In 2008, a Russian MIG shot a Georgian drone out of the sky. Minutes later, Michael Carpenter was at the crash site in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, the former Soviet republic, standing over the smoldering wreckage. When Carpenter, a State Department official, got back to Washington, he warned policy advisers and intelligence analysts that Russia was goading Georgia into war. “Some literally laughed at me,” he recently recalled. Russia invaded Georgia a few months later.
There was a time, not long ago, before the hacking of Democratic Party campaign e-mails, the spread of fake news, and the election of Donald Trump, when national-security leaders in this country dismissed Russia as a true rival. This tendency went all the way to the top. In 2012, Barack Obama ridiculed his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, during a televised debate for identifying Russia as “our No. 1 geopolitical foe” when terrorists were the ones worth worrying about. Obama quipped at Romney, “The nineteen-eighties are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”
Two years later, Carpenter was a senior Pentagon official when Russia annexed Crimea and, through proxies, occupied territory in eastern Ukraine. Once again, U.S. military and intelligence officials were caught unaware, in part, because most American satellites and drones were covering areas in the Middle East. In an e-mail that was subsequently hacked and released by a group considered a Russian intelligence front, Philip Breedlove, then the top U.S. general in Europe, complained, “All eyes are on isil all the time.”
Eventually, Breedlove got some of the high-tech surveillance and reconnaissance platforms he’d asked for, but they merely amplified what senior military planners were beginning to realize: today’s Russian military is far more advanced than previously understood. “We had a march stolen on us,” Elbridge Colby, a senior Pentagon strategist, told me. And while the U.S. military could operate at will in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, blanketing the skies with drones, that was much less the case in contested areas like the South China Sea and eastern Ukraine. A senior Defense official told me, “We are fucking naked in our ability to operate in those environments.”
The Defense Department is trying to change that, an effort reflected in its latest National Defense Strategy. Syntactically, the document is fairly straightforward: the Pentagon wants more money to buy more stuff. But the type of war it plans to fight is novel. In short, the Pentagon is trying to move on from the war on terror. “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” the strategy, which is being released later today, reads. China and Russia are now America’s “principal priorities.” The senior Defense official described the predominant sentiment inside the Pentagon these days as: “Real men fight real wars. We like the clarity of big wars.”
This, of course, makes for an awkward pivot, because President Trump often seems enamored with Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to the Washington Post, intelligence briefers edit certain Russia-specific items from their presentations to avoid angering Trump, who reportedly becomes irritated at the mention of Russia. It was Trump, moreover, who campaigned on promises to vanquish terrorists wherever they may reside. In August, he pledged to keep Americans in Afghanistan for an indefinite period of time. “In the end, we will win,” he said. On Wednesday, Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, indicated that the U.S. would also remain in Syria for a long time. In other words, the war on terror may not be as finished as some Pentagon planners would like.
Some Defense officials see the continued focus on post-9/11 foreign interventions as problematic over the long term. While hundreds of thousands of Americans were fighting religious zealots in the desert, the Chinese and Russians were building new rockets and satellites. “There’s always an opportunity cost. The forty-five billion that we’re spending a year in Syria and Afghanistan would fill a lot of holes in our arsenal,” the senior Defense official said. “A professional boxer who trains against lesser opponents doesn’t improve.”
Doug Wise, a former C.I.A. paramilitary and operations officer who served in the Middle East before becoming the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said counterterrorism missions were critical, but came with a cost. The deaths caused by suicide bombers and maniacs who shoot up night clubs were “terrible tragedies,” he said, but, in the end, “Can isis destroy the American way of life? Probably not.” He went on, “You want to talk about an existential threat? How about China’s hypersonic glide missile, which can travel at multiple times the speed of sound and could take out an aircraft carrier before you could even blink? If the entire Pacific Fleet was at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, that would pose an existential threat.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis set the initial strategy priorities and contributed to discussions, but his deputy, Patrick Shanahan, has made many of the budgetary and acquisition decisions along the way. Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, nicknamed Mr. Fix-It, arrived at the Pentagon last summer, and promptly turned an old office into an obeya—a Japanese design concept (the “big room” or “war room”), made famous by Toyota, whereby everyone stands at whiteboards, without deference to rank, in order to work through a technical problem. Shanahan, in jeans and a T-shirt, met his team there on Saturday mornings to consider which programs would be essential, and which would not, to prevail in an all-out war with Russia or China.
Shanahan told me, in a recent interview, that the Defense Department was making “big bets” in space, artificial intelligence, and cyber. When I said that a skeptic might interpret this as the Pentagon just wanting really expensive weapons, he said that coming up with the new strategy had entailed lots of “hard choices.” “These numbers don’t have ‘M’s on them. They have ‘B’s and ‘T’s,” he said, referring to budgetary sums in the millions, billions, and trillions of dollars. And though he declined to specify a particular program that was about to get axed or green-lit, Shanahan, an engineer, said, “There’s a technical solution for everything.”
One thing that concerned Shanahan was the department’s sluggish acquisition cycle. Part of the new strategy, he said, involved pulling budgetary and acquisition decisions back from the uniformed service chiefs and vesting them in his office. “This is the dawn of the Mattis management system,” he said. Shanahan’s statement reminded me of another Mattis-related aphorism, coined by the retired Marine general in Iraq, but now, apparently, applicable elsewhere: “Be polite, be professional, but always have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”