Did 9/11 Blind America to the Real Threat?

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. military focused on light forces, special ops and drone strikes, but these strategies won’t work in conflicts with peer powers such as China

9/11 has contributed to strategic blindness, particularly regarding command of the sea. Image Credit: Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

The al-Qaida attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, remain a touchstone in American history. Twenty-two years later, we are still encouraged to commemorate them, even as an entire generation has grown to adulthood since the Twin Towers came down, the Pentagon was hit and four passenger-laden airliners were consumed by fire. The admonition to “Never forget” seems right and proper as a tribute to the thousands of victims and the bravery and sacrifices of the first responders—and as a warning about the festering nature of terrorist enemies.

However, it is time to let 9/11 go the way of “Remember Pearl Harbor” in the national consciousness: outrage noted, lessons learned. And there are many lessons, not just the one about lack of preparedness. For one, the anniversary serves as an opportunity to reflect on the mistakes the U.S. made in response, particularly with regard to the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also necessary to remember that the threats to U.S. interests existing at the time have only increased while our attention has been focused elsewhere.

In April 2001, a jet fighter from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft operating in international airspace over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed in the crash, and the U.S. plane made an emergency landing on Hainan Island, where the PRC detained the 24 crew members for 11 days. U. S. officials were taken aback by the vehemence—even shrillness—of China’s protests and insistence on its victimhood in the incident.

The sudden crisis might have been a wake-up call about an alarming turn in the PRC’s foreign policy, but the U.S. very quickly dropped it for the more immediate 9/11 threat exploding in the homeland. Steven Wills, a former Navy officer and now a naval analyst at the Center for Maritime Strategy, says dawning realization of the potential China threat was outshined by the glaring challenge posed by radical Islamic terrorism.

“There seems to have been an understanding within the George W. Bush administration that China was an issue, especially after the EP-3 incident,” Wills says. “I was sitting in the Defense Intelligence Agency at that time, and there was certainly interest moving toward what China was up to. But then 9/11 happened and that fundamentally shifted policy in a different direction.”

Maritime Blindness

In many ways, 9/11 has contributed to a strategic blindness that afflicts the nation still. Nowhere is this more evident than in its assumptions about command of the sea. Every aspect of the world order the U.S. has led since the end of World War II rests on the foundation of freedom of the seas for the international transit of ships.

Of course, U.S. commitment to freedom of the seas serves its own interests as a top trading nation. An oft-quoted statistic is that 90% of U.S. import-export trade is by ship, even as some quibble over issues of volume and value. Regardless, there is general agreement that the oceans are vital for our commerce, and we have set it up so that it’s vital for everybody else as well, so much so that freedom of the seas is simply assumed.

The U.S. Navy bears much of the credit—and responsibility—for enabling a world order that includes freedom of the seas for essentially all nations with a usable port. This freedom extends alike to friends, foes and the indifferent. There is simply an assumption that cargoes will move, tourists will cruise, fish will be caught and even countries we don’t like can send their warships to places that annoy us. This is freedom of the seas: mare liberum, a concept going back to the 16th century made possible by Allied victory in World War II.

The fact that the U.S. is enabling, if not enforcing, a policy enunciated in the West five centuries ago is not necessarily interesting, however, to powers that had no hand in its construction, even if they benefit from it for now. These so-called revisionist powers seem to have coalesced into a sort of anti-world order club and include the PRC, Russia, Iran, North Korea and even Pakistan. Some of these powers—the BRIC nations—are attempting to form an alternative to the dollar-centric global economy and attracting some members that have till now been seen as more or less in the Western camp.

The rise of a possibly effective countervailing world order pretender bloc is notable in the context of the “maritime blindness” afflicting the U.S. after 9/11, when it either neglected or chose not to see the emerging threats to its assumptions. Command of the seas to deliver and support forces where needed is what made prosecution of the global war on terror possible, even as such actions alarmed or alienated other nations.

“Without a doubt, America’s focus on counter-terrorism and nation-building came at the expense of our ability to prepare to deter or, if necessary, defeat China and Russian aggression,” says Alexander Velez-Green, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “There’s no question. And now we are, in many regards, playing catch-up. This is especially acute in the Indo-Pacific, where it is no longer clear the United States would be able to deter or defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.”

Captain Robert Rubel, U.S. Navy (ret.) and professor emeritus at the Naval War College, says U.S. priorities after 9/11 exacerbated existing tendencies to overlook emerging threats to the world order. “The 9/11 attacks certainly shook up U.S. policy and strategy, but in my view it did not deflect it much from the vector it assumed in the wake of the collapse of the USSR,” he says.

In Rubel’s view, the U.S. Navy, focusing exclusively on power projection, did not invest in the material means to physically rule the waves after the demise of the Soviet Union. Even while the U.S. Navy nearly reached its goal of a 600-ship fleet enunciated by Navy Secretary John Lehman during the Reagan administration, that fleet’s focus was primarily on projecting power over the shore in support of land operations. That approach turned out to be valid, as we subsequently learned that the Soviet Navy did not seek to contest global command of the seas. Rather, Soviet goals were primarily focused on defense of the Soviet littoral while maintaining and securing its submarine-based strategic deterrent forces.

The PRC’s People’s Liberation Army Navy is a different animal. It is now the world’s largest navy and is growing rapidly, while the U.S. Navy is shrinking due to obsolescence of “Lehman navy” hulls and the spectacular failure of Navy new ship programs, notably the Littoral Combat Ship and Zumwalt-class destroyers. Unlike the U.S. Navy, the PRC navy is growing to meet clear strategic goals, such as preparing for a conquest of Taiwan and asserting control over the South China Sea beyond its legally recognized limit according to current international law.

“Command of the sea right now is an assumption, a benefit resulting from an earlier strategy,” Rubel says. “Command of the sea allowed the adoption of a freedom of the seas policy. So, here’s the question: Is U.S. command of the sea at risk? And I would say it’s starting to be. China is obviously the nation that wishes to alter the rules of the international system. And it’s building a navy to allow it to do that. At some point, somebody is going say, ‘You can’t go there.’ And then things start. Then we’ll see who has command of the sea.”

Opening Our Eyes

One observation and perhaps criticism of the U.S. response to 9/11 is the ascendence of light forces, special operations forces and drone strikes to go after insurgent groups, terrorist cells and leaders. These formations and units have all proven valuable, effective and useful in certain situations. At the same time, these are not the primary assets that will be needed to secure command of the sea and wage total war against a peer power.

The ascendence of light, agile forces backed by precision air-delivered firepower to prosecute the global war on terror occurred because there was a strategic concept in evolution at the time that seemed perfectly tailored for the moment. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the Bush administration advocated for the radical transformation of U.S. forces in a post-Cold War world from a heavy total-war force into one that could be transported for brushfire wars on the periphery of the Eurasian landmass.

After 9/11, America demanded action and Rumsfeld delivered with the “army you have” moving into Afghanistan to rout the Taliban, and eventually into Iraq, to initial success. Particularly in the former instance, Rumsfeld garnered credit for his transformation concept of lighter forces prevailing with the assistance of airpower. Precision weapons, networks and transformation became mandatory for any new program.

Almost all these new programs ultimately failed. Moreover, the U.S. Navy’s overarching plan to add new cruisers, destroyers and frigates to replace aging counterparts has not happened. “That’s a whole generation of ships that didn’t work out,” Steven Wills says. “So, you get to the present where you have Navy Secretary Del Toro testifying recently before the Senate Armed Services Committee and was criticized about readiness. No single navy secretary or chief of naval operations owns all of the Navy’s challenges, as they go back over 30 years.”

In addition to being a huge waste of time and resources, transformation has allowed China to steal a generation march on the United States when it comes to military technology and production numbers. While China improved its technology and inflated its forces, the U.S. pursued the global war on terror, which became something of a white whale, and allowed its conventional and strategic forces to atrophy.

According to Wills, the problem with transformation was not so much the concept as Rumsfeld defined it, but rather the inability of the Department of Defense procurement process to implement it. Pentagon programs used to follow a process pioneered by Robert McNamara, secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, that emphasized evolutionary changes in a system rather than revolutionary ones.

“McNamara was also a Ford Motor Co. executive, and he saw the fiasco with the Edsel car that nobody wanted,” Wills says. “So, he was wary of transformational concepts.”

The problem is that after 9/11, transformational concepts were all the rage. Everything was transformational. The Army would get rid of tanks in favor of the vaporware Future Combat System. The Air Force, Navy and Marines would load all their requirements on the Joint Strike Fighter. The Navy would spend an eye-watering sum on Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), all of which are going to be retired soon and scrapped if we can’t find anybody who wants them.

“LCS, I would argue, was future transformational to start with for the defense acquisition system,” Wills says. “Just way too many new and immature systems and concepts on it that were not fully understood at the time. So, every time one of those new concepts fails testing, then testing has to be rescheduled, and the program length increases, and more money has to be spent over the entire program.”

Contrary to the transformational plan, the Army is going to keep its tanks after all. Services will get by with the F-35 and build some legacy F-15s. The Navy is going to build frigates based on an Italian design.

Not Seeing

The U.S. has not revised its acquisitions habits since 9/11, even with the rise of China as a peer power. It needs ships, but it won’t just build new ones, even as it retires old ships faster than it adds to the fleet.

The new Constellation-class frigates, based on an Italian design that will be built in the U.S., are now being loaded down with new requirements for Tomahawk land-attack missiles and SM-6 extended-range air defense missiles. This is exactly what the U.S. has been doing since 9/11: It starts with a concept for cheaper, more agile and more numerous weapons platforms, and then ends up bogging down the concept with new requirements, making each unit more expensive and more time-consuming to produce because of the legacy procurement process.

This flawed system has arisen because of conflicting needs in the absence of a coherent strategy. Yes, we need more ships quickly to face peer threats. Yes, when we have a small number of ships overall, every ship needs to be more capable. Robert Rubel says the way to get around this problem, at least partially, is to adopt the concept of simple platforms carrying sophisticated missiles.

“We can and should stockpile missiles now,” Rubel says. “Then develop launchers in shipping containers that can be plopped down on any ship. Then it’s just a matter of providing external targeting and control. But you have to have a procurement system that accepts this.”

Steven Wills would like to return to the block procurement process, where a given group of systems (flight or tranche) would be produced and built with existing capabilities. Future flights would add capabilities (such as Tomahawk and SM-6 and new electronics) without slowing down existing procurement. “Our Navy has to do more but with fewer ships,” Wills says. “We have a shrinking, aging fleet with rising maintenance costs, not enough sailors, and with not enough ships to meet its deployment requirements.”

Heritage’s Velez-Green is concerned that the U.S. does not have the industrial capacity to reverse this trend.

“America’s defense industry is struggling just to produce the things required for Ukraine to defend itself against Russia,” he says. “It is not where it needs to be to support U.S. forces in a direct conflict with China, especially not if that conflict turns protracted, as seems very likely.”

One of the legacies of 9/11 is that the U.S. has been blind—perhaps willfully—to the efforts needed to maintain the world order and freedom of the seas in the face of peer challenge from a revisionist power. It remains to be seen how far the PRC will go in its efforts to revise the world order and how much the U.S. values it.

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