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Leaders of various think tanks told the Senate on Thursday the Defense Department needs a new defense strategy that is focused on traditional strengths, rather than new technology. Screenshot photo.

​The US military is desperately in need of a defense strategy, experts told the Senate on Thursday, but that strategy they said needs to focus on traditional strengths rather than whiz-bang technological breakthroughs.

The Department of Defense has an increasingly complex set of “global objectives,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr told the Senate Armed Services Committee, but “only a fraction of the necessary resources” to accomplish them. Within these limitations, a national defense strategy is essential to help prioritize where the military focuses its time and money.

The key shift in the strategic backdrop is the recent return of great power conflict, the experts said. “Great power war” is the “greatest threat we face” today, Thomas Mahnken, president and CEO of the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told the committee.

“While the United States was focused on defeating insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, “Russia and China were focused on acquiring capabilities to defeat us.” As such, Mahnken said, “preparing for great power conflict should have the highest priority” for US military planners.

The US has some work to do in this regard, RAND Corporation senior defense research analyst David Ochmanek told the committee. “It should come as no surprise that, again and again, when we run war games against China and Russia, US forces lack the capabilities they need to win.” The problem is real, he said, and “the gap is widening.”

The solution, however, is not to pour money into futuristic defense weapons. “I personally hope not to see artificial intelligence, swarms of mini drones, robots, railguns, and directed energy weapons proposed as the key to our military’s future military success,” Spoehr said.

“That’s become very fashionable in Washington, D.C.,” he continued, but “these advantages are transitory and they cannot be relied upon to provide a long-term, enduring advantage to the United States.”

The goal of a national defense strategy should insist that “US forces have the capability to defeat any single adversary, including China and Russia,” Ochmanek said, while dealing simultaneously with a prolonged regional threat, like the counterinsurgency wars in the Middle East.

“That’s actually not what we’re doing today,” Ochmanek said. But the DOD could move itself in this direction quickly “not through investments in highly exotic things,” but rather through “weapons that are either available for purchase or very far along in the development process,” he said.

Developing offensive capabilities in contested environments is key, Ochmanek said. US strategy should prioritize long-range weapons that can “reach into these contested … areas and kill things.” The DOD also needs to “mature command and control and communication structures,” he said, and build “more survivable bases.”

The panel also agreed that the US military needs to enhance its forward posture, especially in eastern Europe. “You can’t fight Russia and China with a purely expeditionary posture,” Ochmanek warned.

Mahnken agreed that US strategic priorities need to focus on old fashioned issues of “readiness, force size, and modernization.”

Ultimately, he said, the question of national strategy is tied to the question of “what role will the United States play in coming decades?” The US, he said, could either “continue to lead and defend the international order” or “retreat into a diminished role.”