains — a part of the world the U.S. has paid scant attention, strategy and resources.
Pentagon officials speaking on background said the fruits of those observations were displayed in September in Russia’s Vostok 2018 military exercises, in which China participated. They said this year’s drill, the largest Russia has held in 37 years, expanded to include a prime focus on joint defense and counter-attack — with the U.S. as the unnamed yet clear foe.
“The Russian military has clearly drawn on many lessons from studying Western operations in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Iraq,” Jane’s Intelligence Review observed earlier this year. “It has been keen to adopt and integrate UAVs into its operations and choreograph them with the employment of precision-guided ‘smart’ munitions.”
Earl Tilford, a military historian, author and former director of research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, told TMN the current observations by the Russians and Chinese is the 21st century version of what they did when the U.S. was in Vietnam.
“Of course the Chinese and Russians are looking at what we’re doing in the ‘War on Terror’,” Tilford said. “They are using this 18-year War as an opportunity to prepare for the future. I fear we have become like a ‘dwarf on steroids’: extremely capable and fierce but too small for the long haul.”