General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did the nation a favor prior to the U.S. election in November 2020 and following the insurrection in January 2021, when he moved to defuse the apparent “war scare” in Beijing and took seriously the possibility that a beleaguered Donald Trump would resort to the use of force to save his presidency. But his outrageous assessment of China’s test of a hypersonic weapons system as bringing the United States “very close” to a “Sputnik moment” points to the danger of allowing leading general officers to indulge their worst case assessments to the Congress and the American public.
The real “Sputnik moment” in 1957, when the Soviet Union was the first to launch a vehicle into space, had international and national consequences for American national security policy. Physicists and engineers around the world know that hypersonic weapons do not represent a revolution in the strategic arsenal. Writing in “Scientific American” in August 2021, David Wright and Cameron Tracy noted that many of the claims regarding hypersonic weapons are exaggerated or simply false. They are not game-changers. The Pentagon and the Congress should not be allowed to use this canard to drive a new arms race and escalate the chances of conflict.
Over the past year or so, the Department of Defense has delivered a series of statements that exaggerate the power and influence of China in order to increase U.S. defense spending and to “strengthen deterrence” against China. Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia and the Pacific Ely Ratner outlined a plan in June 2021 to deploy a permanent naval squadron to waters surrounding Taiwan that would include an aircraft carrier task force.
Such statements are resonating on the Hill where Democratic and Republican leaders are calling for an end to the policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan and the creation of “strategic clarity” to make certain that the United States would come to the aid of Taiwan if China were to “forcefully invade” Taiwan. The Congress is no help on checking the bloated defense budget, moreover, because it recently appropriated more funding for the military than either the President or the Pentagon requested.
President Joe Biden contributed to the clarion calls on China last month, when he misstated that the United States had a “commitment” to come to Taiwan’s aid, which is not the case. The mainstream media, particularly the editorial pages of the Washington Post, have highlighted Milley’s concerns regarding U.S. national security and have repeated the hyperbolic references to the challenge from China as well as the threat of international terrorism in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Lockheed-Martin, Northrup Grumman, and Raytheon Technologies already tout their hypersonic weapons programs at the top of their quarterly earnings.
Milley’s reference to the so-called “sputnik moment” reveals a lack of understanding of the field of hypersonic weaponry as well as misguided confidence in the national missile defense that has been deployed on our west coast at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. Various militaries have pursued hypersonic weaponry for nearly a century, and in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush directed the development of hypersonic missiles to disrupt terrorist attacks with nonnuclear warheads. Bush then withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that had ended the race for technologies to build defensive shields as well as the need for new offensive weapons such as hypersonic missiles to overwhelm defenses.
Milley’s belief that hypersonic weapons would overwhelm U.S. missile defenses ignores the fact that today’s inventory of Russian and Chinese ballistic missiles would overwhelm U.S. defenses. The best argument against the deployment of national missile defense is simply that these systems don’t work. When Secretary of State George Shultz realized that President Ronald Reagan was serious about building defenses against nuclear weapons, he told Reagan’s science advisor, George Keyworth, that “you are a lunatic” for selling such a scheme to the president. Our current defenses cannot distinguish between a genuine warhead and a decoy, which complicates the problem of defense. The uniformed military never wanted a defensive shield (or a Space Force for that matter), but the Pentagon refused to stand up to the military-industrial complex because it wanted to keep the money flow going.
Nevertheless, news services that represent the interests of the Pentagon, such as “Defense One,” are already calling for a U.S. deterrent force to allow the United States to confront China and Russia simultaneously. There is no end to the madness that is designed to keep the money flowing to the Department of Defense. The idea that we could surge forces in both the Baltics and the Taiwan Straits simultaneously is lunacy.
In addition to the retirement of General Milley, it is time to end the diplomatic galavanting of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and to restore the diplomatic primacy of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Department of State. Austin, who has a very limited strategic background in geopolitics, recently completed a diplomatic foray to Vietnam, Georgia, Ukraine, and Romania, which indicated that the United States was pursuing a “cordon sanitaire” against both China and Russia. In Kiev, Austin told his counterparts that membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “remained open” for Ukraine, which is a “red line” issue for Russia as well as a divisive issue within NATO itself. Germany and France are strongly opposed.
In Tbilisi, Austin signed an extension to a defense agreement with Georgia, although previous U.S. efforts to highlight military ties with Georgia led to the short but decisive war between Russia and Georgia in the summer of 2008. Austin’s briefings on the Hill, like those of Milley, have been typical worst-case offerings that fuel Cold War blather from Senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Mario Rubio as well as others, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez (D-NJ).
In 2009, Vice President Biden warned President Obama not to get “boxed-in” by Secretary of Defense Gates and the Joint Chiefs; currently, it is President Biden who may be getting “boxed-in” by Secretary of Defense Austin and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.