30 years after achieving total dominance, has the Ukraine conflict exposed the limits of American power?
The failure of Ukraine’s much-hyped counteroffensive – which began in June of this year and has stuttered for over three months – has by now become a universally recognized fact. It has been acknowledged not only by Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, but also by Western media and experts. However, the summer campaign has made the world reconsider not only the capabilities of Kiev’s armed forces, but also the power of the country’s main sponsor – the United States, when it comes to waging a large-scale war with a modern enemy.
Unexpected news? Not really. Various analytical reports have repeatedly stated that the US, despite a mind boggling annual financial outlay, may have trouble confronting a major power. A number of American experts, whose opinions will be mentioned below, have warned that Washington’s superiority in terms of precision weapons, intelligence, and targeting may not be enough, when facing a really large enemy – as opposed to a third world country or an insurgent formation.
Nevertheless, for a long time these warnings were ignored. Washington overestimated its own capabilities and underestimated those of the enemy (in this case, Russia) and as a result, its assistance to Ukraine turned out to be insufficient. Meanwhile, the US and its NATO allies are not ready to provide more aid, since this would greatly weaken their own military power. So how did Washington’s military machine get into this situation?
How the US Army evolved
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After Germany and Japan were vanquished in 1945, the development of the US military may be clearly divided into several cycles. The first started with the Cold War in the second half of the that decade. Up until the mid to late 1960s, it was characterized by preparations for World War III. This was imagined as a replica of the Second World War, only with the USSR as the main enemy and the concept that it would be nuclear.
In that period, local conflicts, including the Korean War, did not significantly influence military development and were conducted using the same forces that were supposed to be used in a major war. Nevertheless, the US drew certain conclusions. For example, after the Korean War, it became obvious that using piston-engined bombers as carriers of nuclear weapons was pointless, and this significantly accelerated the transition of the US Strategic Air Command to jet aircraft.
The second period started when the United States understood the realities of a confrontation in conditions of strategic parity: the massive nuclear arsenals of the USSR and the USA made the outcome of a potential war between the two countries meaningless, given mutually assured destruction. The preparations for a potential confrontation continued, but at the same time things started moving closer to a peaceful resolution. This finally happened when treaties on the limitation and reduction of nuclear arsenals were signed.
Direct military clashes were now limited to local conflicts, and these required new approaches, since many strategies intended for a global nuclear war could not be applied to low-intensify conflicts. When it came to military equipment, economic parameters like long-term service, the ability to modernize, and total life cycle cost became important. Previously, none of this had fit into the concept of “equipment built to burn in the furnace of a nuclear war in five minutes.” Some socio-economic parameters also changed – the idea of a conscript army was rejected, the number of army reserves was reduced, and so on.