A commonly held and widely propagated view today is that the US military enjoys overwhelming advantaes across the board, in all categories of capabilities, over its competitors. This view is being propagated both by well-meaning people who know little or nothing about defense issues (or are deluded by traditional American hubris and delusions of invincibility) and those who don’t mean well and want to gut the US military through cuts, and are using such a view as a pseudo-justification for these cuts; by propagating this view, they want to lull the American people into a false sense of security.
But the brutal truth – which defense-cutters deny, and which many well-meaning Americans refuse to accept – is that the US military nowadays enjoys only several small, marginal advantages over its competitors – in only several categories of capabilities and weapons. And even those advantages are now gradually eroding and will vanish once America’s competitors, primarily China and Russia, finally close the gap after decades of investment, hard work, and disciplined pursuit of technological and military strategies.
America’s small and eroding edge
Today, the US no longer enjoys any overwhelming advantage over anyone. That is a fact, not an opinion. A fact established through rigorous analysis of America’s and her adversaries’ military capabilities. As established by myself and other analysts, the US enjoys only a small number of eroding advantages, and these will evaporate in the near future as China and Russia close the gap.
But first: what is an advantage in military prowess?
There are two types of such advantage. One is the symmetric type: it means that you have better weapons (or a larger quantity of them) of a given category (e.g. fighters) than your rival.
Another type of advantage in military might is when you have a sufficient number of weapons of technological sophistication and sufficient capability to defeat the enemy and his weapons, not necessarily in a symmetric way (and often in an asymmetric one). For example, if you have air defense systems that can detect enemy aircraft at long ranges and shoot them down, that is a military advantage – and an asymmetric one. Similarly, if your submarines can sink enemy ships while staying undetected (or outrunning enemy pursuers), you also have an advantage in this category – and again, an asymmetric one at that.
The latter type of military advantage has received less attention than the former. Yet, China and Russia have gained an edge over the US in many categories of weapons and capabilities by both metrics, and in others, they’ve closed the gap between them and the US. In this paper, we will look at the capabilities where they hold an advantage over, or have matched, America’s military using both metrics.
In nuclear weaponry, Russia has already reached approximate nuclear parity with the US, having built up its strategic arsenal considerably as allowed to do so by the New START treaty. It now has 1,492 deployed strategic warheads, just 58 short of the limit. It is now building new SSBNs, plans to recommission older Typhoon class SSBNs (carrying 20 SLBMs and 200 warheads each), and is building new Tu-160 bombers from stockpiled parts. In tactical nuclear weapons, Russia continues to wield a huge advantage over the US, as it has since the Cold War, and the Obama Admin is doing nothing to reduce Russia’s edge.
China has 3,000 nuclear warheads, as confirmed by the studies of both Dr. Philip Karber (the DOD’s former top nuclear strategist) and former Russian general Viktor Yesin. As America unilaterally cuts its nuclear arsenal, China will continue to build it up, knowing it will eventually reach nuclear parity with the US.
In naval prowess, China has already matched the US. Its navy has roughly 279-283 ships, the same as the USN, but China has more submarines (67-75, depending on whether you count the 8 Ming class SSKs that some sources omit) than the USN. America’s submarine fleet is already projected, under current defense budget plans, to shrink 9 boats below the USN’s own meagre goal of 48 attack subs in the 2020s and 2030s and well below the current level of 52 attack subs. (Sequestration would cut the USN’s ship fleets across the board much faster.)
But even more worrisome is the high quality of China’s ships. China’s destroyers are quite capable of shooting down aircraft (they have HQ-9 SAMs onboard) and launching anti-ship missiles; they also have good radar. China is now building its most capable destroyer class ever, the Type 052D, intended to escort its future aircraft carriers.
Speaking of carriers, China’s first flattop is already undergoing sea trials, while its first carrier-capable fighter, the J-15 (a reversed-engineered Su-33) is undergoing tests. Once these tests are complete, the PLAN will have its first carrier battle group. And the Su-33 is decisively superior to the Hornet and the “Super Hornet” (China’s other fighters are even moreso superior). Further carriers are under construction, and having them will enable China to project power well beyond the Second Island Chain.
Turning to fighters, China already has over 550 Flankers (Su-27s, Su-30MKKs, J-11s), continues to produce J-11s, and is in talks to buy Su-35s. These aircraft are decisively superior to every American fighter other than the F-22, the F-35, and on a lesser scale, the F-15, for reasons stated here. In short, they outmaneuver and outrun legacy aircraft and are able to fly at much higher altitudes and over much longer ranges. Likewise, Russia possesses hundreds of Su-27s, Su-30s, and Su-35s as well as MiG-29SMTs and the very capable MiG-31 interceptors.
China is now developing its 5th generation stealth fighters, the J-20 and the F-60. The J-20 (J-XX) has demonstrated application of all rules of stealth design and, judging by its size and available information, will have a very long combat radius (~1500 nm), supercruising Mach 2 class engines, a large weapon payload, a very small radar signature, and excellent climbing, turning, and running capabilities. As APA wrote in 2007:
“Su-30MKK/MK2 supplied to China includes unique radar and weapons configurations.
Chinese redesigned J-11B includes unique planar array radar, systems, glass cockpit, MAWS and Chinese PL-12 Sino-AMRAAM missiles.
The large number of different avionics systems, especially radar, presents genuine difficulty in designing electronic countermeasures to defeat the Flanker.
Midlife upgrades further complicate this problem.”
Russia is now developing a very similar 5th generation stealth fighter which will likely display the same qualities. When these fighters enter service later this decade, they will immediately render all legacy aircraft, and all Eurocanard aircraft, completely useless, irrelevant, and impotent.
Only the F-22 and the F-35 can defeat any of these aircraft. Legacy aircraft, even with upgrades, won’t do. Not even the F-15.
- Russia’s BARS and NIIP Irbis-E radars are superior to all US fighter radars except the Raptor’s APG-77 and the F-15’s APG-63(V)3. The only advantage US radars have is in frequency agility, but Russia is now closing this gap. China equips its fighters with Russian or indigenous radar. Russian radars are competitive with American ones because, inter alia, Russia has emulated American module packaging technology, and Russian radars use the same commercial off-the-shelf digital processing technology as US radars. Also, as APA observed in 2007, a “globalised market for Gallium Arsenide commercial microwave chips and COTS computers has enabled advances in Russian radar warning and homing equipment”, and the “technology for passive geolocation of radar emitters is now available to Russian fighter and ground based equipment manufacturers.”
- Russian DRFM radar jammers are now superior to America’s, and are widely exported.
- Russia has imported, and further developed, European InfraRed sensors for aircraft detection. These are as good as American ones.
- America’s only supercruising fighter is the F-22 Raptor with its F119 thrust vector control engines. Russia produces supercruising thrust-vector-control AL-31F and AL-41F engines for its Su-35 and PAKFA fighters. Likewise, the European Union has its own supercruising fighter, the Typhoon. Russia now has an advantage in this area with no US plans to close the gap.
- Russian and Chinese AA-12 Adder “AMRAAMski” and PL-12 “Sino-AMRAAM” missiles are as long-ranged and accurate as the AIM-120 AMRAAM; Russia’s longer-range missiles such as the RVV-AE-PD, Vympel R-37 and Novator R-172 A2AMs are decisively superior (with ranges up to 210 nm), as will be the PL-12 ramjet missile currently under development. America does not plan to close this gap. With these missiles, which are autonomous once launched, Russia and its customers can hold American tankers, AWACSes, JSTARS, and other support aircraft at risk even at long ranges, and shoot American fighters from long distances, before those can shoot at the Russians/Chinese.
- Russia and China also have developed infrared missiles such as the agile AA-11 and the R-74. As APA warned in 2007, “Russian QWIP imaging missile seekers will nullify current US advantage in IR imaging missile seekers over the next half decade.”
- The US has no anti-radiation missile in production. None! Meanwhile, Russia has the R-27P, R-27EP, and AA-10, and is fitting anti-radiation seekers to AA-12 missiles.
- Russia and China have AWACSes and tankers of their own. Russia has the Il-78 Midas tanker and the A-50 AWACS; China has the HY-6 and the KJ-2000 (based on the A-50). This shouldn’t be surprising, because tankers and AWACSes are proliferating globally. In 2004, the US barely prevented Israel’s sale of Phalcon AWACSes to China. Meanwhile, the planned replacement for America’s obsolete E-3 AWACSes and JSTARS and JSTARS aircraft have been cancelled due to budget cuts.
- America’s only current stealthy fighters are the F-22, while the F-35 is still in development. Russia’s PAKFA will enter service in 2015, followed in 2017-2019 by the J-20, and when they do, the US will lose its advantage on this criterion.
- Russia and China are also developing and fielding counter-stealth radar, especially those operating in UHF and in the L-band.
In cruise missile technology, Russia and China have land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles superior to America’s Tomahawk and Harpoon. But of course, those missiles won’t be fighting each other. The US currently has few, if any, anti-cruise-missile defenses available: the PATRIOT has seldom been tested against them; laser programs have been cancelled; and ship-based defenses such as the RAM and the Phalanx CIWS would be overwhelmed by massive missile swarms.
Potential Chinese and Russian targets for American cruise missiles are mostly hardened or mobile, and therefore can evade missile strikes or survive them. CM’s warheads are too small to destroy hardened targets. Only bombers can, and only bombers can affordably eliminate large numbers of targets in one sortie.
But China and Russia have fielded large inventories and dense networks of new long- and short-range SAM systems that have very sensitive radar AND long-range missiles capable of shooting down any nonstealthy aircraft. Only B-2s, F-22s, F-35s, and Next Generation Bombers are/will be capable of surviving, let alone fighting, in this environment. And yet, the US has only 20 B-2s and only 184 F-22s. Moreover, only B-2s and nonstealthy B-52s can deliver the USAF’s most powerful bunker-buster, the 33,000 lb MOP, needed for hardened targets (including China’s 200 hardened bases).
China and Russia also have large mine arsenals vastly outstripping the USN’s limited demining ship fleet, and also have hundreds of small boats and corvettes, while the USN has only a few LCSes and a shrinking frigate fleet.
China and Russia also have anti-satellite weapons (missiles and lasers) against which America currently has no defense. Their cyberweapons, meanwhile, penetrate American cybernetworks with impunity.
Sequestration: the knockout blow
And if sequestration goes through, America will no longer enjoy any military advantage over them, and not even over North Korea, while also being almost completely unable to strike Iran. If it goes through, the US military will be struggling to do even the most basic tasks. That’s because sequestration would (as revealed by Secretary Panetta) require the DOD to, inter alia:
- Eliminate the entire ICBM leg of the nuclear triad, as well as 1/3 of the SSBN leg and 2/3s of the bomber fleet, thus completely undermining the nuclear deterrent and inviting a nuclear first strike;
- Cut the Navy to just 230 ships, less than what Russia and significantly less than what China has;
- Cut the Air Force even more than it has already been cut, eliminating, inter alia, 2/3s of its bomber and 1/3 of its fighter fleet;
- Cut the Army to its lowest size since before WW2;
- Cut the Marines to just 145,000 troops and cancel all of their large acquisition programs (even though their old equipment is increasingly costly to operate&maintain), thus making the USMC unable to handle “even one major contingency” according to its Assistant Commandant;
- Cancel the entire F-35 program without replacement and give F-15s and F-16s only basic upgrades that will not prolong their service lives;
- Cancel the much-needed Next Generation Bomber program, making the US unable to defeat anyone but a trivial opponent and depriving it of long-range strike capability when B-2s lose their penetration capability;
- Deeply cut military healthcare programs;
- Stop building warships, because a 11%-12% cut in every ship’s budget would be required, and you can’t build 89% of a ship.
Such cuts will not just eliminate whatever few marginal advantages America retains, they will gut the US military and render it decisively inferior to those of Russia and China. When you don’t have an ICBM arsenal at all, your bomber fleet is microscopic and consists mostly of obsolete, easily detectable aircraft, when your navy is decisively smaller than China’s and barely as big as Russia’s, when you stop building warships, and when you’re no longer developing or producing next-generation stealthy aircraft, you are decisively inferior to both the Bear and the Dragon.
These facts prove that, far from being “overwhelmingly superior” to all adversaries, the US military only retains a few marginal advantages over its competitors in a few categories of equipment and capabilities, advantages it will lose completely and probably irrevocably if sequestration goes through, as budget cuts on this scale would ruin the US military as described above.
“Smart defense” initiatives, or efficiencies, are no panacea, because advanced capabilities require large, sustained investments and cannot be obtained or maintained on the cheap.
The material reality for America is quite simple. It will either cancel sequestration, draw a red line against further defense cuts, and start rebuilding its military, or it will become a military weakling. The choice is up to the Congress and the American people.