(The views expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)
By Peter Apps
LONDON, Nov. 11 (Reuters) – In China’s remote northwestern Taklamakan Desert, at least eight silhouettes of US Navy warships offer rare insight into a growing number of rapidly escalating and increasingly complex arms races that could define the century.
The mockups — which range from a simple silhouette of what appears to be America’s new Ford-class aircraft carrier to a more sophisticated model of a US destroyer mounted on a railroad track — were revealed in private satellite imagery and published by the United States Naval Institute, which said that they appeared to be part of a weapons testing area.
Exactly what weapons China has or will test against warships is unclear – but it clearly has more and more to choose from. Last week, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, described the Beijing-reported test of a hypersonic missile orbiting Earth as a “Sputnik moment,” a reference to the Soviet Union’s Cold War space breakthrough. War.
The United States is grappling with its own hypersonic missile program, and some in Washington fear that their development will allow China to overwhelm US defenses. And while specialists worry that China may gain an edge in areas such as hypersonic missiles and artificial intelligence, Beijing is also investing significantly in existing nuclear and conventional weapon types.
In a 192-page annual report to Congress this week, the Pentagon said Beijing’s military buildup aims to reshape world order. That included expanding its nuclear stockpile from a number of warheads in the low 200s to as many as 1,000 by 2030, it suggested, in addition to more conventional forces.
This isn’t the only arms race either. A study published this week by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, which examined China’s military tender documents, found that the United States and China spend roughly equal amounts on military artificial intelligence, about $1.6. billion a year, sometimes acquiring nearly identical technology, often from US companies—with the impossible goal of tearing it apart.
Undoubtedly, the conventional military balance remains the most important, one of the reasons for the Chinese focus on finding ways to attack American warships. In numerical terms, the Navy of the People’s Liberation Army is already the largest in the world, with a force of about 355 ships and submarines that will reach 420 by 2025 and 460 by 2030.
In its ability to project power around the world, that power remains more limited than the United States, with its 10 Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carriers and the “Ford”-class ship also entering service. Analysts say China is likely to launch its third aircraft carrier early next year, a significantly more advanced variant than the two it already has.
The United States may spend up to $500 billion a year more on defense than China, but that money is scattered around the world. Beijing knows exactly what it wants to achieve with its resources: a degree of global reach, but above all the ability to dominate its immediate environment in the event of a conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea.
That’s a prospect that already worries the United States, leading to growing calls in Washington for the Pentagon to redeploy more troops to the Pacific and leave other allies, like those in Europe, to take care of themselves. to protect.
Beijing’s basic plan in the event of war seems clear: overwhelm any nearby opponents such as Taiwan or nearby US forces with missiles and other firepower, while simultaneously using long-range missiles to threaten the US mainland and deter further attacks.
However, all that also seems to be mixed with emerging technology that is only just being understood.
In Guam, the United States is testing Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system for protection against Chinese missiles. The truth, however, is that Beijing poses a very different threat to the Palestinian militants whose missiles Israel is firing, or even the more advanced missiles and drones of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East.
More than a third of the Chinese military contracts the Georgetown AI researchers found were for systems related to autonomous vehicles, including flying and self-directed drones that could be used to overwhelm the air defenses of an adversary like Taiwan. That simply included buying off-the-shelf drones and associated technology, including from US companies, the report said, and Beijing simply bought state-of-the-art US technology where export controls allowed.
That appears to be part of a broader trend: Chinese military systems relying on chips designed by American companies like Intel, NVIDIA and Xilinx, often manufactured in Taiwan. Sometimes images of these processes were included in marketing materials.
Neither country seems happy about this – the United States wants to tighten export controls, while Beijing wants to reduce its reliance on American companies and Taiwan. However, the speed of the arms race complicates the efforts of both to achieve these goals.
Washington and Beijing not only use the same gear, but are often focused on the same things. Most of the spending from both, the Georgetown researchers found, went on AI tools to interpret intelligence and facilitate military decision-making — and, in China’s case, to fortify the hand of its security state.
Most of that technology is aimed at supporting human decision-makers, not replacing them. But if they’re ever going to fight, the question is whether there might just be too many moving parts for anyone to really understand — and what that means for the choices being made. *** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, impartial, non-ideological think tank. Paralyzed by a car accident in a war zone in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and is still paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016 he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labor Party. (Edited by Giles Elgood)