In its “2020 Military Power Report”, the Pentagon acknowledges that the US is falling behind China in key military innovations. The report says that China’s strategy is to complete the military modernization program by 2035 and transform the PLA into a “world-class” military by the end of 2049.
“The PLA’s evolving capabilities and concepts continue to strengthen the country’s ability to counter an intervention by an adversary in the Indo-Pacific region and project its power globally,” the Department of Defense’s Annual Report to the Congress noted.
The US Department of Defence has been well aware of the swiftness with which the PLA has progressed, implementing major structural reforms, fielding modern indigenous systems, building readiness, and strengthening its competency to conduct joint operations.
Both Russia and China have surpassed the US in many critical military technologies, which have been widely acknowledged by military analysts as indications of the beginning of the end of the United States as the only dominant power.
However, the world is turning a blind eye to the really path-breaking domains that will change the face of warfare in the coming years, and the US needs to keep pace with both China and Russia if it wants to win future wars.
The three areas in which the US is being surpassed by the two superpowers are:
Speaking at a meeting with top military brass in December last year, Vladimir Putin said that Russia has a strong edge in designing new weapons and that it has become “the only country in the world to deploy hypersonic weapons”.
He added that for the first time in history, Russia was now leading the world in developing an entirely new class of weapons, unlike in the past when it was catching up with the United States.
The US Congress has been repeatedly warned about the growing arsenal of hypersonic missiles being developed by Russia and China that will be harder to track and defeat.
There have been talks within the US administration about putting a layer of sensors in space to more quickly detect enemy missiles, especially, the more advanced hypersonic threats.
China has also already tested and deployed its hypersonic weapons, while the US is yet to test any such weapon.
China is being seen as the first AI superpower in the world, a new technology domain that is still in its nascent stages when it comes to its applications in modern warfare and military weapons.
The PLA is believed to have the most ambitious AI strategy of all nations and provides the most resources worldwide for its implementation.
The country has combined a gigantic amount of data with talent, companies, research, and capital to build the world’s leading AI ecosystem. The Communist Party of China has set an ambitious goal for 2030 to consolidate China’s position as the AI superpower, and, to get there, it laid out a bevy of milestones to reach by 2020.
According to an analysis of the most-cited AI papers indexed on the scholarly search engine Microsoft Academic, China is surging ahead of its rival in AI.
The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, Washington, in its study found that China had steadily increased its share of authorship of the top 10% most-cited papers.
“It’s share peaked at 26.5% in 2018, not far behind the United States, at 29%, and whose share is declining. If this trend continues, China could overtake the United States in this measure next year,” the Nature reported on the analysis by the institute.
Blockchain in Military
One white paper by Amazon Web Services, IBM, Deloitte and other US companies this year warned that the US Department of Defense can’t afford to lose the global military blockchain race to Russia and China.
“The two superpowers that pose the greatest threat to the US are both heavily investing in both the research and development of blockchain technology,” said the briefing, adding that “China is on the economic warfare” offensive with its digital currency. Russia is on defense with a lab dedicated to blockchain cyber threat mitigation.
The study warned that the US needed to bootstrap its blockchain and DLT (Distributed Ledger Technology) warfighter readiness, and it stands to benefit as soon as it does. The blockchain is a critical element in ensuring adequate cybersecurity and will help the military in anything from “weapons release” to stopping data erasure. It can also strengthen the military’s command and control mechanisms through multi-party authentication.
The military blockchain is considered critical in the age of cyber warfare since it is an incorruptible way to secure confidential defense networks.
China’s Military Modernization
A new book penned by Christian Brose titled – The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare, exposes the inherent bureaucratic mess in the Pentagon which has been hindering a new innovation in the defense sector in the US.
The book laments the complacency and the lack of seriousness on part of the DoD to maintain the technological lead it once held towards the end of the Cold War.
Even the Pentagon report, released in September 2020, acknowledges that China has already achieved parity with—or even exceeded—the United States in several military modernization areas, which include shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems.
The Chinese Navy has grown up to be the largest in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. The US Navy battle force, on the other hand, the report says, is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020. China is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage and is increasing its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes.
However, defense analyst Michael Edward O’Hanlon, who is a Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, said America’s Navy remains way ahead in tonnage — still by a factor of at least two-to-one over China’s. It is ahead by at least ten-to-one in carrier-based air power.
The US is also way ahead, too, in the quality and quantity of long-range attack submarines, even if China now has a fine force of shorter-range and mostly nonnuclear-powered attack subs itself, he observes.
Ballistic and Cruise Missiles
The report acknowledges that China’s strengthening of its conventional missile forces is going unhindered and remains immune to any international agreements.
The country’s defenses are today fortified with about 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
While the United States currently fields one type of conventional GLBM with a range of 70 to 300 kilometers and no GLCMs.
Integrated Air Defense Systems
China is also fielding one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems—including Russian-built S-400s, S-300s, and domestically produced systems—that constitute part of its robust and redundant integrated air defense system (IADS) architecture, the DoD noted.
“With a humongous fleet of more than 2500 aircraft and some 2000 combat aircraft, China’s PLAAF is rapidly catching up to Western air forces across a broad range of capabilities and competencies. China’s nuclear forces will significantly evolve over the next decade as it modernizes, diversifies, and increases the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms,” the report adds.
In addition to the above-mentioned areas, Russia and China are surging ahead when it comes to developing and deploying advanced space assets. Last year, the US Air Force chief of staff raised an alarm over his statement saying, “The biggest threat to the US by Russia and China lies in advancements in space capabilities.”
“Russia is a rather dangerous threat because it’s an economy in decline and the demographics are challenging for the president,” Gen. Dave Goldfein said.
Referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said, “We’ve seen his actions when he finds himself” in that position,” Goldfein added. “But China is the face of the threat. China has the economy.”
However, backed by economically and technologically prosperous private sector companies, the US still commands a significant advantage over its adversaries, and if it defeats the bureaucratic bottlenecks and embraces commercial technological innovation in the military, it might have a good chance to stop its rising competitors from defeating it.