A New Approach for the U.S. Armed Forces: Q&A with David Ochmanek


Mar 13, 2024

David Ochmanek at the West Coast Aerospace Forum, December 2019, photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND

David Ochmanek at the West Coast Aerospace Forum, December 2019

Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND

The United States and its allies have a window of opportunity to bolster their security and prepare for the global challenges to come. But it's closing fast as China and other adversaries build up their own militaries. “'Business as usual,'” a recent RAND report concluded, “is no longer sufficient.”

The report calls for fundamental changes to how the United States fights. Since the end of the Cold War, its basic strategy has been to deliver overwhelming force to any part of the world to decisively defeat any enemy. Years of wargaming have shown that does not work against China, or even against Russia.

The report is titled Inflection Point: How to Reverse the Erosion of U.S. and Allied Military Power and Influence. Its lead author, David Ochmanek, is a senior international defense researcher at RAND. He previously served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy (1993–1995) and, more recently, as deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development (2009–2014).

You write that the United States needs to learn to fight differently. How so?

The approach we took to defeating Iraq in the Gulf War, to defeating Serbia, to defeating Afghanistan and then Iraq again consistently fails when it's applied in wargames to China or Russia. And it fails for two reasons. First, we've always had to move our forces into position before we can intervene. It took us five months to build up our forces on the Arabian Peninsula before we were ready to kick the Iraqis out of Kuwait. We might have five days to posture our forces to defend Taiwan in the face of a Chinese attack.

And second, the approach that worked so well against those other opponents was sequential. It started with a campaign to defeat their air defenses and shatter their command and control, and then we could operate with near-impunity over their territory. When we've gamed out that approach with China, we spend days failing to suppress their air defenses, failing to meaningfully suppress their command and control—and in that time, China puts 100,000 people onto the island of Taiwan. We've been using wargames for more than a decade to learn about the problem. Now we're using them to explore new approaches. And what they show is that we have to reach into that contested battlespace from the outset of hostilities and locate, track, identify, and engage the invasion force.

How do you do that?

Simply buying more and better stuff is not going to be sufficient. We have to posture the force differently—meaning, where it's based and the time required to mobilize. We have to harden our forward air bases in places like Japan. We can reduce our vulnerabilities, reduce our losses, reduce our recovery time by investing in prosaic things like concrete to repair runways or shelters for our airplanes and personnel.

Simply buying more and better stuff is not going to be sufficient. We have to posture the force differently—meaning, where it's based and the time required to mobilize.

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The U.S. Air Force has the world's most capable bombers, and they can operate from beyond the reach of most of China's missiles. The trouble is, they lack the weapons and munitions they need to be effective. They need stand-off weapons like cruise missiles that can engage an invasion fleet from beyond the reach of China's air defenses.

U.S. Navy submarines are the best in the world, too. The Virginia-class boats are lethal—but they cost $2.5 billion each. Unmanned underwater vehicles are much less expensive, much less sophisticated, but they can carry weapons and mines and sensors into the battlespace.

And sensors are going to be key in the opening hours of the war. We should be planning to flood the battlespace with large numbers of inexpensive, autonomous aerial vehicles—drones. Yes, we will lose hundreds of them to enemy air defenses. But the things the Chinese would use to shoot them down are more expensive than they are. If I can just keep repopulating the battlespace, I can establish a sensing grid that tells each weapon where to go for optimal effect. That's what the future of warfare looks like.

What about Russia? How much of a conventional threat is it now, given its losses in Ukraine?

They have lost massive amounts of conventional military power on the battlefields of Ukraine. Their most trained and highly capable units were thrown into the meat grinder, and it's going to take quite a while for them to reconstitute a conventional military threat. That gives us some time. Some people might think it means we don't have to pay attention to Russia for a while. But given the lead times associated with actually fielding new capabilities, the time to start building a credible, conventional deterrence is now.

You've been wargaming these scenarios for years. Was there any one experience that really crystalized the problem for you?

We ran a wargame called Pacific Vision in 2008. We had RAND people who are experts in military operations playing the red team, China, and Air Force staff playing the United States as the blue team. The staffers came in with a little swagger—“We know how to fight, we're the best military in the world”—and then the red team cleaned their clock. Less than 24 hours into the wargame, there were 100 U.S. airplanes burning on the ramp at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. Just seeing the results of that game, and especially how unprepared some of the planners were for the challenge that China poses, was a galvanizing experience.

You borrow a word from the ancient Etruscans in the report, saeculum. What is a saeculum and why is it an important concept for 21st-century America?

A saeculum was the unit of time between when a major event happened and when the last person who experienced that event died. We're about to close out the saeculum of World War II. We fought that war because we retreated into our shell after World War I, thinking other countries would take care of ensuring global peace and security. It didn't happen, and the consequences were catastrophic for us and for the world. The generation that fought in World War II knew in its gut that America has to be engaged and has to lead and has to commit itself to peace and stability. And that generation is all but gone.

Doug Irving