America’s Achilles’ Heel: Threat Deflation 

Over the past 30 years, the U.S. national security community has failed to recognize the increasingly dangerous strategic trendline of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) comprehensive national power and their unyielding intention to destroy America, including its principles of individual liberty and freedom—these principles that have brought more prosperity to the world than any other form of governance.  Consequently, they failed to adopt a policy to stop the PRC’s meteoric rise.  Now our nation faces the herculean task of confronting and defeating Communist China’s existential threat, for which we are not prepared intellectually, ideologically, organizationally, or militarily.  Accordingly, it is not clear at this point whether or not we can succeed.  The central problem is what we have termed “threat deflation,” consistently year-after-year underestimating the threat posed by a growing PRC.

The American people are compelled to ask why the U.S. National Security Community failed.  Perhaps the best characterization of the purpose of having a national intelligence community was summarized eighty-plus years ago by the now-renowned U.S. Navy Radio Intelligence Officer and principal architect of the U.S. Navy’s victory over the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway, Commander Joseph J. Rochefort.  When speaking of the prime directive for any intelligence officer, as Rear Admiral Edwin Layton documented in his book, And I Was There, Rochefort famously remarked, “That an intelligence officer has one task, one job, one mission.  This is to tell his commander, his superior, today, what the [enemies] are going to do tomorrow.  This is his job. If he doesn’t do this, then he’s failed.“

As such, the failures of the Intelligence Community (IC) were, first, to identify the PRC as an existential threat—this would have included identifying Deng Xiaoping’s political warfare strategy of threat deflation precisely as a political warfare strategy to obfuscate and conceal the PRC’s vulnerability.

Second, the IC did not compel senior national security decision-makers to address the PRC threat by illuminating the pernicious damage engagement policies were causing.  At root, the IC aided Deng’s political warfare strategy of threat deflation because the IC had for decades consistently promoted threat deflation via the policy of engagement.

As such, the Congress should investigate and demand an explanation of how senior national security officials and the U.S. IC permitted threat deflation and the rise of a peer competitor without forcefully alerting decision-makers and the American people that this was occurring and framing options for the response.  Given the resources provided and the respect given to the IC, warnings and options to address the PRC threat should have been provided consistently for decades.  If certain elements of the IC were providing this and it was ignored, it is also important to understand why senior IC leaders in Washington chose not to act upon these indications and warnings.

Compelling the IC to explain this failure should be a priority for the Department of Defense, the Congressional China Committee and the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.  The most important steps now are to understand how it could happen, which assumptions were made about the strategic objectives and motivations of the CCP, what multiple failures occurred, why they could not be corrected internally by the IC, what assumptions and biases existed that colored the intelligence community’s reporting on China, as well as understanding who understood the threat but was ignored or punished for accurate assessments of the threat.

Third, the IC failed to follow the prime directive for intelligence professionals—knowing where the enemy is today and predicting where they will be tomorrow—out of fear of making a wrong predictive assessment.  Fear of failure is no excuse, but it is a real phenomenon that must be addressed by Congressional oversight and rooted out.

Fourth, and most worrisome, is the IC’s adoption of a defensive attitude whenever their analysis and assessments are challenged in the public domain.  This very same defensive attitude was prevalent among DC-based intelligence leadership and their representatives in Hawaii, who spent more time trying to debunk and discredit challenges to IC assessment about the PRC rather than objectively assessing whether such challenges may in fact be valid.

The U.S. and the world cannot abide more of these kinds of devastating acts from the PRC. It is time for an accounting as to how the IC failed.  As was done during the Church and Pike Committees in the post-Watergate Era, the U.S. intelligence community needs to be examined for these failures and systemic repairs enacted, not the least of which is an open rejection of the philosophy of threat deflation that has dominated the IC for the past 30 years.

This reality about the IC compels the next question of how it could be that senior uniformed members of the Department of Defense allowed this to happen.  How did they allow the U.S. Navy to decline from being the largest and most lethal 20 years ago to now being outnumbered and outgunned by the PLA Navy?  While there was a small cadre of flag and general officers who were cognizant of the rise of the PRC and the threat from the PLA, they were, as one retired officer noted, “swimming against the tide.”  How is it possible that the U.S. Navy flag officer corps devolved from being an institution that had the moral integrity to “revolt” over principled disagreements about our national security strategy and budget allocation in 1949 to a U.S. Navy today that is arguably outgunned by the PLA Navy without one Admiral publicly speaking out in dissent or resigning?

We propose the following recommendations to address the problem of threat deflation:

The first recommendation for recovery is for the U.S. national security community to admit they failed.  The dominance of the Pax Americana that their strategic forefathers gave them, they lost.  By promoting the engagement strategy of the pro-CCP school out of fear of provoking the PRC, they have strengthened the greatest national security threat the U.S. has faced.

Second, Americans must understand that the existing distribution of power within the U.S. national security community is resistant to withdrawing from the pro-CCP school—their predilection will be to return the rudder of the ship of state back on a course towards engagement with the PRC.  The current national security system and culture established after the 1947 National Security Act has forgotten its original charter and has instead allowed groupthink and careerism to supersede their prime directive of protecting the nation from strategic surprise.

Third, it should also be expected that executing this rudder change within the foreign policy community will take years of consistent effort to reverse—as can already be clearly seen from the sudden resumption of visits to the PRC by senior cabinet-level officials from the Biden administration.  Unfortunately, America does not have years to correct course.  This Cold War with the PRC is not like the first Cold War because the strategists who built America’s power during this fight with the Soviet Union experienced less resistance from the national security community compared to the present.  Today, many American national security elites inside and outside of the government are more interested in sustaining their involvement with the PRC, and because of this, they will more actively fight against measures to confront and challenge Beijing’s agenda of global expansionism.

Fourth, America’s victory over these internal and external forces is only possible if action is taken now.  Past policies promoted by the pro-CCP school that have been based on the false assumptions that the CCP’s capabilities are “decades away” must be rejected and there needs to be a sense of urgency and immediacy infused into our actions as a nation, across the whole of government.

Fifth, the intelligence community needs to create a dynamic and independent “Team B” to address the threat.  A Team B for the PRC is needed that would bring together individuals from industry, scientists, negotiators, academics, and government service, as well as those who have track records of confronting the CCP’s Political Warfare to create “quick fixes” to the immediate problems of the PRC threat.

Sixth, the U.S. needs to have the same familiarity with the PLA’s doctrine and ideology as with Soviet Communism during the Cold War.  America’s national security community, especially within the DoD and IC, must understand the CCP’s priorities for investment, research, and force structure development, as well as the missions and options that force structure would support.

Seventh, the U.S. needs to take bold action to target the CCP directly. This requires a multifaceted approach that will include the rollback the PRC’s gains in the South China Sea and the defeat of the PRC in its attempts at future territorial seizure, like the PRC is currently conducting against the Philippines at Second Thomas Shoal.

Eighth, given the effectiveness of the CCP’s Political Warfare campaign against the security of the U.S. and its allies, the U.S. must now consider the unambiguous development of a nuclear first-strike capability.

America’s Achilles’ heel is threat deflation.  That fundamental problem must be addressed as a top priority for the U.S. national security community and their responsibility to the American people.

James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer are authors of Embracing Communist China:  America’s Greatest Strategic Failure.

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About James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer

James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is a Founding Member of the Committee on Present Danger China and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.

Photo: A Chinese People's Liberation Navy ship sails near the location where volunteers from the civilian-led mission Atin Ito (This Is Ours) Coalition distributed fuel and food to fishers , in the disputed South China Sea on May 16, 2024. A Philippine boat convoy bearing supplies for Filipino fishers said they were headed back to port May 16, ditching plans to sail to a Beijing-held reef off the Southeast Asian country after one of their boats was "constantly shadowed" by a Chinese vessel. (Photo by Ted ALJIBE / AFP) (Photo by TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images)

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