The Cost of Power Miscalculation

The Dangers of Overestimating Oneself and Underestimating Your Opponent


In light of the recent East-West tensions due to Russia’s near-annexation of Crimea, China’s aggressive behavior in the East and South China Seas, continued instability in the Middle East, and the threat of a nuclear Iran, or worse, a failed nuclear Pakistani state highlight the dangers the United States faces in the decades to come. The recently released DoD Budget and QDR both highlight the need to rebalance the force through greater investments in technological solutions at the expense of manpower along with the future applications of the joint force. The biggest bill payers for this joint force rebalance will be the Army followed by the Marine Corps as both services reduce their force structures. The intellectual basis for the rebalance is the continued perceptions that the nation will not be engaged in large scale land operations, either conventional force-on-force or large scale stability operations. Underpinning this intellectual bias is the perception or belief that the joint force will quickly dominate any potential competitor, and worse, that the cost of domination will be relatively small both in blood and treasure.

  Dr. John J. Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago

Dr. John J. Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago

Two recent articles “Mearsheimer Is Dangerously Optimistic” and “America Doesn’t Need a Big Army Any More” highlight this disturbing trend where policy elites continue the trend of over-estimating our own capabilities while under-estimating the capabilities of our opponents that create the potential to miscalculate power dynamics. As a result, it is important to deconstruct the premise of the two articles which distort the reality of our ability to respond militarily to threats vs. our willingness to accept the cost associated with a response, and how others view that calculation.

Sun Tzu is famous for his advice on knowing yourself and your enemy and this advice has been taken as gospel by intelligence professionals, military strategists, and policy elites; however, this approach has generally been flawed due to an over reliance on technical analysis of military capabilities and less on the human element associated with will and intent to gauge an opponent’s tenacity or willingness to losses. James Holmes rightly highlights Mearsheimer’s flawed analysis by clarifying that while China doesn’t have to have a military force capable of defeating the U.S. globally; it only needs a military force capable of defeating a U.S. military contingent in a time and place of its choosing in order to achieve its stated political objective. China, like it did during the Korea War, maybe willing to accept significantly higher casualties and short-term economic degradation during a potential conflict with the U.S. in order to achieve its political objective as long as it knows the U.S. will not likely engage in an all out war where it is prepared to fully mobilize.

President Putin’s calculations and that of other challengers like China are based less on our military capability, but more on their analysis of our willingness to use it and how much pain we are willing to accept.

The same is true of President Putin’s actions in Crimea where he is prepared to accept more risk in a military conflict than the U.S. and/or NATO is in preserving the status quo. President Putin likely calculated that since NATO members have divested a lot of their military capabilities since the end of the Cold War as a result of the 90s peace dividend and recent financial constraints, along with the U.S. being over extended militarily, that there was no direct military threat. Putin’s analysis may have been shaped by the fact that the U.S. no longer has a large forward stationed force in Europe, hasn’t recently demonstrated its ability to rapidly deploy multiple divisions’ worth of combat power, and the lack in of rapid military mobilization and will of our European partners. As a result Putin and his generals were confident that even if U.S. and NATO responded, the Russian military could deter or defeat the smaller military contingent with his larger combined arms maneuver oriented forces in an isolated military conflict in Ukraine. President Putin’s calculations and that of other challengers like China are based less on our military capability, but more on their analysis of our willingness to use it and how much pain we are willing to accept. As much as our nation has been resilient with our losses from Afghanistan and Iraq (roughly 6,801 killed), it is unknowable how tolerant our nation would be if the U.S. lost 6,000 dead a month, a week, or in on incident if an aircraft carrier were sunk in a conflict that may not be considered vital to our national interests. Even if the U.S. responded with a sizable conventional force, Putin knows that as a result of Russia’s announced nuclear first-strike policy, the U.S. would not be willing to engage in a nuclear conflict over Ukraine which does not represent a vital interest to the U.S. as it does to Russia.

  Bill Sweetman  |  Facebook

Bill Sweetman  |  Facebook

Bill Sweetman mistakenly believes that just because the U.S. didn’t respond to Russia’s incursion into Crimea with military force, particularly with land forces, that the U.S. doesn’t need a large Army. His underlying premise is that the Army no longer serves it strategic purpose of deterring conflict while neglecting the fact that Ukraine is not considered a vital national interest worth the cost of conflict and that the Army is not currently postured to rapidly deploy and engage in combined arms maneuver on the scale needed to deter the Russians. Additionally, he fails to acknowledge that even threatening strikes against Russia with air and naval assets would likely not work, face much tougher A2/D2 environment, comparable or greater than China’s, and could subject U.S. and European nations to retaliatory military strikes in the region. While the Russians and the Chinese are not a formidable conventional threat as the Soviet Union, it is dangerously naïve to assume they are as inept as the Iraqi conventional forces.

While fiscal constraints may prevent the Army from getting bigger, the speed of events in modern conflicts will also prevent it from rapidly mobilizing large amounts of reserves, creating unnecessary risk from a small army.

The fact that the U.S. demolished a Soviet equipped and trained Iraqi military in 1991 and again in 2003 does not account for the disparities between the Iraqi and Soviets. It would be like comparing a small military force trained and equipped by the U.S. being compared as equally capable. Moreover, China and Russia have invested billions of dollars since the 1990s in improving the professionalism of their conventional military forces, and unlike the U.S., have not sapped their strength fighting protracted counterinsurgencies. So much so that the QDR alludes to the fact that the U.S. may lose dominance such as local air and naval supremacy; this has allowed the Army to operate with near impunity since the end of the Cold War. This is not to say that the U.S. cannot defeat these threats, but that the cost of doing so will be much greater than the Desert Storm and 9/11 generations are accustomed to. In order to deter such conflicts in the future, the U.S. will need a joint force; especially a large enough Army, capable of decisively defeating a larger well trained combined arms force. While fiscal constraints may prevent the Army from getting bigger, the speed of events in modern conflicts will also prevent it from rapidly mobilizing large amounts of reserves, creating unnecessary risk from a small army. As a result, the Army of tomorrow needs the capacity and capabilities to maintain qualitative overmatch to compensate for quantitative mismatches.

  Even in 2025, the Army can’t get away from the Hook and Loop Fastener

Even in 2025, the Army can’t get away from the Hook and Loop Fastener

Today, the nation, and the Army in particular, is approaching an inflection point where the memories and lessons of 13 years of counterinsurgency are fresh while the ability to engage in force-on-force has stagnated. The Army is actively working to address this potential shortfall with the development of its Force 2025 Concept as part of the larger Strategic Landpower Multi-Service Concept. However, the Army’s new concepts and its focus on the “Human Domain” appear to ensure that the lessons of fighting in small wars are enshrined in Army doctrine vs. the reality that great power dynamics are as relevant as ever and will require the Army to invest more of its time and resources preparing. What the Army cannot allow itself to do is follow the UK’s lessons after the Boer War, which Mikhail Gringberg brilliantly explored in his article on R.B. Haldane’s reforms of the British Army. His reforms prepared the UK for future small wars and the initial phases of WWI, but left it unprepared the protracted trench warfare that drained its manpower and treasury and thereby weakening the British Empire.

The Army needs to ensure that its concepts for employing the force to include the use of Regionally Aligned Brigades to Prevent, Shape, and Win in peripheral areas does not come at the expense of being able to Prevent, Shape, and Win in areas considered vital to our national security. Doing so will require the Army to return to an “alert” status mindset where in partnership with the other services can rapidly mobilize and deploy. The real deterrent power for the Army will be demonstrating its ability to rapidly reinforce its forward deployed forces, while taking loses, to the point where it can establish significantly operational forces that can tip the scales in its favor.

The U.S. must work to preserve its military strength like precious currency to ensure that in the game of great power dynamics, it maintains sufficient strength to ensure the nation wins its wars against potential contenders to its throne. Doing so will require policy elites to honestly gauge our strengths compared to a potential near-peer threats and assess whether the cost of winning is worth the effort. It also means that we maintain a healthy dose of respect for potential competitors, underdogs, to inflict significant pain and that our future fights, as our previous fights prior to the end of the Cold War, will be bloody affairs that will tax our resiliency and will. A nation can afford to lose or struggle in small wars against weak states or non-state entities but can never afford to lose a war against a near-peer opponent. Failure to do so will create the conditions for strategic shock where the U.S. will find itself supplanted by a new global hegemon.


Chad Pillai is a strategist in the US Army. The views expressed belong to the author alone and do not represent the US Army or the Department of Defense.


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Header image: M1A1, Abrams Main Battle Tank firing.