The proponents of deep defense cuts often make the ridiculous charge that the US government, the Congress, and outside advocates of a strong defense (that would include myself) habitually exaggerate the threats facing the US, i.e. the capabilities and intentions of America’s enemies.
But there is no evidence of this. In fact, all the available evidence – rather than the false claims of defense-cutters and appeasement advocates – suggests that the US routinely underestimates the capabilities and intentions of its potential adversaries.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union’s military power was routinely underestimated. American policymakers didn’t think that the Soviet Union would be capable of developing nuclear weapons and ICBMs or launching satellites. Yet, the Soviet Union did all of that in just 12 years after WW2.
In 1992, when American inspectors visited Russia shortly after the end of the Cold War, they found that Russia had inherited 40,000 nuclear warheads from the Soviet Union – 2 times more (i.e. 20,000 warheads more) than the CIA estimated.
Yet the best example of how America underestimates its enemies is the continuing understatement, downplaying, and denial of the Chinese military threat being perpetrated since at least 2009 by the US government (including the DOD), the CIA, and outside pro-defense cuts groups.
And, as Richard Fisher has correctly pointed out, intellectual disarmament always precedes actual disarmament.
These institution and groups are continually deluding themselves, and trying to delude the public, that China is not a threat to the US, or at least not a large-scale threat, despite a huge (and growing) mountain of evidence that China is a huge military/security threat to America.
The Chinese military buildup
For over 20 years, China has been conducting a huge military buildup that has long ago exceeded China’s legitimate self-defense needs, one aimed at becoming the world’s top military power, surpassing the US, ejecting it from Asia, and bullying other countries in the Pacific Rim (where China claims the South China Sea as its internal lake).
It has amassed large nuclear and conventional arsenals. Former top DOD nuclear strategist, and now Georgetown University professor Philip Karber, has done a study concluding that China may be hiding up to 3000 nuclear warheads in its 3,000 miles of tunnels for warheads and missiles. China is conservatively estimated to possess 170-180 ICBMs, and has unknown inventories of DF-3 and DF-4 IRBMs, DF-21 MRBMs, and over 1,200 SRBMs, including over 1,200 such missiles pointed at Taiwan.
China also wields huge conventional military power. Its navy has at least 279 warships (and probably more than that), matching the size of the USN (283 ships). The PLAAF has over 1,500 fighters, including hundreds of Flankers, J-10s, and other modern fighters. It is now acquiring Generation 4++ Su-35 Flanker-E fighters and developing two 5th generation stealthy fighters: the J-20 and the F-60.
China’s ground army has over 8,000 tanks, thousands of APCs, artillery systems, and other weapons.
China’s total military has several million men under arms, plus 70 mn reservists who train regularly and practice kung-fu and can be called up any time without disruption to the economy.
But the biggest threat from China is its huge, and growing, arsenal of anti-access/area-denial weapons (such as submarines, naval mines, ballistic and cruise missiles, cyberweapons, space weapons, and SAMs/integrated air defense systems) which would deny nonstealthy, nonsurvivable American platforms the ability to enter and operate in areas covered by these weapons; in other words, deny the US military access to a combat theater.
These include the HQ-9 and S-300 SAMs; the Donghai (DH), Changjiang (CJ), and Hongniao (HN) land-attack cruise missiles; the Yingji-series, Mosquito, Silkworm, Saccade, and Sizzler anti-ship CMs; the DF-21D ASBM; China’s various land-attack ballistic missiles; Chinese fighters, including the nascent J-20 long-range fighter/strike aircraft; China’s cyberweapons and cyber army; and China’s space weapons, such the BM that China shot an obsolete weather satellite with.
China is also developing its own missile defense systems, while hypocritically demanding that the US cancel development of its own systems. It is developing space warfare capabilities. It is building a fleet of aircraft carriers. It is growing its nuclear arsenal and supplying ballistic missile TELs (if not the missiles themselves) to North Korea.
And what has been the US government’s response? Have they discussed the threat honestly?
Not at all. They have routinely understated, by a huge margin, the military threat posed by China.
The vast understatement of the threat
Take the DOD’s annual report to the Congress on China’s military. It routinely understates China’s military power and aggressive designs and actions, while routinely overstating Sino-American military cooperation and bilateral military ties and China’s “humanitarian” operations.
Honest, nonpartisan analysis by two veteran defense issues experts specializing in China, Bill Gertz and Richard Fisher, has found that the DOD routinely understates the Chinese threat and that the DOD’s 2012 version of the report has carried this trend to the absurd. But the 2012 report doesn’t just do that; it leaves numerous Chinese weapon systems, developments, actions, and portions of its arsenal/infrastructure completely unmentioned!
For example, the 2012 report doesn’t mention:
- China’s development of a new, road-mobile, MIRVable ICBM, the DF-41, first built in 2007 and recently tested by the PLA.
- The 3,000 mile network of underground tunnels and bunkers concealing thousands of nuclear warheads and missiles.
- The possibility that China would use its Shi-Lang aircraft carrier to subjugate other countries rather than for humanitarian purposes.
- That Chinese weaponmakers were, in 2011, preparing to ship significant amounts of weapons to the dying Qaddafi regime and that such weapons were already stored in Algeria.
- China’s export of six mobile ICBM launchers to North Korea, shown in Pyongyang in April 2012.
- A second stealthy fighter, the F-60.
What little the report does say about China’s military buildup, it understates woefully in an apparent attempt to lull the American people and the Congress (which makes the final decisions on defense spending, troop levels, weapon programs, and other defense issues) into a false sense of security. For example:
- It continues to repeat obsolete estimates of China’s ballistic missile and nuclear warhead inventories, even though common sense tells us that building 3,000 miles of tunnels to store just 300-400 warheads would be an idiocy, so those tunnels must be concealing far more than just 400 warheads and 180 missiles.
- It continues to downplay China’s secret space arms programs.
- It continues to downplay the threat from China’s fighters, including the currently-being-developed J-20, which represents a technostrategic and military coup by China and which can be defeated only by F-22s.
And yet, this dramatically shortened, watered-down report (limited to just 10 pages by an arbitrary DOD limit) which leaves most PLA programs unmentioned cost more to write and print than the much-longer 2011 version of the report. When HASC leaders received the report and this information, they threatened to block DOD budget reprogrammings unless the DOD would correct course.
Not only does the report fail to mention entire key programs and arsenals, not only does it understate what little it mentions, it was (deliberately) delivered very late to the Congress, on May 15th – months after the required deadline and several weeks after the HASC had finished its markup of the annual defense budget. In other words, the DOD waited until AFTER HASC would finish its work. So HASC was denied crucial information based on which it could make informed decisions.
The annual DOD report on China has routinely been late every year, but this was exceptionally late: released only AFTER HASC had concluded its markup.
Independent analysts confirm: China is being underestimated
The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission has concluded that the US government has long underestimated the Chinese threat and that the consequences are dangerous. Its most recent report says:
“A decade on, it is now clear that much of the conventional wisdom about China dating from the turn of the century has proven to be dramatically wrong. These predictive errors carry with them serious geopolitical consequences. To avoid being similarly caught off-guard in 2022, U.S. analysts should carefully reexamine many of their widely-held assumptions about the Chinese government and its policy goals.”
The report, according to one commissioner,
“identified several factors that might have contributed to the U.S. government and intelligence community’s analysis missing some key developments in China’s military modernization. These factors included old ways of thinking about China’s growth, technological competence, and strategic goals.”
She hopes it “will spur a reconsideration of analytical models and an updating of the bureaucratic framework for understanding China’s defense capabilities and its growing role in the world.”
Furthermore, per Bill Gertz:
“Larry Wortzel, another commission member, said a number of the commissioners believe the panel should be focusing on two areas: whether there were intelligence shortcomings, like missed clues on the J-20 and submarines; and continuing failures in a number of agencies to understanding China’s political and military system.
The latter has produced “false portrayals or the acceptance of false explanations about what senior leaders know.”
Wortzel says that
“For instance, arguably the Central Military Commission and the Politburo Standing Committee knew about the J-20 and the anti-satellite test, but since the Foreign Ministry is not part of any national security apparatus, they had no idea what was going to happen. Yet many in the U.S. government accepted the suggestion that it was the PLA acting on its own.”
“was at times ignoring or even suppressing the truth about China’s military intentions.”
So the DOD was, at times, suppressing the truth about China’s military intentions. This is no surprise; in 2009, then-SECDEF Robert Gates forced all senior civilian and military DOD leaders to sign gag orders preventing them from discussing the consequences of his defense cuts with the Congress.
“There are many analysts who have been warning of China’s threatening intentions and its accumulating military build up. These individuals deserve some recognition. Who will now say that Americans need to prepare for the fact that China intends to pose a global conventional and unconventional military challenge to the United States for as long as it remains a Communist dictatorship?”
“Fisher noted that the commission should also examine the intelligence community’s failure from 2003 when they claimed that Beijing would not build aircraft carriers. China has a carrier nearing deployment and at least two others on the drawing board.
Another intelligence shortcoming, according to Fisher, is the failure to clearly assess the military role of China’s manned space program.
The critical report highlights earlier classified assessments that concluded U.S. intelligence agencies have underestimated Chinese military developments.
The report mentions congressional legislation passed in 2000 that questioned the quality of CIA analysis on China. That led to a classified study by a group of analysts led by retired Army Gen. John Tilelli that criticized China analysis for minimizing the military threat.
In 2008 the State Department’s International Security Advisory Board criticized State Department intelligence analysis of China and noted that “Chinese military modernization is proceeding at a rate to be of concern even with the most benign interpretation of China’s motivation.”
A 2005 study produced by CIA-affiliated contractor concluded that U.S. intelligence missed key military developments by China, including several other weapons systems identified in the congressional study.
That still-classified report concluded that analysts missed China’s development and deployment of the DH-10 land attack cruise missiles, the development of warships equipped with stolen U.S. battle management technology, and China’s importation of advanced weapons systems including submarines, warships, and fighter bombers.”
So analysts missed the development of deployment of many key Chinese weapons, and government agencies – the DOD, the DOS, and intel agencies – have been ROUTINELY underestimating China’s military capabilities by a long shot. That is according to independent analysts, panels, and commissions, NOT just according to me, and is based on evidence, available in open sources.
This fact, combined with America’s previous routine underestimates of the Soviet (and now Russian) threat prove that the US habitually UNDERSTATES, not exaggerates, foreign military threats. And that needs to change.