China and Russia's better weapons, risky behavior are threats we can't ignore

China and Russia's better weapons, risky behavior are threats we can't ignore
© VALERIY SHARIFULIN/AFP/Getty Images

Unusually for Washington these days, there is consensus at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that China and Russia, rather than terrorism, Iran or even North Korea, pose the most serious threats to American national security. There is good reason for this; both China and Russia have taken increasingly belligerent stances toward the United States.

Speaking on June 2 at the Shangri-La Dialogue, China’s defense minister, Gen. Wei Fenghe, clearly referred to the U.S. when he spoke of “big countries [that] intervene in regional affairs, make troubles, walk away and leave a mess behind.” Alluding to the U.S. Navy’s Freedom of Navigation operations, Wei justified ongoing Chinese military construction in the South China Sea as a response “in the face of heavily armed warships and military aircraft.”

Russia, about whom Gen. Wei noted that “the China-Russia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership … has been running at a high level,” has stepped up its confrontational behavior vis-à-vis American military forces. On June 5, a Russian SU-35 fighter intercepted an American P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft over the Mediterranean. Two days later, in the Pacific, in what was a highly dangerous maneuver, a Russian destroyer closed within 100 feet of the guided missile cruiser Chancellorsville.

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Both China and Russia are in the midst of major modernization programs, though of the two countries, China can and does call upon far greater resources to support its military. On the other hand, unlike Beijing, Moscow has battle-tested virtually all of its latest systems in the course of the Syrian civil war and can draw upon a veteran scientific base that has accumulated years of experience in weapons development.

China continues to make great strides in artificial intelligence, machine learning and operations in space. China is developing the HQ-19 surface-to-air system that the Department of Defense (DOD) predicts will “likely have a ballistic missile defense capability.” It also is developing a stealthy strategic bomber that may enter the force in 2025.

Both states are advancing rapidly in the realm of hypersonics. China tested the Xingkong-2 hypersonic wave-riding vehicle last August. For their part, the Russians claim to be ahead of China and the United States in developing offensive hypersonic systems, which include the RS-28 Sarmat, equipped with hypersonic multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs), the Kinzal air-launched ballistic missile, and the Zircon anti-ship missile.

Russia is developing a mobile anti-ballistic missile system, called Nudol, which it claims can operate against hypersonic targets, and the S-500 anti-ballistic missile system. Indeed, if the Russians are to be believed, they are testing the S-500 and the Sarmat this year and may complete testing as early as 2020. On the other hand, there is no way to determine the capabilities of these systems until any of them actually are fielded. Indeed, some analysts believe that Sarmat is at least two years behind schedule.

For its part, it is not clear that America will overtake either China or Russia in terms of advanced weapons other than stealth, where its lead seems unassailable. In particular, it appears to lag behind in hypersonic development. For example, the Army asserts that it will only have a fully operational system by 2022, and initial operational capability in 2023. If Russia’s predictions are accurate, by then Russia will not only have fielded one or more hypersonic systems, it also will have developed an anti-hypersonic system.

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Moreover, it is not at all clear that the Army will meet its target, or for that matter, that the other services that are developing hypersonic systems will meet theirs. DOD has been developing hypersonic systems for the better part of the past two decades, and thus far has virtually nothing to show for its efforts.

For America to retain its lead in high-technology weaponry, DOD must ensure that new systems deliver on time. At the same time, to demonstrate that lead, it might reconsider its approach to special access programs, colloquially termed “black programs.”

By definition, knowledge of these programs is limited to a small, carefully vetted group of people. Their impact, when finally made public, can be revolutionary. That was the case in August 1980 when Secretary of Defense William Perry revealed that DOD was developing stealth aircraft, including a bomber that ultimately became the B-2.

Nevertheless, as long as access to these programs is highly restricted, they are at best of limited value to warfighters. Because of their minimal exposure, they cannot be incorporated into large-scale training or exercises, including those held in conjunction with our closest allies. It is difficult to factor them into long-term strategic planning. Moreover, because the majority of military personnel probably would be unfamiliar with these systems, they likely would hesitate to employ them were such systems suddenly introduced during a crisis or in the midst of a conflict.

There clearly is a powerful case for keeping most special access programs fully “in the black,” to prevent their being compromised through deliberate espionage or inadvertent error. On the other hand, there may be some merit to acknowledging the existence of a selected program or programs, while preserving their details on a highly classified basis, to demonstrate to allies and potential adversaries that the United States remains in a class by itself as a military superpower.

Given the challenges that China and Russia are likely to pose over the coming years, there remains much to be said for replicating Bill Perry’s initiative of four decades ago.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.