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After two long counterinsurgency campaigns there is significant doubt as to whether America’s armed forces are structured to meet great power conflict. During the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, China and Russia modernised with precision strike systems, mobile nuclear missiles and area-denial capability. It is not clear how the NDS will match the threat of great power war on one front, let alone two with actual capabilities.

The only serious answer to this conundrum is that the US will outsource much of the defence burden to her allies. Successfully implementing the NDS will require US allies such as India to contain China, replicating Nato’s containment of Russia.
Already, American retrenchment has reshaped several regional power dynamics. Australia’s tumultuous relationship with the US under Trump and shared concern with Japan over China has seen an acceleration of defence ties between the two. Equally, Hanoi appears to have reversed five years of confrontation with Beijing to adopt a far less confrontational approach to China.

It is not just America’s allies who are paying close attention. In the Middle East the US appears unable or unwilling to prevent escalation in the Syrian conflict. The downing of an Israeli F-16 and the retaliatory strike by Israel are evidence of America’s weakening ability to control enemies and allies alike. Hezbollah ominously called it “the start of a new strategic phase”. Russia, Iran and Turkey are all pursuing campaigns within Syria, and the US seems powerless to restrain any of them.

While Israel is primarily concerned with Hezbollah and Iran, the reality is that the powerbroker they have been courting is Russia, not the US. It is likely that the jet was shot down with Russian knowledge. There are echoes of the shooting-down of the Malaysian Airlines plane over Ukraine in 2014. The denial of airspace by Russia is strategically significant. The ability to do so in multiple theatres only emboldens Russia. In February nearly 200 Russian mercenaries were killed in US reprisals for their attack on American forces in Syria. Not only is America falling far short of “deterring” Russia, proxy war is now a serious risk.

America has inadvertently granted Putin’s desire for great power recognition. His lesson from Ukraine and Syria is that military action tips the balance of power in Moscow’s favour with few negative consequences. Russia limited Nato’s expansion, simultaneously sending a clear message to her client states through the invasion of Ukraine and Georgia. The uncertainty is whether Putin’s future strategic ambition will be realised through further direct military action or more subtle intervention in Western democracies.

The Baltics remain vulnerable to Russian influence or attack. Russia maintains a high level of operational preparedness and has run exercises three times as often as Nato in the past three years. There are echoes of the Cold War: Russia’s sheer numbers may simply be too great for Nato quickly to deter an attack. The real bottleneck would be logistics. Moving military assets within Europe and from America to Europe would take too much time.
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