By: Christian Trotti

What is the kernel of the issue?

Force planners have long agonized over the tradeoff between warfighting and presence. The former has often involved fewer and more exquisite systems (i.e., capability, or “quality”) to fight and deter great-power wars. The latter necessitates greater numbers (i.e., capacity, or “quantity”) to maintain regional deterrence.

Why is the issue important?

Both warfighting capability and presence are needed to deter a rising China from revisionist behavior. Effective US capabilities designed for wartime use will ensure escalation dominance and persuade Chinese decision-makers that a conventional war would be too costly. But greater US presence in the Indo-Pacific is also essential to deter China from using a variety of military and gray-zone tools to gradually change the regional status quo (e.g., building artificial islands and harassing regional fishermen in contested waters).

What is the recommendation?

The Biden administration should accelerate the development of multi-purpose aerial, maritime, and undersea drones, which should be capable of a variety of mission sets including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and the deployment of kinetic payloads. These targeted investments should be accompanied by updated operational concepts to foster greater human-machine teaming, thereby enabling these drones to plug more easily into both low-intensity freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) for greater regional presence and high-intensity military operations for conventional wartime scenarios. Thus, large drone fleets can be the solution to both warfighting and presence requirements, providing much-needed synergies under a tighter defense budget.

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