This essay responded to the question: "In terms of financial clout and technological expertise, which major powers, if any, threaten to match U.S. military power?"
This is yesteryear’s question, if it even applied fully then. We are schooled to look for a symmetrical response, when—as so often—the punishing threats are apt to be asymmetrical and innovative. Overall, the United States is likely to continue to enjoy raw technological (and economic) superiority. But will we know better what to do with it than will potential adversaries driven to think more creatively? Indeed, our wealth, power, and technological edge are the biggest handicaps to innovative military combinations. We do not (yet) feel sufficiently threatened to think avidly about our survival.
Military history is chock full of examples of long-dominant powers losing dramatically to rising, innovative powers. We might cite clichéd examples, such as the Wehrmacht’s incisive employment of tanks and radios in its lightning victory over France—whose military possessed more and better armor—but the pattern runs much deeper. For a century, the tercio formation of the Spanish infantry dominated European battlefields with its discipline, maneuverability, resilience, and shock power. At Rocroi, the rising power, France did not try to defeat the Spanish infantry with infantry, but simply blew the tercios to (literal) shreds in a combined-arms action that relied on artillery for the coup de grace: It wasn’t a matter of superior technology, but of the realization of an existing technology’s adaptability.
Our own Continental Navy could not compete in firepower with the Royal Navy, so we built swift, maneuverable frigates and adopted a strategy and tactics that maximized their effectiveness. In 1870, the French army had excellent artillery and fielded a rapid-fire, Gatling-type field piece that technologically overmatched anything in the Prussian or allied German states’ inventories. But the French failed to grasp how to use their weapons effectively (not least, due to an obsession with secrecy). And in 1914, the tiny British army had far more field experience with machine guns than any other military—but failed to understand how they would be applied in a contest with other developed armies, an oversight for which many a young Briton would pay dearly.
The list of examples is nearly endless, but the point is two-fold. First, military technologies are of little value if the military establishment fails to realize their full potential and clings to “proven” ways of fighting. Second, an infatuation with seductive-but-dead-end technologies can devour budgets and actually cripple military effectiveness (building better battleships in the age of the carrier, for example).
The most-worrisome current development is the “lawless” expansion of the parameters of warfare by rivals such as the Russians and the Chinese—a development we will find irreversible. Massive cyber-attacks go unavenged, encouraging further attacks. Unconventional combinations, such as we witnessed in Crimea or eastern Ukraine, go largely ignored. State terrorism is masked from the willfully blind. Like all established powers, we adhere doggedly to rules. Innovators win by ignoring rules.
We will continue to have the best technologies, overall, and the sturdiest economy for decades. The question is: Will we have the best minds when it comes to exploiting technologies we ourselves have pioneered?
In the military sphere, it’s doubtful. Our greatest enemy may be complacency.