LONDON - Defence policymakers worldwide are challenged by a complex and fractured security environment, marked by increased uncertainty in relations between states and the proliferation of advanced military capabilities, said John Shipman director of the International Institute of strategic studies at the launch in London of the annual report "The Military Balance".
Transnational terrorists launched attacks throughout 2017, absorbing the attention of security forces and military personnel worldwide. Persistent conflicts and insecurity in parts of the Middle East and Africa dominated the security environment in those two regions. In Europe, lowlevel fighting continued in eastern Ukraine, with Russia reinforcing its military posture across the border and its military capabilities preoccupying NATO states. In Asia, North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile and conducted another, more powerful, nuclear test.
China’s military programmes and activities garnered increased interest. In 2017 Beijing showcased more advanced military systems and deployed its armed forces further afield.
Powers such as China and Russia are challenging the global predominance of the United States and its allies and while great-power war is not inevitable, states are systematically preparing for the possibility of conflict.
Indeed, the US National Defense Strategy, released in January, now recognises the possibility of great power
conflict as the major challenge for the US.
China’s military transformation continues apace. Its land and naval forces are modernising and its progress in defence aerospace remains remarkable.
China looks on track, by 2020, to begin operating the Chengdu J-20 low-observable combat aircraft in front-line squadron service. If this happens, the US would lose its
monopoly on operational stealthy combat aircraft.
China also continues to develop an array of advanced guided-weapons projects. The IISS now assesses that the latest in China’s expanding missile line-up – the PL-15 extended range air-to-air missile – could enter service this year. This weapon appears to be equipped with an active electronically scanned array radar, indicating that China has joined the few nations able to integrate this capability on an air-to-air missile.
These advances are all part of the Chinese air force’s goal to become capable of challenging any opponent in the air domain. For the past three decades, air dominance has been a key advantage for the US and its allies. This can no longer be assumed.
China is pursuing similar ambitions at sea. Since 2000,China has built more submarines, destroyers, frigates and corvettes than Japan, South Korea and India combined.
To put this further into perspective, the total tonnage of new warships and auxiliaries launched by China in the last four years alone is significantly greater than the total tonnage of the French navy. The launch of the first Type-055 cruiser presages the Chinese navy closing another gap in its developing blue-water capabilities. China’s navy is deploying further afield, including to Europe, and Beijing’s base in Djibouti will enable more naval deployments. Closer to home, China continues to reinforce its military facilities on features it has expanded in the South China Sea.
China has also continued to pursue advanced technologies, including extremely high-performance computing and quantum communications. China’s emerging weapons developments and broader defence-technological progress mean that it has become a global defence innovator and is not merely ‘catching up’ with the West. These developments in China remain underpinned by rising defence spending, which has since 2016 been aligned with GDP growth at 6–7%.
But using all of these capabilities to best effect will require China making similar progress in improving training, doctrine and tactics.
Russia remains the principal security concern for states in eastern and northern Europe. Moscow has continued to deploy advanced military equipment, including S-400 airdefence systems and 500km-range Iskander ballistic missiles, in its Western Military District. Though Russia’s armed forces continue to introduce new equipment, the heralded generational shift in military materiel is taking place more slowly than first expected. Russia is experiencing further funding and industrial shortcomings. While advanced systems such as the Su-57 combat aircraft and the T-14 main battle tank will eventually see service, their numbers will be fewer than initially thought. This problem is even more pronounced for Russia’s navy, but Moscow is seeking to offset the impact of its sclerotic large surface-ship construction by continuing to distribute high-precision weapons systems to smaller, more varied vessels.
At the same time, Russia is still investing in the weapons systems that have for years dominated its inventory, such as its rocket artillery units. And, of course, Moscow continues to demonstrate its willingness to use its forces close to home, and abroad. In contrast to China, Russia is able to draw direct benefits from its real-world application of military power as it develops its equipment and personnel development plans.
Russia is, importantly, demonstrating continued interest in capabilities beyond conventional military force that are easier to develop and deploy unaccountably. There is still no effective response from the West either in the form of countermeasures or sanctions. Three things to watch for in this regard are attempts to leverage financial power, in particular in purchasing controlling shares of infrastructure; propaganda targeted steadily and effectively at Russianspeaking minorities and pro-Russian political parties; and the assertion of cyber power through interference in democratic processes.
The major powers are also sharpening their focus on nuclear weapons. China, Russia and the US are all in the process of recapitalising and modernising their nuclear forces, as displayed on our wall chart this year. Russia and the US will continue to support a triad of delivery systems, while China is likely to reconstitute an air-delivered nuclear capability as a part of its future bomber force. Survivability, rather than quantity, underpins all three nations’ developments. The ability to defeat missile defences is driving delivery-system developments in China and Russia, with both countries pursuing hypersonic glide vehicles.
European states are increasingly conscious that the world is a dangerous place. Military capabilities on the
continent have, however, become hollowed out as states first reaped a post-Cold War peace dividend and then made defence a discretionary activity in the wake of post-2008 austerity. Moves to recover and rebuild capability have been given impetus by stronger US pressure on European states to do more for their own defence, but they will take time to bear fruit.
There was much talk in early 2017 of possible retrenchment in the US defence assurance to Europe, but instead 2017 saw the US double down on its commitment to European defence. Funding for the European Deterrence Initiative has again increased, and the US is deploying – and is looking to sell – more military equipment to Europe.
So at today and tomorrow’s NATO defence ministerial, and certainly in July when President Trump arrives for the Brussels Summit, the US will be looking for additional signs that European leaders are boosting their own military funding.
European states are already spending more. IISS figures show that the rising trend observed in Europe since 2014– 15 has continued. Real-terms annual growth in defence spending reached 3.6% in 2017.
Our figures indicate that in 2017, Europe was the fastestgrowing region when it came to real-terms defence spending. However, while this increase in Europe may owe something to US exhortations, it has also resulted from changing threat perceptions among European states. But Europe still needs to spend smarter.
Our figures show that Europe’s growing defence investments are still not fully geared towards preparing
European armed forces for future challenges. For most, defence R&D remains limited.
Indeed, in 2016 three global defence firms – BAE, Boeing and Lockheed Martin – each spent more on defence R&D than all but two European states. Only France and the UK outranked them. And allocations for other costs, like military pensions, remain high in some states. In 2017 for instance, military pensions absorbed over 33% of the Belgian and Portuguese defence budgets.
CHALLENGES FOR THE WEST
Western military forces are unlikely to recapture the mass of old, even if some do grow a little. Smarter spending will help them to better tackle threats but, aware of future budget and capability limitations, it will be as important to develop new ways of working. Consideration will be given to how militaries can generate ‘mass effect’ by innovatively blending traditional, modern and unconventional equipment, technology, strategy, doctrine and tactics. Achieving this will mean changing recruitment and retention patterns, reshaping force structures and improving military agility and innovation. It will also mean harnessing new capabilities and more fully integrating modern technologies.
New information-processing technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning will improve military
systems, as states look to develop ways of augmenting human capacities, boost weapons capabilities and gain early advantage for their armed forces. This will require greater acceptance of development risk by governments and the defence and technology sectors, and improved procurement so that capabilities can rapidly be brought to bear.
Of course, technology is not the only factor that matters. The enemy gets a vote, too, and continuities will persist with regard to the nature of war. Fighting, meanwhile, will as much happen amid populations, up close in congested and contested urban areas, as much as it will take place at distance on land, air, sea, space and cyberspace. These too are becoming more congested and contested, and Western technological advantages have eroded, as others catch up.
It is inevitable that the military, diplomatic and economic balance of power will continue to shift. The characteristics of the international system that will emerge from these shifts, however, are not a foregone conclusion. Western governments still have it in their power to maintain an edge.
Their military forces will need to be agile and adaptable, better at working with partners inside and outside government, and able to make flexible use of technological developments.
Some governments in the West will look to ‘leap-ahead’ technologies to augment and deliver military power.
But success in this is not predetermined. The growing democratisation of technology will make it harder still, given that the West no longer has a monopoly on world-leading defence innovation and production, or the funds to enable these. Indeed, China might be the one to leap ahead.
Moreover, Western states need to devise responses to persistent competition and even hostile actions under the threshold of war. In this context, anticipating and detecting ambiguous as well as proximate threats becomes ever more important. Better protection is important for military forces. But this means more than physical protection and better weapons.
Military forces, and societies more broadly, must be made more psychologically resilient, and resistant
to attempts to erode their cohesion and will in peacetime as well as war. Furthermore, at a time when bonds forged during the Cold War remain under stress, the challenges arising from revived great-power competition should lead Western states to improve not just their sovereign military capability, but also sharpen their focus on the benefits to be gained by working together through alliances and other cooperative relationships.