China and Russia conducted their first-ever joint naval patrol in the western Pacific last week after a combined exercise in the Sea of Japan, emphasizing the intensification of defense cooperation between America’s leading competitors. While US military planners have long hoped and often assumed that any conflicts with China and Russia could come one by one, that assumption is becoming questionable and even dangerous.
If the Biden administration is to develop an effective national defense strategy for 2022 and build the U.S. defense capabilities and capabilities that U.S. interests need, the administration must ditch outdated assumptions and recognize that the United States can confront Chinese and Russian forces simultaneously. .
Anyone skeptical of this claim should consider Joint Sea 2021, an annual combined naval exercise conducted by China and Russia on Oct. 14-17. The Russians contributed an Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyer, two Steregushchy-class corvettes, two coastal minesweepers, a Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarine and a missile boat. China sent a Type 055 large destroyer, which reportedly served as the command ship, plus a Type 052D destroyer, two Type 054A frigates, a diesel submarine and a supply ship. A naval aviation contingent consisting of 12 Chinese and Russian aircraft and fixed-wing helicopters also took part. The exercise was apparently the first time that a Chinese heavy destroyer and anti-submarine warfare aircraft participated in an exercise abroad.
During the first phase of the exercise, the Russian minesweepers escorted the Russian and Chinese warships into the Sea of Japan. The warships then fired artillery at simulated floating mines and at a towed target that simulated a warship on the surface. They also practiced air defense, with counter-force being played by Russian Su-30SM multirole fighters and naval helicopters. As a clear indication that both militaries view US submarine capabilities as a major concern, Russian and Chinese ships, supported by anti-submarine aircraft, have also hunted and captured a simulated enemy submarine.
After the exercise was over, the Chinese and Russian warships sailed together through the Tsugaru Strait—another first—before descending Japan’s eastern coast and back to China via the Osumi Strait. They were joined by Russia’s Udaloy-class destroyer Admiral Tributs, who, according to Moscow, had chased out the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Chafee days earlier for allegedly violating Russian waters closed to Joint Sea 2021 (a claim the US Navy disputed). ). Chinese state media said the combined patrol is “sending a warning to both Japan and the US, which allies have gathered to confront China and Russia”.
These developments follow another combined exercise this summer that underlined the growing confidence and military interoperability of China and Russia. That exercise, Sibu/Interaction-2021, held in north-central China in August, involved more than 10,000 troops and marked the first time Russian forces participated in a Chinese strategic exercise.
Chinese and Russian forces would operate under a joint command for the first time, using a specially designed “joint command information system”. Russian Su-30SM multirole fighters, motor-gun troops and a special unit integrated into Chinese formations train to enhance their “joint reconnaissance, search and early warning, electronic intelligence attack and joint strike” capabilities, according to China’s Defense Ministry . China’s fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighter reportedly made its first appearance in an international exercise. According to the Russian and Chinese defense ministries, Russian troops used modern Chinese equipment (ZTL-11 infantry support vehicles and ZBL-08 armored cars) for the first time after Chinese forces reportedly did the same with Russian equipment on Russia’s Kavkaz-2020 last year. sports.
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In addition to building operational and tactical interoperability, Sibu/Interaction-2021 enabled the two militaries to share valuable lessons. Beijing’s relatively untested army had the opportunity to learn from Russia’s combat experiences in Syria and elsewhere. The Russian Defense Ministry noted that Chinese and Russian officers used “experience” [from] modern armed conflicts” as they jointly plan the exercise’s mock counter-operation.
Even as the Chinese and Russian armies have more work to do in terms of capability and combined operations, the increasing frequency of military exercises suggests a disturbing level of strategic coordination among America’s superpower adversaries. Contrary to what some scientists and policymakers claim that the relationship between China and Russia is only superficial or tactical, their strategic alignment seems to be deepening. That’s especially worrisome given the massive modernization efforts of both militaries, which are eroding the US advantage.
Chinese defense spending has exploded as Beijing rushes to complete military modernization by 2035 and battle what Xi Jinping called a “world-class power” that could dominate the Asia-Pacific and “fight and win world wars” by 2049. ‘. China has at least 12 nuclear-powered submarines and commissioned its first domestically-built aircraft carrier in 2019, with a second expected to enter service in 2023.
The Russian military, meanwhile, is more capable, more ready and mobile than it has been in decades. Moscow has made progress in areas such as conventional long-range missiles. Both countries are investing heavily in various hypersonic, counterspace and unmanned capabilities. In addition, both countries are aggressively establishing a modernized nuclear triad capable of attacking the American homeland.
While a formal alliance remains unlikely, Beijing and Moscow share many common security interests, burgeoning energy and economic ties, and a long-standing disregard for the US-led, rules-based international order.
The fallout with the West after the Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014 prompted Moscow to accelerate its pivot towards Beijing. China participated in Russia’s strategic exercises in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and conducted joint strategic air patrols in Northeast Asia in 2019 and 2020.
Governments are also increasing arms sales. From 2016 to 2020, Russia supplied 77 percent of China’s total arms imports, including equipment such as Su-35 advanced fourth-generation fighters and S-400 SAM systems. As China’s defense industry progresses, Beijing and Moscow may move towards the joint development of certain systems. In 2019, Putin said Russia is helping China build a missile early warning system.
In fact, in 2019, the US intelligence community ruled that “China and Russia are more aligned than at any time since the mid-1950s, and that the relationship is likely to strengthen.”
So, what should be done?
At a major strategic level, Americans should keep in mind that Beijing and Moscow value military partners. The United States should do the same. As China and Russia converge, America will need its allies and partners more than ever.
At a strategic and operational level, the Pentagon urgently needs to review relevant war and disaster plans. Even without prior coordination, it is entirely plausible that Beijing or Moscow could exploit a military crisis involving the other power to pursue their own goals in the Taiwan Strait or Eastern Europe, respectively.
Any plans that assume that the United States will face only one major adversary at a time must be reviewed and updated without delay. Any additional capacity and future requirements identified should inform ongoing program and budget discussions.
Such an assessment would almost certainly point to the need for more U.S. military capabilities, which would require real annual defense budget growth of at least 3 to 5 percent. It’s worth noting that this is exactly what the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission 2018 recommended.
Whether the Pentagon actually receives the money to fund its updated war plans is ultimately a Congress decision, of course. Regardless, the Pentagon has a responsibility to inform political leaders and decision-makers as war plans become increasingly disconnected from reality and based on questionable assumptions.
Evolving reality should inform not only US war plans, but the Biden administration’s national defense strategy for 2022, the government’s request for fiscal year 2023 for the defense budget, assessments of the capability the US military needs and the forwarded US military. military attitudes in the Indo-Pacific and Europe.
After all, in the face of growing Chinese and Russian anti-entry and territory denial capabilities, it was already unsafe to assume that the US military would be able to push forces in an undisputed and swift manner from the continental United States to the Baltics or the Taiwan Strait. If that US-based force was needed in both places at the same time, then the US military has an even bigger problem.
Such a potential scenario puts a premium on building additional US and allied military capabilities and capabilities positioned forward in both Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
Beijing and Moscow dramatically increase the power of their armies and their strategic coordination. Americans and our allies would be wise to pay attention and act accordingly.
Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
John Hardie is a research manager at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Zane Zovak is a research analyst with the China Program of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Center on Military and Political Power.