While the U.S. reacts to the scourges of Ebola and ISIS, China continues to patiently and steadily exploit weaknesses in U.S. military capabilities. The bipartisan U.S. China Commission is poised to release its annual report to Congress that details some of the specifics. The big lesson to learn from it is that the U.S. can not only react to world events, it must also look forward and prepare to deter and defend against distant and not-so-distant threats. For as hard as it is to beat back ISIS, a terror organization with a lot of motivation but without serious military might, imagine the fix in which the U.S. will find itself with a China whose national objectives conflict with the U.S., and with the military capabilities to see them out.
According to the Washington Free Beacon’s Bill Gertz who obtained the report, the PLA has deployed two brigades of DF-21D ballistic missiles, infamously called “carrier killers.” In December of 2010, then Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Willard, revealed China was developing these lethal missiles but emphasized that they had merely achieved what the U.S. called “initial operational capability” meaning, the PLA was still developing the system and that it had not fully matured.
Four years later, the missiles have presumably been improved and have multiplied. China has opted not to flight test the missile, keeping the U.S. guessing on whether or not its primary military platform for deterring war and keeping peace in the region—the aircraft carrier—can be directly targeted. The U.S. has no defensive system in its arsenal that could defeat the highly sophisticated DF-21D. But this isn’t the only Achilles Heal the Chinese have been working to expose.
Indeed, this has been China’s objective: rather than trying to compete with the U.S by building a conventional military that goes toe to toe with the Pentagon’s, and thereby draining its resources, it is developing high-technology weapons that directly challenge where the U.S. is weakest. This is why it’s a bad argument to insist that since the U.S. defense budget dwarfs the Chinese defense budget, it necessarily means the U.S. can dismiss the Chinese (or Russian, or North Korean or Iranian, for that matter) threats.
Of particular concern is China’s emphasis on nuclear capabilities, which the Obama administration has opted not to detail in its annual reports to Congress. According to Gertz, “The commission report faults the Pentagon for ending its practice of providing details of China’s nuclear arsenal in annual reports to Congress, saying the omission is contributing to Chinese military secrecy.” And actually, the Obama Pentagon stopped releasing its annual report on China’s missile force after its 2010 report. The complete absence of these reports, combined with the administration’s patterns of conciliatory outreach towards Beijing, make it seem like the Obama administration doesn’t want to put public pressure on the Chinese government for its aggressive military developments designed to threaten the U.S.
But Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics has recently been sounding an alarm bell, urging industry to bring him new ideas, to innovate, and to fight for the U.S. strategic edge.
In August he raised eyebrows by saying, “Our technological superiority is very much at risk, there are people designing systems [specifically] to defeat us in a very thoughtful and strategic way, and we’ve got to wake up, frankly.” Just this month he provided a document to Congressional staff laying out key warfare domains where the U.S. is losing superiority. To name a few of those key domains listed in the document: China could target the U.S. surface fleet and overseas bases at risk in the Western Pacific; could challenge U.S. dominance of the air by the year 2020; is rapidly advancing in space and could prevent the functionality of U.S. satellites; and continues its cyber assault on U.S. computer networks.
As if aware of how startled the document could leave its readers, Kendall says in the summary section, “The intent of this paper is not to suggest that military confrontation with China is inevitable or likely.” Then he goes on to close with this: “Technological superiority the U.S. demonstrated over 20 years ago, and which we have relied upon ever since, is being actively challenged.” U.S. policy-makers and especially the next administration better read between the lines. It is because of the latter quote that makes confrontation all the more likely.
Heinrichs is a fellow at the George C. Marshall Institute where she writes about defense and foreign policy and specializes in nuclear deterrence and missile defense.