TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) -The West is slowly losing the contest for pre-eminence in the emerging international order. Brexit is just one manifestation of the crisis of confidence enveloping liberal democracies beset by a rising tide of dissent, self-doubt, identity politics and a loss of trust in the foundational institutions of the post-World War II order. But the steady erosion of US military capabilities is of even greater concern because the West’s traditional advantage in hard power has underpinned these institutions and their guiding norms.
By the end of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had transformed the US military into a technologically superior force by exhausting Moscow in an arms race it could never win, leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But in the years that followed, the US frittered away its conventional military superiority in the global war on terror and in draining conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East, while failing to recapitalize and innovate for the wars of the future or to prepare for the inevitable rise of authoritarian competitors.
Although they include hostile regional powers like Iran and nuclear-armed North Korea, the greatest challenge is from China and Russia. Both have poured enormous resources into decades-long defense modernization programs, dramatically improving their military capabilities and strategic reach. The result is a potentially game-changing shift in the global balance of power in favor of autocracies.
China will soon attain military parity with the US in Asia. Most defense experts believe this is likely to occur around 2025. Others, like former NATO supreme commander James Stavridis, believe the People’s Liberation Army has already achieved effective parity. And Russia, although clearly outmatched by the US globally, is well placed to achieve local superiority over NATO in any short-duration regional crisis that might develop along its Eurasian periphery.
This shift in the military balance is at the point where it is doubtful the US could prevail in a conventional conflict with China and Russia at the same time. And it might not be able to defeat either in regional conflicts close to home, such as Ukraine and Taiwan, without risking losses that would be unacceptable to a war-weary and politically divided electorate.
How did it come to this? American hubris, overstretch, complacency, division and triumphalism have all played a role along with a resolute determination by China and Russia to redress humiliating past defeats and reassert themselves as major powers.
US military power peaked at the end of World War II. From 1939 to 1945 the army transformed from a force of 187,000 to nearly 8.3 million active duty soldiers. The navy and air force also expanded exponentially. By war’s end the navy’s 6768 ships included 28 aircraft carriers and 23 battleships while the air force fielded 80,000 planes, 41 per cent of them combat aircraft. And the US was the sole nuclear power until the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb in 1949.
These numbers were obviously unsustainable for a peacetime force. But for most of the Cold War US military strength, particularly its ability to project power globally, was superior to that of its nearest rival, the Soviet Union, and dwarfed that of every other nation. This disparity was even more pronounced at the turn of the century, when the US led in just about every significant measure of military power.
However, the seeds of decline were sown at the end of the Cold War when the US began to lose its advantage in key military and dual-use technologies. From the 1950s to the mid-80s, the US was the dominant player in computer chips, precision-guided munitions and space. Defense research in these areas stimulated advances in the private sector, reducing costs, making the technology widely available and reducing the Pentagon’s control and leading role.
Today most new defense technologies come out of the private sector and have proliferated widely. China and Russia have invested heavily in emerging technologies with military applications such as robotics, cyber, electromagnetic propulsion, hypersonic vehicles and artificial intelligence, enabling them to close the military-technology gap with the US. Russian President Vladimir Putin believes the country that succeeds in dominating the field of AI “will become ruler of the world”, a sentiment his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, appears to share.
The evangelizing, nation-building zeal of George W. Bush’s neocons, who wrongly believed they could democratize the Middle East, and the distracting global war on terror consumed much of the budget surplus built up under previous administrations. Precious defense resources were redirected towards hugely expensive counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations in ungoverned spaces around the world, wearing out much of the military’s equipment and draining inventories of materiel and expensive smart munitions.
Between 2002 and 2017 the US spent a staggering $2.8 trillion on funding the war against terror and counter-insurgency wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, equivalent to 16 per cent of the government’s entire discretionary budget. By comparison, World War II is estimated to have cost about $4 trillion in today’s dollars.
For nearly two decades America took its eye off the main game as China, Russia and other potential adversaries built up their arsenals and sought to neutralize US advantages. Compounding this error of judgment, the Bush and Obama administrations underestimated the determination of China and Russia to reassert themselves in Asia and Europe.
Overuse and underspending on conventional weaponry have weakened the sinews of this once peerless military, a worrying development for allies like Australia because of our defense reliance on the US. The US defense budget flatlined under Barack Obama. Forced defense cuts by congress, known as sequestration, exacerbated the Pentagon’s funding problems from 2013. In 2017 exasperated former US defense secretary Jim Mattis declared: “No enemy in the field has done more to harm the combat readiness of our military than sequestration.”
The signs of American military decline are unmistakable. Two-thirds of the navy’s strike fighters can’t fly and more than half the navy’s total aircraft are grounded. Ships, including aircraft carriers and submarines, are spending more time in maintenance and less time at sea. There are serious shortages of key personnel and spare parts.
The sealift fleet faces the prospect of an imminent collapse because of the advanced age of the ships that would be used to transport up to 90 percent of army and marine corps equipment in the event of a major conflict overseas. Only three of the army’s 10 divisions are combat-ready. Less than half of marine corps aircraft are flyable. The air force is also in trouble. Barely half the service was mission capable in 2016 against the required level of 80 percent.
The US is also running out of smart bombs and munitions that it has been expending at a rapid rate in Afghanistan and other operational theatres. Despite plans to invest more than $20 billion ($28bn) in their replenishment, the shrinking defense industrial base may not be able quickly to replace them and other vital components such as solid rocket motors, thermal batteries, fuses and small turbine engines.
A White House report in October identified more than 300 specific vulnerabilities in the defense industrial base ranging from the mundane (sourcing material to make tents and uniforms) to the strategic (rare earths critical for high-end military equipment like radars, directed energy weapons, laser weapons, smart bombs and drones). In many cases the main or sole suppliers are Chinese, which puts the US in the untenable position of relying on a potential adversary for minerals and components critical to operations.
Donald Trump has begun to address these shortfalls by authorizing the two largest defense budgets in US history — $700 billion in 2018 and $716 billion this year. But sustaining these increases will be difficult as the annual US budget deficit approaches an eye-watering and unsustainable $1 trillion. Trump’s enhanced defense budgets will be stretched by rising personnel costs and the need to replace ageing legacy systems (including US nuclear and missile forces) concurrent with the equally pressing need to invest in new capabilities to meet the Chinese and Russian challenges.
Washington’s problem is that it does not have the resources to outmatch China’s and Russia’s combined military capabilities and continue to play the role of global cop. Trump recognizes this dilemma, which is one reason he wants to withdraw from Afghanistan and other expensive overseas commitments and return to a traditional offshore balancing role requiring allies and proxies to do more of the heavy regional lifting.
China’s rapid military strides are bringing a new urgency to the task. The PLA has transformed from a backward, antiquated force into a near peer rival in the space of 20 years and is on the threshold of becoming a full-spectrum military power. This has been achieved on the back of a massive and sustained infusion of money and a shrewdly conceived, well-implemented strategy that promises to realize President Xi’s dream of a fully modernized PLA by 2035 able to dominate the western Pacific and project power globally.
While the headline figures show that Trump’s defense budget is bigger than that of the next seven countries’ combined, outspending China by more than three to one, the actual difference is far less because China gets considerably more operational bang for the yuan. It has been able to leapfrog old technologies, learn from others’ mistakes, buy or steal the latest technology and avoid debilitating and expensive foreign conflicts. Moreover, its official 2018 defense budget of $175 billion does not include many data-x-items that are routinely included in the US equivalent, such as the cost of purchasing foreign weapons and equipment, and defense research and development. What we do know is that China increased defense spending by 356 per cent between 2001 and 2017, and that it intends to spend a further $2 trillion on defense modernization over the next decade.
As a result, the country already boasts the world’s largest force of conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles. On present trends, China’s navy will have roughly the same number of warships as the US by 2021 but with a higher proportion of modern ships. Its submarine fleet is already larger than the US’s and the navy is on track to have six aircraft carriers by 2030, which would enable it to deploy four powerful carrier groups to support Beijing’s territorial claims in the East and South China seas.
The army has been downsized and modernized while the air force, which still lags behind America’s, is rapidly acquiring advanced capabilities.
This means that forward-deployed US forces in Japan, South Korea, Guam and even Hawaii are now vulnerable to attack from Chinese bombers and missiles launched from the mainland, garrison islands in the South China Sea and the Chinese fleet.
Darwin is one of the few places in the western Pacific where US forces can operate in relative safety. But the same cannot be said of Taiwan, which is the focal point of China’s rearmament. Many analysts believe China’s military advances will make it extremely difficult for the US to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack without recourse to nuclear weapons.
Perhaps the greatest threat to US military pre-eminence is China’s single-minded, strategic approach to developing the enabling technologies and capabilities crucial to future great power status in contrast to the disjointed and domestically contested US approach.
Space is illustrative. Once a space neophyte, the recent landing of a lunar explorer on the dark side of the moon was an impressive demonstration of China’s determination to become this century’s space power. Conversely, the US President’s much trumpeted space force is unlikely to get off the launch pad due to congressional opposition. The Chinese moon landing is the product of clear goals, sustained funding and programmatic stability while US space policy lacks focus and waxes and wanes with the political tide.
Besides, Trump can’t just focus on China. He also has to deal with a rejuvenated, nuclear-capable Russian military. With an economy the size of Texas and a shrinking, ageing population, Russia no longer poses a global threat to the US. But Putin has beefed up military co-operation with China as a means of balancing against the US and NATO in Europe, leveraging off China’s growing military strength.
Taking a leaf from the Chinese play book, Putin has also assiduously rebuilt a military decimated by the Soviet Union’s collapse, concentrating his limited resources on exploiting perceived US and European vulnerabilities and selectively developing hi-tech capabilities such as hypersonic missiles and cyber-weapons.
Between 2000 and 2016 Russian annual defense spending rose from $20 billion to $69 billion (measured in 2016 dollars). At its high point, this accounted for more than 4 per cent of GDP. Much of this money has been spent in strategically astute ways, causing problems for US and European defense planners. Despite a hit to the budget over the past three years because of falling oil and gas revenues, Moscow still plans to spend another $700 billion over the next decade.
Like a small cat arching its back to scare off larger cats and dogs, Putin regularly boasts about his country’s military capabilities and rattles the cage of adversaries by threatening to use nuclear weapons if Russia’s core interests are threatened.
This has made the US and its NATO partners more cautious in responding to Russian provocations in Ukraine and the Caucasus. For many years the bluff succeeded as US politicians customarily characterized Russia as a greater threat than China, a flawed judgment that has only now been rectified by the Trump administration’s designation of China as its principal rival.
None of this is to suggest that the Chinese and Russian military are 10 feet tall or that the US military is on the verge of collapse. America still leads on most important indicators of military strength.
David Ochmanek, a former senior US defense official, believes many of the problems confronting the Pentagon could be fixed with a modest and sustained increase in targeted defense spending of about $US55bn a year, equivalent to no more than 0.3 per cent of GDP.
But the gap with China, and to a lesser extent Russia, has narrowed to the point where, short of all-out war, US and Western military supremacy can no longer be assumed in several regional flashpoints, especially in the maritime reaches of the western Pacific where the US navy once ruled the waves.
The harsh reality is that if all the recommendations for improving the military contained in the 2018 national defense strategy were implemented, they would not restore the overwhelming conventional military superiority Washington once enjoyed.
(Source: The Australian)