The Buzz

Superpower Military Showdown: China vs. America (On Land, Sea and in the Air)

Two superpowers eye each other uneasily across the Pacific—one well established after decades of Cold War conflict, the other a rising power eager to reclaim regional hegemony. Fortunately, despite profoundly different political systems, China and the United States are not as intrinsically hostile to each other as were the West and the Soviet Union—in fact, they have a high degree of economic interdependence.

Still, history shows that there is often a risk of war when a rising power challenges the ascendancy of an existing one. Beijing and Washington have profound—though fortunately not comprehensive—disagreements on matters of global governance. They also have reasons to mistrust each other. Fortunately, there are historical examples of rival superpowers coexisting mostly peacefully for long periods of time. For example, see the century in between the defeat of Napoleon and World War I, during which there was no European-wide war.

Still, the balance of power between nations will likely play a role alongside diplomacy—a fleet that is never used in war may still prevent one, for example, by deterring possible opponents.

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China today has the largest military on the planet, with two million active personnel in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). However, China only spends slightly over one-third as much as the United States, accounting for thirteen percent of annual global military spending in 2017, compared to thirty-five percent by the United States according to SIPRI.

Yet, the Chinese government is aware that the large size of its forces in part reflects an antiquated mid-twentieth century force structure emphasizing massive, low-quality ground armies. Starting in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping—who seems set to remain in power indefinitely—announced a major reform initiative to radically downsize PLA ground forces to improve their quality.

PLA ground and air forces still exhibit a wide range of quality, fielding both early Cold War systems and cutting-edge variants. For example, the PLA musters 8,000 tanks—but 3,000 are 1950s-era Type 59 and Type 63 tanks. At the same time, the PLA also fields 500 Type 99 tanks which are in a similar ballpark to the very capable U.S. M1 Abrams. The PLA Air Force also has a similar issue. For instance, of its 1,700 aircraft, roughly a third are dated J-7 fighters, while another fourth include modern fourth-generation J-10s and J-11s comparable to U.S. F-15s and F-16s and even a few fifth-generation stealth fighters.

By contrast, the U.S. military operates over two-thousand fourth-generation combat jets, increasingly being supplemented by fifth-generation stealth designs. These newer U.S. planes theoretically enjoy a massive edge in long-range aerial combat and in penetrating enemy airspace.

America's massive military spending reflects its technology-oriented approach to warfare, a paradigm which seeks to send a drone or guided missile in place of a man (or woman) whenever possible—especially as every friendly casualty may result in a political firestorm. Therefore, the Pentagon prefers to develop comprehensive intelligence and communication capabilities to direct a few weapons systems with a high degree of precision. This in contrast to fielding a larger, and cheaper, number of platforms which was typical in the past such as World War II. This paradigm favors ‘networked warfare', in which various weapons systems exchange sensor data. A ship, for example, may detect an attacking jet and pass the targeting data to a nearby fighter which can then use the telemetry to launch a missile without exposing itself by turning on its radar—or vice versa.

China is also an enthusiastic adopter of this doctrine and has arguably made greater strides in developing armed drones and advancing networking capabilities than Russia or various European countries. On the one hand, Chinese industry still lags notably behind in the development of technologies such as jet engines and suffers quality control issues. However, on the other, it is relatively strong in the realm of electronics and is happy to copy both Western and Russian technologies. Furthermore, Chinese hackers have also proven reasonably adept at hacking into foreign computer systems and perpetrating industrial espionage, but Beijing has at least so far refrained from election-manipulation tactics practiced by its neighbor Russia.

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