We in the West for much too long have taken our military supremacy over everybody else for granted. With a lead partner (or perhaps "head office" would be more apt) like the Pentagon how could we think anything else? It's a given that we have the best and the most of everything from the infantry rifleman to stealth bombers.
There's a dangerous tendency to look at defence spending as the measure of military power. On that score the United States should have no rivals for it outspends the next dozen or so biggest military spenders combined. But recent analysis suggests that America doesn't get very much bang for its defence buck, certainly not compared to its emerging rivals such as China.
China targets its military spending to what it needs for a) self-defence and b) expanding the nation's 'sphere of influence' to suit its emerging economic superpower status. The United States doesn't spend an awful lot on self-defence. You don't need thousands of Abrams tanks to defend Wyoming. America's defence spending should be called "offence spending" to reflect the inherently offensive systems that the United States deploys.
Take stealth for example. The B-2 bomber, the F-22 Raptor fighter and the F-35 light attack bomber - they're all offensive. When the USAF conducted "Operation Chimichanga" it was a dress rehearsal for a first strike on China to neutralize the Chinese air defences, paving the way for a sustained air campaign on the People's Republic. It was an adjunct to the Air-Sea Battle doctrine focused on China and Southeast Asia. It has now evolved into the "A2/AD" doctrine meant to counter anti-access and area denial (defensive) capabilities in China's home waters.
Provocative? Ya think? It's the sort of behaviour that sparks arms races and, not surprisingly, that's precisely what's happening. The Chinese are building submarines and medium-range missiles specifically designed to sink American aircraft carriers. They're building their own stealth warplanes (with a great deal of help from massive amounts of stealth data hacked from American and British computers). They're developing island air bases in the South China sea, the latest in the hotly disputed Spratleys.
Russia, too, with NATO parked right on its doorstep, is rapidly re-arming. New warplanes, including a new stealth bomber. New subs, a new class of long-range missiles to go with them. New, longer range, cruise missiles - perfect for an over-the-pole saturation attack on North America. New tanks. New, new, new - new and better (in a way, I suppose).
Which brings us to military historian and BBC defence correspondent Mark Urban's new book, "The Edge" in which he asks whether the West has lost its dominance in conventional warfare. Spoiler Alert - the answer is "Yes."
Mr. Urban warns that, "projected cuts “will make it impossible for America to have the kind of military reach it used to”. Many Americans, he adds, “do not realise that the age of a single global hyperpower is over. And, actually, it’s worse than that. For it is only by combining metrics of that decline with the growth in military capabilities elsewhere that you can gain a sense of how quickly the scales are tipping”.
Now, says Urban, Russia, China and India have such strong conventional forces, and America has cut its forces so much, that in the event of a conflict “the US would be left with the choice of nuclear escalation or backing down”. He adds: “Against a full-scale invasion of South Korea, the US would have little choice but to go nuclear.” Russia, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and some other countries could “mount a credible conventional defence that would leave the United States having to think the unthinkable, with profound implications for the world”.
Would the US really need to contemplate a nuclear attack on these countries? Urban does not really answer the question. More convincingly, he talks about the dangers of nuclear proliferation and nuclear blackmail at a time when Russia and China are reverting to the notion of “spheres of influence” and when, as he puts it, the idea that political power grows from the barrel of a gun is back with a vengeance in many parts of the world. “A growing threat to world order,” says Urban, will ultimately lead to more countries acquiring nuclear weapons, as well as chemical and biological weapons, and what he calls “cyber weaponry”.
I should have Urban's book in a couple of weeks and I'll post a full review. Unfortunately there are plenty of regional and even a few global arms races underway although we hear close to nothing about them from our mainstream media. Warfare itself is changing across the gamut from the smallest failed state (Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan) to the ascendant superpowers. As we ought to have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, having "All the King's horses and all the King's men" no longer yields reliable results.
This offensive mentality that was so ruthlessly implanted during the Bush/Cheney years now threatens our own security. Every schoolyard bully learns that you can threaten people only so long before someone calls you on it.
It's probably a good time to put a lid on the hyper-bellicose nonsense spewed out by NATO. Let's focus on what we need to actually secure ourselves, to defend our coasts and airspace. It's shaping up to be a tough and intensely dangerous century.