Share this article:
The world is now in a second cold war among three major world powers and the massive arms race is gearing up on all sides.
Both China and Russia are preparing to challenge US air superiority as well as naval dominance in the Pacific. They are making good progress in finding ways to counter US nuclear capabilities, confront the US space advantage and wage cyberwarfare on an unprecedented scale.
In some areas, the US's role as the hegemonic military power of the twentieth century is being quickly overtaken while in other respects, it has already been surpassed.
As an example, China leads the world in the size of its conventional missile arsenal that numbers in the tens of thousands and is currently developing hypersonic projectiles able to blow past any existing air defense, a technology Russia, too, now has in the Zircon missile. Here is a look at how China and Russia are presenting a real challenge to US military and diplomatic dominance.
Russia's economy has suffered setbacks in recent years, to no small degree due to sanctions imposed in response to its actions in Georgia and Ukraine. This has acted as a drag on the massive budget increases and modernization efforts of the early 2000s, but while it has reduced the pace of its spending increase, Russia has been actively engaging in several conflicts in which it continues to gain real combat experience and battlefield testing for new weapons platforms.
The wars it wages in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere act as both a proving ground for its military and a geopolitical test of US and European dominance.
Does the US react and draw itself into another costly and ultimately no-win conflict or does it cede the stage to Russia and become a paper tiger? In either case, it is Russia that is dictating the rules of the game as it pursues its ambitions of empire through territorial expansion and despotic alliances.
China too has made a major push for creating economic and diplomatic alliances just as the United States sees its diplomatic budget slashed and soft power weakened. Where the US has no diplomat at a conference, China shows up with a delegation of dozens to talk both trade and alliances.
In recent decades, the United States and its NATO allies have been able to count on their air dominance to tip the scales in military engagements, but this may be coming to an end. The fifth generation SU-57 stealth fighter, a formidable rival to the American F-22, entered the Syrian theater, spotted at the Khmeimim airbase on the Mediterranean. Russia is already showcasing new helicopter and missile technology in the Syrian conflict.
China presents its own unique threat, not only with the J-20 stealth fighter due to enter regular service in 2020 as a direct counter to US fifth generation steal fighters, but also from its new class of advanced air-to-air missiles that complement the supersonic stealth fighters that are "every bit on par with those in Western arsenals," to quote the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Fueled by trade imbalances, a rising middle class and a surging economy, China has increased its military expenditures by nearly 120% between 2010 and 2017. Both Russia and China have modernization as their stated goal with the obvious target being the technological superiority held by the United States.
China's territorial ambitions are being felt in the South China Sea, but its naval buildup is on a scale difficult to fathom. In just four short years, China has added the naval tonnage equivalent to the entire British Royal Navy, and greater than the French.
The Type 55 Cruiser, a match for any NATO warship, is under production and fleets of new submarines, destroyers and even light carriers have made China a major naval power virtually overnight. The world's largest amphibious aircraft, the Chinese AG600, is the size of a 737. The first craft have already been spotted landing in the South China Sea and at least 17 more are in production.
China has also been the first nation actively to demonstrate a killer satellite, which opens the possibility of cutting off American GPS, weather and communications satellites, a crippling blow for the American military. In cyber-warfare, Russia has proved itself a formidable opponent in attacks on Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine while China has yet to use its vast offensive cyber capabilities. The next war is sure to be fought in the virtual world as well as the physical battlefield.
The strategic goal of China, and one for which its weapons systems are now designed, is to deliver an overwhelming initial first-strike on naval and air forces with conventional long-range missile technology. Secondly, to continue to tie the US down as far away from Chinese shores as possible.
Fighting deep in the pacific, the missile command of the Chinese navy and air force would employ the anti-access area denial (A2AD) strategy to keep US carrier battle groups at risk away from its homeland.
Russia has been a major international arms dealer for decades, but as the US refuses to share its armed drone technology with all but a select few nations, China has stepped in to fill the void and, in the process, set itself up as the premier source for armed UAVs. And, they are willing to sell to any country, no matter how despotic.
All three nations are now investing in modernizing and expanding their nuclear arsenals, and this is a symbol of the new configuration of military conflict: a confrontation of great powers is the new gathering storm that replaces the threat of armed terrorist movements as the primary threat to world peace.
In a statement made to reporters by the Under Secretary of Defense David Norquist, "Great power competition, not terrorist activity has emerged as the central challenge to US security and prosperity. It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model, gaining veto authority over other nations' economic, diplomatic and security decisions."
The risk, of course, is that this arms buildup, unlike the previous cold war, could lead to a third world war, that would result in untold human suffering. A single misstep in North Korea, the South China Sea or Syria could be the spark that sets off a new conflict that has no winners.