Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left; Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall; Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Brown Jr.; and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. Mike Tsukamoto/staff; DOD
Photo Caption & Credits

Editorial: China, Trust, and Politics

Oct. 7, 2021

Trust is the foundation of all relationships. Whether within the bonds of marriage, the confines of a command, the interface between man and machine, or even our interactions with government institutions, once trust is broken, confidence is lost.  

In Afghanistan, when Bagram Air Base was shut down and American airpower was removed, the Afghani military quit. Lacking trust in their own government and abandoned by the U.S. forces that had made them successful, they no longer believed they could prevail.  

Notwithstanding the heroic noncombatant evacuation operation led by the U.S. Air Force and supported by NATO allies and civilian volunteers, what the world witnessed was a global superpower making a hasty and humiliating withdrawal from Kabul, capitulating to the demands of a rag-tag Taliban gaggle that waited out the American occupation. Every one of our allies had to wonder what this portends for their own alliance. We will feel the repercussions for decades. 

America’s standing in the world is built on the bedrock of American trustworthiness and reliability. We are trusted because we deliver on our promises and because, historically, even when power transfers from one party to another, U.S. foreign policy remained largely consistent. Until recently.  

Throughout the Cold War, the central themes remained the same, but with the exception of a brief period after 9/11, America has become increasingly polarized in foreign, as well as domestic, policy. As the world’s only superpower, we lost the unifying element of a common enemy, and swung, sometimes wildly, from one foreign policy extreme to another. We stopped trusting each other.   

Now we have a common foe again.  

China is no longer just a rising economic power but a real and present danger—to its neighbors, to American interests, and to America itself. Air Force and Space Force leaders drummed that point home throughout AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference last month, with photographs and videos to prove their point. Missile silos, weaponized satellites, stealth jets, hypersonic missiles, man-made military islands, and advanced artificial intelligence are all elements of a Chinese arsenal purpose-built to counter U.S. capabilities.  

Lessons we can learn from Gates, Kendall, Brown, and Milley. 

Thirteen years ago, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates derided the “tendency toward what might be called ‘Next-War-itis’” among military leaders. He defined this “disease” as “the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict.” That conflicted with his view that “it is hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional terms—ship to ship, fighter to fighter, tank to tank—for some time to come.” 

Gates’ failure to see into the future grew from a refusal to trust his Air Force commanders. Gates was frustrated by the cost of building more F-22s, which he thought were not worth the treasure they would cost to build. Gates killed the F-22 after building just under half the Air Force’s required 387 Raptors. Then, three weeks after the “Next-War-itis” speech, he beheaded the Air Force by firing, at once, both Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley. While the trigger was a series of nuclear security failures, the cause was their persistent and increasingly public objection to the risk he was incurring with regard to China.  

With hindsight, it’s clear that Wynne and Moseley were correct and that Gates was naïve. It’s also clear that the damage he inflicted goes beyond a lack of airplanes. An entire generation of leaders grew up convinced that speaking truth to power doesn’t pay. 

Now we face our worst strategic crisis since the Cold War. Not only does China possess fifth-generation jets of its own, but it also boasts the biggest air force in the region. By contrast, the U.S. Air Force is saddled with non-stealthy F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s that make up 80 percent of its fighter force, aircraft that will be almost worthless in a high-end fight.  

Gates saw the Raptor as “exquisite” and superfluous to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that was no more true of the Raptor than nuclear-powered submarines. Both were essential to deterring a future fight he didn’t want to admit could come within a decade.   

Now, America is “out of time,” as Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said at the  Air, Space & Cyber Conference last month. China is maturing and advancing far faster than the United States. Our nation must either seize this moment or cede our advantages. China would like to think that American primacy is over, that a comeback is impossible. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “C.Q.” Brown Jr. disagrees. He says, “I don’t believe in impossible.” But he’ll have to convince others that his future vision is correct. Civilian leaders: Trust that judgment.   

Our nation must prepare for a new age of deterrence by cranking up investments in new weapons, scrapping old iron that no longer contributes, hardening our space assets to protect our most important strategic advantages, reorienting our thinking to shorten the kill chain, and embracing artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies to enable all of the above.  

Trust in these concepts and material solutions must be carefully cultivated with honest assessments, demonstrations, and cost analysis. New weapons and technologies present new dependencies and vulnerabilities. Artificial intelligence algorithms are only as good as the data that inform them; bad data yields results that cannot be trusted. Adversaries don’t have to destroy systems to undermine their utility; they merely need to create doubt.  

It is the same with leadership. We must hold leaders to account for their performance and insist on clarity and integrity in their actions. We should not expect everyone to agree. But we must always be open to new or different ideas.  

Trust is essential to preserving public confidence in our military, which rightfully remains among our nation’s most trusted institutions. That trust is not a given, but earned.  

News reports that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley twice spoke with his counterpart in China, in October 2020 and January 2021, were misconstrued by many as indicative of a general selling out his commander in chief. Milley’s calls were appropriate, founded on intelligence assessments and intended to ease tensions and avoid conflict. That’s part of his job. So was his meeting with military officials to discuss nuclear policy. We should be proud that our military leaders take such matters seriously. 

Revealing secrets to Bob Woodward in the Washington Post while still serving as Chairman, however, demonstrates poor judgment. Whether that was Milley himself or some close staff adviser doesn’t matter. Gen Milley politicized his role and cast a political cloud on the entire military in the process.  

Trust being fragile, that was not a risk worth taking.