The Pentagon’s annual review of Beijing’s military power paints the picture of a nation eager to challenge the United States in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, and Washington’s apparent willingness to try to balance the federal budget on the backs of the Armed Forces paints the picture of a nation that will be unprepared to meet that challenge.
According to the Pentagon report, “by the latter half of the current decade, China will likely be able to project and sustain a modest-sized force, perhaps several battalions of ground forces or a naval flotilla of up to a dozen ships, in low-intensity operations far from China. This evolution will lay the foundation for a force able to accomplish a broader set of regional and global objectives.” In conjunction with its buildup of these ground, sea and air assets, Beijing is building aerospace and cyberspace capabilities to wage—or at least to threaten—asymmetrical war against the United States.
In short, in the span of a decade or so, China’s military has evolved from a 1960s-vintage territorial army barely able to defend its coastal areas into an increasingly high-tech, power-projecting force with global reach and global ambitions.
DoD estimates China’s “total military-related spending for 2010 was over $160 billion.” With those financial resources, “China is developing measures to deter or counter third-party intervention, including by the United States.” Among China’s growing arsenal of anti-access weapons are anti-ship missiles with a range exceeding 1,500 km, upgraded B-6 bombers armed with a new long-range cruise missile, an emerging aircraft-carrier capability, and 75 surface combatants, more than 60 submarines and 85 missile-equipped small boats. All of these are aimed at dissuading the United States from getting involved in areas of interest to China—and ultimately chasing the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region.
Although the DoD reports that “China has settled eleven land disputes with six of its neighbors since 1998,” it adds that China has “maritime boundary disputes with Japan, and throughout the South China Sea with Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, and Taiwan.” These disputes are highlighted by almost-weekly headlines detailing Chinese bullying on the high seas.
Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, adds that “the scope and pace of…modernization without clarity on China’s ultimate goals remains troubling. For example, China continues to accelerate its offensive air and missile developments without corresponding public clarification about how these forces will be utilized. Of particular concern is the expanding inventory of ballistic and cruise missiles (which include anti-ship capability) and the development of modern, fourth- and fifth-generation stealthy combat aircraft.”
China will increase military spending by 12.7 percent this year. This resumes a decade-long stretch of double-digit increases in Chinese defense spending. From 2000 to 2010, China’s military budget grew at an average of 12.1 percent. The year 2010 was an anomaly, with China’s defense budget increasing by a relatively modest 7.5 percent due to the global economic downturn
Now, contrast China’s buildup with what’s happening to the U.S. military. Conservatives and liberals alike are ready to slash defense spending. Already, projected defense spending has been reduced by some $400 billion over the next decade. If the so-called “super-committee” doesn’t reach agreement on federal spending reforms, it will trigger automatic defense cuts of another $600 billion.
Several weapons systems have been scrapped. Ships have been mothballed. Aging aircraft are being pushed into longer service. And the Pentagon is looking everywhere for more savings. The Navy, for instance, is considering decommissioning the aircraft carrier USS George Washington sometime around 2016—just halfway through the ship’s planned lifespan. Due to maintenance issues with carriers USS Abraham Lincoln and USS Theodore Roosevelt, the Navy will deploy only nine carrier strike groups as we enter 2012, rather than 11, as Jane’s Defense reports.
Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, encapsulates the dramatic and dangerous trend on this side of the Pacific: “We had a nearly 550 ship fleet in 1992; today we are projected to drop to 250. At the end of the Cold War, we had 76 Army combat brigades. Today we have 45. We had 82 fighter squadrons, today we have 39. Our bomber fleet is so old, some Air Force pilots are flying the exact same aircraft as their grandfathers…The last B-52, the backbone of our bomber fleet, rolled off the assembly line during the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
This is no time to be cutting—gutting—defense. As Robert Gates warned in his valedictory address, “I have long believed—and I still do—that the defense budget, however large it may be, is not the cause of this country’s fiscal woes….When President Eisenhower warned of the ‘Military Industrial Complex’ in 1961, defense consumed more than half the federal budget, and the portion of the nation’s economic output devoted to the military was about 9 percent. By comparison, this year’s base defense budget…represents less than 15 percent of all federal spending and equates to roughly three and a half percent of GDP.”
“If we are going to reduce the resources and the size of the U.S. military,” he went on, “people need to make conscious choices about what the implications are for the security of the country, as well as for the variety of military operations we have around the world, if lower priority missions are scaled back or eliminated…The tough choices ahead are really about the kind of role the American people—accustomed to unquestioned military dominance for the past two decades—want their country to play in the world.”
In other words, as China rises militarily and America retrenches, we are headed for a different world—and dangerous waters.