Strategic and military balance of great powers in Spring 2021

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

– Sun Tzu

Renewed great power competition and transformation of polarity

Transformation process of polarity

Kenneth Waltz’s structural realism or neorealism forms the base for the concept of polarity, which can be define as the structural doctrine accounting for the variations in the power concentrations of anarchically organized context. Polarity refers to the number of power and decision centers in an international system. The polarity concept is an essential part of the theory of structural realism. The number of great powers determines the structure of the international system.

Military capabilities are important in defining the polarity of the international system. States with little military power cannot be poles. Because military power is the ultima ratio of international politics, great powers must possess military capabilities on a par with the most powerful state(s) in the system. The distribution of military power is also a key component of understanding of unipolarity. In a unipolar system, security relations between the unipole and other major powers are essentially anarchic.

Unipolarity is defined as an international system with only one great power in existence. It means a distribution of power in which one state exercises most of the cultural, economic and military influence. One state has managed to achieve a nearly-hegemony position in the system. Unipolarity of the US emerged in the international system in early 1990, when Soviet Union collapsed and then-prevailing system, bipolarity transformed into unipolarity. The US unipolarity was prevailing in 1990 – 2014, transformation process was initiated in 2015 – 2016 and the system is moving towards more polycentric world from 2017 on. In the present game of great powers, these actors and functions are interacting and confronting concurrently:

  • ex-unipole / the US
  • partnership of China & Russia
  • China and Russia as separate entities

Grand Strategy and geopolitics of great power competition

Nuno P Monteiro, in his world-famous book “Theory of unipolar politics” (2014), stated “When the unipolarity prevails in the world, the grand strategy of the unipole is the most important variable conditioning both the prospects for peace and the durability of a unipolar system.”  

The grand strategy is also significant factor mediating between the structure of international system and on the other hand conflict-producing and competition-inducing mechanisms. The grand strategy covers both military and economic issues. Monteiro defines three broad military strategies and their sub-categories as well as two broad economic strategies:

  • military strategies: offensive dominance, defensive dominance, disengagement
  • economic strategies: accommodation, containment

Monteiro’s recommendation of the Grand Strategy for the US is “defensive accommodation”. This strategy combines a military strategy aimed at maintaining the international status quo with an economic strategy that makes room for accommodating the interests of rising major powers.

The US foreign policy 1990-2010 seems to be according to Monteiro’s framework but since then the situation has changed dramatically, when the US selected, in mid 2010s, an opposite strategy of “offensive containment” creating a continuum of crisis and escalating great power competition. Position of the US as an unipole has been declining during last ten years (2012 – 2021) with an accelerating velocity, due to the unsuitable grand strategy and on the other hand, intensifying hard balancing (inter alia China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Turkey, Cuba, India) worldwide.

The renewal of great power competition has led to a renewed emphasis on grand strategy and the geopolitics of great power competition as a starting point for discussing US defense funding levels, strategy, plans and programs. For the United States, grand strategy can be viewed as strategy at a global or interregional level, as opposed to US strategies for individual regions, countries or issues.

From a US perspective most of the world’s people, resources, and economic activity are located not in the Western Hemisphere, but in the other hemisphere, particularly Eurasia. In response to this basic feature of world geography, US policymakers have chosen to pursue, as a key element of US national strategy, a goal of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons in Eurasia. Although not often stated in public, the goal of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons in Eurasia, US military operations in recent decades appear to have been carried out in support of this goal.

Force elements associated with this goal include, among other things, an Air Force with significant numbers of long-range bombers, long-range surveillance aircraft, long-range airlift aircraft, and aerial refueling tankers, and a Navy with significant numbers of aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered attack submarines, large surface combatants, large amphibious ships, and underway replenishment ships.

The US goal of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons in Eurasia is a policy choice reflecting two judgments: (1) a regional hegemon in Eurasia would represent a concentration of power large enough to be able to threaten vital US interests; (2) that Eurasia is not dependably self-regulating in terms of preventing the emergence of regional hegemons but may need assistance from one or more countries outside Eurasia to be able to do this dependably.

US President Biden’s grand strategy seems to be a mix of value signaling (Democrats) and aggression (Republicans), which represents a dangerous combination. The first refers to emphasis on so-called “Western values”, “democracy” and “human rights” ideals as manifested in information warfare campaigns against China and Russia. The second is proven by US attempts to assemble alliances to contain China and Russia by using the Quad, NATO and the US’ new proposal to create a competitor to China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI).

The rapidly shifting international distribution of power creates problems that can only be resolved with real diplomacy by recognizing competing national interests between great powers, not by the US unipolar ambitions to defy polycentric / multipolar reality in the present world. In doing so, Washington is antagonizing relations, primarily with Russia and China. The confrontational policy is aimed at driving a wedge between Europe versus Russia and China.

What makes all of these conflicts dangerous is that they are loaded by a winner-takes-all logic. Under these conditions, the great powers and other major powers are more prepared to accept greater risks at a time, when the international system is transforming. The rhetoric of upholding liberal democratic values also has clear zero-sum undertones as it implies that Russia and China must accept the moral authority of the West and commit to unilateral concessions.

Renewed great power competition – Implications for defense forces

Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) perception that China is facing unprecedented security risks is a driving factor in China’s approach to national security. In May 2015, China’s published a document titledChina’s Military Strategy (CMS 2015) and White Paper in 2019 (China’s National Defense in the New Era), which outlined how Beijing views the global security environment, China’s role in that environment and how the PLA supports that role. Beijing calculates that world war is unlikely in the immediate future but China should be prepared for the possibility of local war.

China characterizes its military strategy as one of “active defense,” a concept it describes as strategically defensive but operationally offensive. President Xi’s speech during the 90th anniversary parade of the PLA further highlighted, that China would never conduct “invasion and expansion” but would never permit “any piece of Chinese territory” to separate from China.

Russia’s National Security Strategy 2015 and Military Doctrine of Russian Federation (December 2014) directly accuses the United States and NATO of pursuing actions that cause instability and threaten Russian national security. The importance of a strong military is acknowledged and the strategy states that “the role of force as a factor in international relations is not declining.” The US and NATO are unambiguously the main geopolitical opponents, because the current relations between Russia and NATO are wavering on the brink of armed confrontation.

In the US, renewal of great power competition was acknowledged alongside other considerations in the Obama Administration’s June 2015 National Military Strategy and was placed at the center of the Trump Administration’s December 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and January 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). Trump’s documents formally reoriented US national security and defense strategy toward an explicit primary focus on great power competition with China and Russia.

Triggering events seem to have been Ukraine crisis and Crimea annexation / reunification in 2014, Russia’s military deployment in Syria 2015 as well as the context of escalating tension between China – the US manifesting in trade war, Taiwan issue, theater operations in South China Sea, Hong Kong troubles, Uighur-issue and other “human right cases” in China.

The renewal of great power competition profoundly changed the conversation about US defense policy from counterterrorist operations and US military operations in the Middle East to the conversation with emphasis on the topics like (all of which relate to China and/or Russia):

  • grand strategy and the geopolitics of great power competition as a starting point
  • nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence
  • the global allocation of US military force deployments (military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region or military capabilities in Europe)
  • new military service operational concepts
  • capabilities for developing and conducting so-called high-end conventional warfare;
  • mobilization capabilities for an extended large-scale conflict as well as supply chain security
  • capabilities for countering so-called hybrid warfare and gray-zone tactics.

Military expenditure of great powers

Here below is the time series of re-calculated military expenditures of the US, China and Russia, which are based on published data of SIPRI and World Bank. All the data are now more comparable, re-calculated in PPP-adjusted figures (purchasing power parity).

PPP-comparison gives usually more neutral, flawless and unbiased outlook than other “direct” comparison methods (market prices, currency exchange ratios), which may distort seriously the picture. In this case this PPP-method is even more justifiable, because both defense forces (China, Russia) utilize nearly 100% of their own domestic industry in the military procurement (China purchases also from Russia), recruit just their own citizens paying domestic salaries etc. Therefore, SIPRI and IISS figures are quite misleading.

Based on the PPP-adjusted statistics, the conclusion is very clear:

Military expenditure of the US versus China & Russia has been in parity since 2015, when polarity of international system began the transformation process, from unipolarity towards more polycentric world.

This conclusion is essential in all elaborations, analyses, assessments and further conclusions from this on. More info about polarity of international system available on this website here.

In addition, it is necessary to remind the readers that the US has bulldozed trillions of dollars to wars around the world “using more of the same”, during last 30 years, while China and Russia have allocated their financial and other resources mainly for research & development and procurement of advanced weapon systems and other new military hardware.

Military game-changers in 2020s

Escalating competition and rising tension between great powers – the US, China and Russia – mean that the arms race will intensify in this decade. Obviously, the 2020s will be an eyewitness of some significant break-through military inventions, which will be game-changers in the practical warfare, already during 2020s.

Here assessments of some key state-of-the-art new military innovations, which may prove to be game-changers or will have major impacts on the practical warfare from mid- 2020s on.

The Army and other ground troops

The increasing value of an individual soldier in developed nations (for obvious economic and demographic reasons) requires that a soldier to be more combat efficient. This will remain true for a long time.

There are several interesting technical innovations attached to a combat gear. One is Russian Ratnik-3 “futuristic like” combat suit equipped with augmented reality goggles and data integration with real-time battlefield observation/communication. The development of the “military internet” is one of top priorities in all armies of great powers.

Obviously, there will be a fast evolution in the widespread adoption of a new type of weapons —small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for both reconnaissance and strike missions (wearable strike drones / single-use “kamikaze” drones).

Among heavy weapons of the army, the Russian Armata family covering new-generation main battle tank and some other armored military vehicles seems to become a benchmark of 2020s. Robotized, AI driven heavy battle vehicles will emerge within next couple of years on various theaters.  Rocket artillery is expected with explosive growth in the upcoming decade, due to the breakdown of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between Russia and the US, which had kept the development of this class of weapon by Russia and the West under control since 1987 (China and some other countries were freely and successfully developing their rocket forces during this period).

In some previous blogs of this website (air defense and drones), there were analysis regarding a critical issue of air defense protecting frontline troops and on the other hand widening use of various drones in modern warfare. Another important feature is electronic warfare (EW) devices and systems for multifaceted purposes.

The Air Forces

This decade will see the wide deployment of 5G fighters in all great powers: the US and F-35 (F-22 will be retired in next few years), China and J-20, Russia and Su-57. In strategic heavy bombers, the last 2-3 years of this decade will likely see the first deployments of these new giants: B-21 Raider in the US, H-20 in China and Tupolev PAK DA in Russia. These new 5G aircraft will be equipped with latest technical weapons and weapon systems like hypersonic air-to-air missiles, laser weapons, extended-range cruise missiles, new radars etc.

Drones and other UAVs will be “the main stream” in the Air Forces and air warfare around the world. This branch is under intensive development and new innovations will be found continuously. New ways of use will be combined use of 5G aircraft and UAV as well as the swarm use of UAVs. The important auxiliary function is EW, which will be included in manifold ways.

The Navy

It seems now that the hundred years life cycle of surface heavy combatants is approaching to end and the future belongs to medium- and small-size surface warships with high-grade firepower (hypersonic and cruise missiles) and submarines as well as unmanned boats and subs. This branch of service is typically such where the life cycles of basic weapon systems are long, 20-40 years and therefore changes are slower than in the armies.

The development is now focusing, on the other hand, on equipment like hypersonic and cruise missiles as well as torpedoes and sea mines and on the other hand, on platforms (warships) like unmanned vehicles (surface or subs).

Strategic nuclear deterrence: the US and Russia in approx parity with 1600 deployed weapons, China about 300 deployed weapons

In the United States, the renewal of the whole nuclear arsenal (and nuclear triad) is a massive work of some hundred billion dollars and over a decade long.

The US strategic nuclear triad, largely deployed in the 1980s or earlier, consists of: submarines (SSBNs) armed with submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM); land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM); and strategic bombers carrying gravity bombs and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs).

The US currently operates 14 OHIO-class SSBNs, which have been commissioned in 1980s and 1990s. OHIO SSBNs remain operationally until replaced by the COLUMBIA-class SSBN, starting from late 2020s till far in 2030s. The COLUMBIA program will deliver a minimum of 12 SSBNs to replace the current OHIO fleet and is designed to provide required deterrence capabilities for decades.

The ICBM force consists of 400 single-warhead Minuteman III missiles deployed in underground silos and dispersed across several states. The US has initiated the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program to begin the replacement of Minuteman III in 2029. The GBSD program will also modernize the 450 ICBM launch facilities that will support the fielding of 400 ICBMs.

The bomber leg of the triad consists of 46 nuclear-capable B-52H and 20 nuclear-capable B-2A “stealth” strategic bombers. The US has initiated a program to develop and deploy the next-generation bomber, the B-21 Raider. It will first supplement and eventually replace elements of the conventional and nuclear-capable bomber force beginning in the mid or late 2020s.

The present silo-based ICBMs, Minuteman III, are over 50 years old holding outmoded technology. The US Air Forces organized a failed test launch of Minuteman III in April 2021, which indicates that this part of nuclear deterrence is not fully reliable. Taking into account the various problems of aging systems going out of mode within next few years, one can ask “How much and how reliable deterrence is left in 2025 … 75% … 50% … 25%?

Further, majority of heavy bombers are aging and making extremely high usage costs: B-1B Lancer (will be retired soon due to technical failures and malfunctions) and B-2 Spirit. The old B-52H Stratofortress will be the only serviceable alternative before B-21 Raider’s coming at the end of this decade.

Biden Administration released the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, in March 2021. The document has been prepared to guide all actions related to the strategic vision for US defense and security. The document states that defense spending will be cut, especially the section on modernizing America’s nuclear arsenal. In fact, it says that the US will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy. This is in clear contradiction with the above-mentioned Minuteman III – GBSD project, possibly risking the whole US deterrence issue. It remains to be seen, what will happen in practice in next 3-4 years.

In China, a rapid growth and development with nuclear deterrence is taking place, both in quantitative and qualitative aspects. The development work covers the whole nuclear triad. This development is studied in details in basic texts of this website.

In Russia, a wide-range upgrade programme is going: new ICBM Sarmat 28, hypersonic Avangard, UUV Poseidon and others. The development work covers the whole nuclear triad. This development is also studied in details in basic texts of this website. Here can be shortly consider the issue of so called “tactical nukes”.

Non-strategic nuclear weapons: the US 230 nukes, Russia 2000 nukes

The United States and Russia still actively deploy tactical nuclear weapons arsenals which are not regulated by treaty, unlike strategic nuclear weapons. But calling them “tactical” and “non-strategic” weapons is arguably a misnomer. The term “tactical” implies shorter-range, less destructive and more “useable” weapons intended for striking battlefield targets and forward bases in sparsely or unpopulated areas, not wiping out cities, factories and power plants across the globe. However, any nuclear weapon used any time is a strategic game-changer. US and Russian arms control treaties define non-strategic nuclear weapons as those with a strike range inferior to 5500 km but regional rivals like China, India and Pakistan consider their non-intercontinental range nuclear weapons to be strategic anyway.

The US non-strategic arsenal is made up of roughly 230 B61 nuclear gravity bombs droppable by jet fighters. 100 to 150 B61s are forward-deployed for use by NATO allies to form a kind of collective-responsibility pact. The Trump administration cited Russia’s development of sophisticated non-strategic weapons as cause to reintroduce less powerful W76-2 nuclear warheads onto Navy submarine-launched ballistic missiles. 

Russia’s non-strategic arsenal is estimated to amount up to 2000 in 2018. It is also estimated that Russia has developed more precise, longer-range dual-capable missiles, which can be used to deliver either a conventional or nuclear warhead, creating dangerous ambiguity.

Naval Nukes

Nearly half of Russia’s non-strategic arsenal (est. 930 warheads) are estimated to belong to the Russian Navy. Of greatest relevance are long-range subsonic Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles, as well as P-800 Oniks supersonic anti-ship missiles, both understood to be nuclear-capable. Both the P-800 and Kalibr can be mounted on Russian frigates, corvettes, and Yasen-class submarines. The P-800 is also deployed on truck-mounted Bastion-P coastal defense systems. The Russian Navy also reportedly still maintains nuclear torpedoes, depth charges, and anti-submarine rockets.

Nuclear Surface-to-Air Missiles

Russia maintains est. 290 nuclear warheads for surface-to-air missiles for S-300 and S-400 long-range air defense systems—likely for ballistic missile defense contingencies. Similarly, the A135 missile defense system protecting Moscow is believed to have ninety 10-kiloton warheads.

Land-Based Batteries

The Russian Army is estimated to possess only seventy nuclear warheads for its missile batteries. Its precise Iskander-M tactical ballistic missile system can swap its regular warhead for up to a 50-kiloton nuke. Additionally, four battalions of the Iskander-K variant instead launch a variant of the nuclear-capable Kalibur missile called the 9M729 Novator, the development of which ushered in the demise of the INF Treaty regulating intermediate-range missiles. 

Non-Strategic Bombers

More of Russia’s non-strategic nuclear firepower comes in the form of 500-600 air-launched weapons carried by Su-34 and older Su-24M attack jets and longer-range Tu-22M supersonic bombers, which can carry dual-capable Kh-32 supersonic anti-ship and land-attack missiles. Russia has also developed a unique air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missile with a 2000 km range. This is currently deployed by ultra-fast MiG-31K interceptors and can also be carried by the Tu-22M3M bombers. In the future, Moscow is expected to employ Su-57 stealth fighters in a nuclear strike role too.

Russia will likely continue to improve the speed, stealth, precision and amount of its non-strategic nuclear arsenal in the 2020s. Russian military doctrine sees tactical nuclear warheads as a hedge against NATO, not only a deterrent but one of Russia’s key means of leveling the battle field in the event of an all-out war. As costly as these stockpiles are to store and maintain, it would be much more expensive for Russia to try to match the whole range of NATO’s conventional strength. Tactical nuclear warheads are and will likely continue to be, a cost-efficient way for Moscow to offset its disadvantage in this domain.

Hybrid warfare

While conventional warfare largely defined twentieth-century conflicts between major powers, irregular warfare will likely define international politics over the next year and beyond. Great powers, the US, China and Russia, compete with each other using irregular methods because conventional and nuclear warfare are far too risky and costly. This custom and practice are also applied for other major powers like Iran and Turkey. All significant players have extensive experience of using these tools and operations, covering also those “traditional ways and means” like regime change operations, trade wars, embargos various sanctions, “colour revolutions” etc.

The whole new militarized area, “hybrid measures”, has emerged in analysis of recent years.The increasing use of different new tools and concepts like cyber measures, media & internet and other informatics measures, camouflaged proxy operations etc. have caused much attention as new ways to impact, other than “traditional” use of military force. The tools of irregular warfare are hackers, intelligence operatives, special operations forces, private military contractors and companies and other proxies that often operate in the shadows.

In short, the future concept of warfare faced by all major powers is much closer to the Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu than it is to the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who narrowly defined war as an “act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.”

US task group of general and admirals recently released a report where they stated that China and Russia are outmaneuvering the US, using aggressive actions that fall short of war. To counter them, the US needs to develop new ways to use the military force without shooting and broaden the thinking of “the grey zone concept”. This new area is apt to make the concept “war – peace” even more blurry. Based on this grey zone concept, it seems that “war time” has been valid between great powers since 2014 and seems even to intensify in the coming years.

Space warfare and ASAT

Chief of the US Space Force, General John Raymond, has warned that space will play a growing role in the future of warfare and that America’s potential adversaries have increased their capabilities to threaten US satellites. China and Russia had developed weapons that can either disrupt or destroy US satellites, from on the ground or in space or in cyber.

China has already fielded ground-based ASAT-missiles intended to destroy satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) and ground-based ASAT lasers intended to blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors on LEO satellites, with reversible jamming of communications satellites. Russian Peresvet laser weapon, Nudol ASAT, Triada-2S and “killer satellite” project belong to this category.

The United States and Soviet Union both invested heavily in their space warfare capabilities in the 1980s, with the Soviet MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor today still considered the most capable combat jet for space warfare, capable for carrying ASAT missiles. MIG-31 has since been modernized extensively – with neither China nor the US having an equivalent. Russia is expected to begin fielding a successor to the MiG-31 in the 2030s, which is currently under development as the MiG-41 and will be able to fly at even higher altitudes and speeds. The MiG-41 will be more focused on space warfare than its predecessor.

China has increasingly taken the lead in several fields of space exploration and in April launched the first module of a new space station. Even excluding the possibility of the deployment of weapons in space, control of space will play a major role in deciding, which country has the advantage in intelligence gathering and which can best obtain targeting data. It is also notable that China and Russia have agreed on joint lunar base project recently.

National postures and developments

The US posture and development

The US Military Forces 2021, key strengths in nutshell:

  • leading military force worldwide, Command structure of six spatial units and four unified Combatant Commands covering the whole globe, having the biggest military budget and expenditure
  • globally oriented with global network, some 800 military bases worldwide
  • new doctrine of multi-domain operations (MDO)
  • functions and operations based on extensive combat experience and hi-tec planning systems

New Doctrine:  Multi-Domain Battle – Multidomain Operations.

The US Army has developed, during last five years or so, a new ground warfare concept “Multi-Domain Battle”, which has now recrystallized as a “Multidomain Operations”. The Army is looking beyond the traditional ground warfare as it prepares to fight on an increasingly complex and unpredictable battlefield across a variety of domains: air, land, sea and cyber. The new concept is necessary now, when the focus is again on great power military competition and possible near-peer warfare.

Under multidomain operations, the Army learns how to operate in and affect all domains in conjunction with the other services.The goal is to better enable the services to fight together effectively against a common, complex enemy, in other words how to synchronize all domains to produce joint coherent impact on the enemy.The US military can no longer count on just technological superiority, because other great powers, China and Russia, have accelerated their technical development processes. Therefore, the US military shall rely on the competence of its people and emphasize leader development and training.

The National Defense Strategy, released last year, focuses on great power competition with Russia and China, and the MDO concept is designed to enable the US Army to operate against those near-peer competitors across air, land, sea, space and cyber domains. The doctrine is intended to lay out how Army’s capability and strategy will prevent conflict, shape the security environment, win in large-scale ground combat operations and consolidate gains. The Army is planning to stand up one more multidomain task force or MDTF unit to the Pacific region in 2021 and one unit in Europe. The intent would be to have two multidomain task forces in the Pacific and one in Europe or one that supports Europe. The Service has not determined a “temporary location” to base of the Europe-focused MDTF.

The US Military Forces 2021, key weaknesses in nutshell:

  • engaged in numerous conflicts and wars worldwide with multi-trillions cost burden, which partly hinder the renovation of processes and procurement and make excessive burden to the American society and overstresses to military forces
  • falling behind Russia and China in some state-of-the-art weapon technologies like hypersonics, EW, ASAT and AI-applications
  • overall shift of focus from “counterterrorism” to “great power competition” seems to be more profound and much more multifaceted than American military leaders have been realized, requiring years to be executed through the whole structure of US military forces

The Biden administration has inherited a US military at an inflection point. The Pentagon’s own war games reportedly show that current force plans would leave the military unable to deter and defeat Chinese performance in the future, the US has lost all latest war game simulations against China. Averting such an outcome in reality will require fundamental reforms in how the Pentagon operates but changing organizational cultures is far harder than revising defense strategy.  Ultimately, the strategy will fail unless the operational changes succeed.

The imperative is clear: the US military must reimagine how it fights and must make the technological and operational investments necessary to secure its edge. It is not about spending more money; it is about spending smarter, prioritizing investments to sharpen the military’s edge. Time is no longer on the US side in this competition and the stakes could not be higher. The Defense Department’s actions or inaction in the next four years will determine whether the US is able to defend its interests and its allies against great-power threats for the next four decades.

China’s posture and development

The Chinese Military Forces 2021, key strengths in nutshell:

  • significant budget and other resources for development of military forces as well as a full support of CCP and top political leadership
  • new intensive training and exercising system “real combat experience”
  • hi-tec planning systems and rapid modernization pace throughout the military forces, special capabilities: shipbuilding, hypersonics, AI applications, ASAT and space technology
  • emphasize defensive character of military force

China’s leadership has confirmed, both politically and financially, the full commitment to completing the modernization of the PLA by 2035 and transforming the PLA into a “world-class” military by 2049. CCP recently confirmed multi-year budget guidelines for the PLA holding steady growth of yearly budgets so that all stipulated goals of plans can be reached.

Approved by Xi Jinping, chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the CMC has released a decision on fostering a new-type military training system, in spring 2021. The decision stressed efforts to speed up the establishment of a new-type military training system, improve military training in all respects and strengthen the capability to win wars, so as to build the people’s army into world-class armed forces. It also underscored promoting combat-oriented training, exploring new training paradigms and improving the management of training operation, as well as the supporting conditions, among others. The combat preparedness of PLA troops has been enhanced systematically during last couple of years.

China will carry on the development and shipbuilding for the Navy (PLAN) at fast pace with the aim of “real blue water navy”. The launch date of a new stealth bomber, H-20, may be some kind of surprise to military experts, obviously being years ahead of competitors (the US and Russia). As a whole, China is investing enormous efforts and financial resources for military development, which no doubt will change significantly the balance of great powers in this decade.

The Chinese Military Forces 2021, key weaknesses in nutshell:

  • limited combat experience throughout the military forces
  • regionally capable but so far globally limited military network
  • limited nuclear deterrence compared with the US and Russia

Russia’s posture and development

The Russian Military Forces 2021, key strengths in nutshell:

  • extensive combat experience and intensive training and exercising system; Syrian conflict has served as a “first-class training and testing place” for the whole military forces
  • hi-tec planning systems and rapid modernization and deployment pace throughout the military forces, special know-how and capability in certain key strategic segments: hypersonics, EW, AI and robotization, ASAT
  • comprehensive and highly-capable air defense systems
  • upgraded and extensive nuclear arsenal covering both strategic and non-strategic capacities

Russia has defined and planned a counter-strategy against the new US doctrine of multi-domain operations, MDO. In recently published military-scientific article, two Russian researchers explained that massive and targeted cruise and hypersonic missile strikes play essential role in relevant counter-operative approach versus American MDOs.

This approach is in accordance with the Russian official military doctrine 2014. An interesting detail in the text of this doctrine was the statement regarding modern military conflicts:

“…massive use of high-precision and hypersonic weapons, means of electronic warfare, weapons based on new physical principles that are comparable to nuclear weapons in terms of effectiveness, information and control systems, as well as drones and autonomous marine vehicles, guided robotic weapons and military equipment… “… exerting simultaneous pressure on the enemy throughout the enemy’s territory in the global information space, airspace and outer space, on land and sea”.

These visions became openly materialized by the speech of Putin in March 1, 2018 and thereafter.

The Russian Military Forces 2021, key weaknesses in nutshell:

  • limited economic and financial resources compared with the US and China
  • regionally capable but globally limited military network
  • deficiencies in naval capability (low number of large surface combatants)

Where is the ultimate red line?

Before giving the answer to this question, it may be necessary to study the framework and background of this issue.

General framework

Tensions between Washington and Beijing or Washington and Moscow, are not merely the recent results of former US President Donald Trump’s time in office – but rather just the latest chapter in US efforts to contain China and Russia that stretch back for years.

Indo-Pacific region

US foreign policy has aimed at encircling and containing China’s rise and maintaining primacy over the Indo-Pacific region, since the Vietnam War. In Asia-Pacific theater, the US has been organizing three fronts to contain China: (1) the Japan-Korea front, (2) the India-Pakistan front and (3) the Southeast Asia front. Assessing US activity along these three fronts reveals the progress and setbacks Washington faces:

The Japan-Korea Front: More than 80,000 US troops are deployed to Japan and South Korea. In Japan alone, the US maintains more than 55,000 deployed troops, the largest forward-deployed US force anywhere in the world. The US is spending nearly 10 billion dollars annually to maintain military presences in Japan and South Korea. In recent years, Washington has placed increasing pressure on both Japan and South Korea to not only help in this financial burden but to also become more proactive within Washington’s containment strategy toward China. Japan is one of other nations (the US itself, Australia and India) drafted into the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – also known as the “Quad.”

The India-Pakistan Front: In addition to recruiting India into the Quad alliance, the US has given political support to India in various territorial disputes with China. The US also targets Pakistan’s close and ongoing relationship with China, including the support of armed insurgents in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Pakistan has given China a base at Gwadar in the heart of Baluch territory. So, an independent Baluchistan would serve US strategic interests in addition to the immediate goal of countering Islamist forces. The Gwadar Port project is a key juncture within China’s growing global network of infrastructure projects as part of its One Belt, One Road initiative. The US clearly opposes China’s rise and has articulated robust strategies to counter it.

The Southeast Asia Front: Since the Vietnam War the US has tried to reassert Western primacy over Southeast Asia and contain the region from going along China’s inevitable rise. Today, the majority of nations of Southeast Asia count China as their largest trade partner, investor, a key partner in infrastructure development, a key supplier for the region’s armed forces, as well as providing the majority of tourism arrivals throughout the region. Because existing governments have been suspicious in participating American containment policy toward China, the US has found it necessary to attempt various regime change operations, examples of recent years in Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia. The recent US Government “policy papers” (like Trump administration’s “Indo-Pacific Framework”) confirm such approach.

As for China and Taiwan, Biden is advancing the same policy like previous Trump and Obama administrations of military buildup near China’s territory. End-May saw the fourth US guided-missile destroyer passing through the Taiwan Strait in “freedom of navigation” operation since Biden took office. Beijing has sovereign territorial claim to Taiwan which is recognized by the vast majority of nations, including up until recently the United States itself under its so-called “One China” policy. Biden is now eroding the One China policy by sending delegates to the island on official visits, increasing weapons sales and most provocatively making public declarations that the US will “defend” Taiwan in the event of “an invasion” by Chinese forces.

Understanding the full scope of Washington’s competition and containment policy toward China may open eyes to see the whole framework where individual crises take place like the US-China trade war, the ongoing violence and turmoil in Myanmar, bombings in southwest Pakistan, student mobs in Thailand, riots in Hong Kong and incidents in the South China Sea. Understanding that all these events are connected – then assessing the success or failure of US efforts gives a clearer picture of the overall US performance in encircling China. 

European region

In European theater, the collapse of Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in the beginning of 1990s, enabled the US to start NATO’s eastward enlarging, despite of “no inch eastward” concept confirmed by Bush Sr. and Gorbashev. NATO’s eastward enlarging and especially Yugoslavian disintegration wars in late 1990s and early 2000s, were events in the process, which culminated in Putin’s historical speech in Munich Security Conference 2007. The open rupture between Russia and the West had occurred.  Russia has long asserted that any effort for the West to bring Ukraine into its permanent orbit, through European Union or NATO membership, would be considered a major threat. In his speech of Munich 2007 Putin outlined a position that has changed little in the intervening period of time.

Today, Biden accuses Russia of aggression by building up military forces on the border with Ukraine. This is while the US-backed regime in Kiev has been serially violating a shaky ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine as do Eastern Ukraine’s separatist forces. Russia has right to deploy military forces wherever it deems within its borders. Moscow has rejected claims that it is posing a threat to any other country. Nonetheless, the Kremlin said the deteriorating security conditions in Eastern Ukraine (the Donbass) may oblige it to defend ethnic Russians facing a criminal offensive.

Although the highest tension is now cooling down by Russia’s announcement of ending the military drills and drawing the troops back to their home bases, the general hostility has not disappeared, on the contrary. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu declared at the end of May that responding to the actions of NATO countries, led by the United States, in the western strategic direction, the Russian Defense Ministry will create around 20 new formations and military units in the Western Military District by the end of the year. Russian troops of the Western Military District will receive around 2000 new units of equipment.

Shoigu emphasized that NATO’s military threat near Russian borders is growing as the alliance is increasing the intensity of strategic aviation flights, the presence of warships with cruise missiles, and the number of exercises expanding the scope of operational and combat training near the borders of Russia. Recent news leaks regarding US and NATO preparation plans for war with Russia (detailed plans of offensives against Kaliningrad, Crimea, land assault via Baltic to Russia etc.) are apt to increase mutual mistrust and risk of escalating military strain.

Present front lines

An old saying discloses that “one picture can tell more than thousand words.” Military-strategic balance of great powers can be considered also geo-spatially, where locations of adversary’s military bases in relation to each great power tell the overall military pressure targeted each player respectively.

When looking at those maps below, what do you see on these maps?

Plenty of US / NATO military bases encircle / surround / block China and Russia

… but when looking down here, no foreign military bases around the US.

Clausewitz is not required here to conclude the geospatial military postures of each great power, which one is offensive and which one is defensive. But . . . thinking of unthinkable.

Imagine, if Russia and China doing the same to the United States by establishing a military alliance with Mexico or Cuba and establishing large number of military bases with plenty of equipment there. We saw what happened with Khrushchev and Cuba in 1960s!

When examining broader geographical context, Middle East is full of powder kegs and political tectonics are moving swiftly there as well as Taiwan Strait or on South China Sea, where “freedom of navigation” can trigger flames at any time. But finally, we come to the question, where is the ultimate red line?

Arctic front line

My assessment is up north in the Arctic, the region, where Russia has huge natural resources, where China’s interests are growing (oil, gas, trade, Arctic Silk Road etc.), where profitable trade routes and data cable routes will situate, where Russia has strongest military fortifications and best know-how in Arctic issues (ice breaking, war fighting in Arctic environment etc.). When the US & NATO enter this region, they will face the ultimate red line of combined Russia & China there.

The Arctic region is a shared region and a potential corridor for strategic competition. Within the region there exists a multi-layered international partnerships and alliances, including the European Union (EU) member states, NATO members, the Arctic Council (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US), the Arctic Five (an ad hoc, non-binding group of the five Arctic littoral states: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, the US.), the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (all 8 Arctic nations participate) and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (all but Russia participate). These overlapping relationships and organizations complicate the geopolitics of the region. Current international disputes focus on maritime boundary claims and economic rights.

The eight nations of the Arctic Council have sovereign territorial claims in the region. While China does not possess land above the Arctic Circle, it considers itself a “Near-Arctic Nation” and, since 2014, holds observer status at the Arctic Council. The Arctic is becoming a potential contested space where great power rivals, the US, Russia and China, seek to use military and economic power to gain and maintain access to the region.

The environment and nature are often cited as the greatest adversary to Arctic operations. Extreme temperatures, long periods of darkness and extended daylight, high-latitudes, seasonal challenging and changing terrain, and rapidly changing weather patterns define Arctic conditions. The impacts of increasingly frequent and intense winter storms increase risk, and near-term variability in the physical environment exposes military forces and capabilities to unpredictable levels of risk.

As climate change makes the Arctic more accessible, global interest in the region’s natural resources, its navigation routes and its strategic position has grown among members of the Arctic Council as well as China. As ice cover in the Arctic decreases, Russia is hoping to make use of the Northern Sea Route shipping channel to export oil and gas to overseas markets. Russia has invested heavily to develop the route, which allows ships to cut the journey to Asian ports by 15 days compared with using the traditional Suez Canal route.

There are four drivers of great power competition in the Arctic: (1) military developments, (2) energy resources and minerals, (3) transportation, and (4) food security.

• Military. The Arctic is essential to Russia’s military power. China has described the Arctic as a new strategic frontier, where there is “undetermined sovereignty,” suggesting a justification for access and presence in the high North. Sovereign ambiguity allows China to justify access to the region and potentially utilize military means to do so.

• Energy and Minerals. According to estimates, the Arctic is home to 13% of the world’s oil and 30% of the world’s natural gas reserves. Additionally, the Arctic has vast deposits of base metals (aluminum, copper, iron, nickel and tin), precious metals and stones (gold, platinum, silver and diamonds), uranium and other minerals as well as rare earth metals.

• Transportation. As sea ice extent recedes to record low levels, there is interest in exploring the potential for new trans-Arctic shipping routes, possible future highways of maritime commerce. All routes cut the travel time between Europe and Asia while avoiding maritime chokepoints including the Strait of Malacca, the Bab al Mandeb and the Suez Canal.

• Food Security. New fishing opportunities are an economic resource to both Arctic and non-Arctic states. Thick, multi-year ice, fishing moratoriums and regional fisheries organizations have kept commercial fishing in sub-Arctic and Arctic waters to a minimum.

Russian activities in the Arctic

The Arctic will be significant for Russian economic development in the coming decades. Russia is taking actions to assert dominance as the country with the largest amount of land above the Arctic Circle and is defending its historic right to rule over the Far North, securing its territorial interests against those of NATO-aligned states.  Moscow submitted a claim in 2001, revised in 2015, to extend its continental shelf northward from the boundaries delineated in the United Nations Convention Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Russia handed in new claims including 1.2 million square kilometers of sea shelf in the Arctic in 2015.

Extending its claim is a part of Russia’s latest Arctic strategy, which looks to extend its Exclusive Economic Zone claim to the continental shelf. Observers say Denmark, Canada and Russia plan to come to an agreement as overlapping claimants on the terms of Arctic delineation by 2024. Recent reports indicated that Russia is staging massive Arctic maneuvers and is amassing new military bases and testing advanced weapons on its Arctic coastline.

Beginning in 2010, Russia has invested over $1 billion to refurbish 13 airfields, enhance search and rescue capabilities and upgrade radar stations to improve awareness in the air and maritime domains, including S-400, Bastion-P, Pantsir-S1 and Sopka-2 radar and air defense systems. These systems create a “protective dome” across Russia’s vast Arctic coastline and improve its overall operational ability to detect and track vessels and aircraft. These systems give Russia almost complete coverage of its northern coastline and adjacent waters as well as increased power projection capabilities in the Barents Sea highlighting its ability to deny aerial, maritime or land access to NATO or US forces.

Russian Defense Ministry’s military construction complex has built about 800 buildings and structures in the Arctic since 2013. Russia is refurbishing Soviet-era airfields and radar installations, constructing new ports and search-and-rescue centers, and building up its fleet of nuclear- and conventionally-powered icebreakers. Russia is testing new systems in the Arctic like Poseidon UUV, Rezonans-N radars, ZALA drones and the SWIR (short-wave infrared) camera.

As a show of force in Arctic capability, three Russian nuclear-powered submarines simultaneously surfaced from under the ice at a distance of up to 300 meters from each other for the first time in history during Arctic drills in March 2021. Russia’s supersonic fighter MiG-31BM destroyed targets (as simulating bombers) with hypersonic missiles in the stratosphere in the Arctic Circle. The target was attacked from a height of about 20.000 meters and at a speed of Mach 2.5. The “enemy” was destroyed at a distance of several hundreds of kilometers.

China’s interests

For China the Arctic will be a necessary source for energy and manufacturing, transportation and food security diversification. China began to normalize its presence in the Arctic almost two decades ago under the auspices of scientific exploration by signing the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty (Svalbard Treaty) and opened its first scientific research station in 2004 in the region.

China launched the Polar Silk Road Initiative in 2018, by investing in infrastructure development in Far North communities. China aims to preserve its sovereign rights to the region by means of discovery, continual presence and influence. China has expressed interest in building transcontinental and cross-border data cables to facilitate highspeed data transfer between Europe and Asia.

A confluence of economic, energy and political interests have led to accelerated Russian and Chinese cooperation in the Arctic, as highlighted by some huge energy projects (like the Yamal LNG Project). China’s increased physical presence in the Arctic, combined with Russia’s growing economic and military ambitions in the region, highlight how both nations have long-term strategic designs for the Arctic.


Since 2014, the US has chosen definitely a wrong Grand Strategy both from theoretical point of view (see for example Monteiro 2014, Allison 2017, Mearsheimer 2018) and from practical, foreign political point of view (Biden’s grand strategy: a mix of value signaling and aggression representing a dangerous political-military combination).

The US goal setting in great power relations is unrealistic as a whole. The recently unveiled defense budget by the Biden administration to counter the threats from China and Russia is indicating that the defense spending of Washington is an unrealistic way for the US government to successfully curb two major powers at the same time. The budget proposal does not have bipartisan consensus and some Democrats complained the request is too high, yet Republicans consider the budget proposal does not go farther enough, claiming that the US president is sacrificing national security.

The real question in a larger geopolitical context should be, whether growth in military spending to counter China and Russia can have any real consequences. Chinese and Russian experts raised this question, as Washington continues adding up costs in curbing the world’s two major powers on global affairs, is it really worth it and is it a realistic goal? China and Russia, as two permanent members of the UN Security Council, have a significant stake in regional and global security affairs, meanwhile they share a full-scale comprehensive strategic partnership in the new era, thus the US would find it almost impossible to exclude these two countries from a number of international issues.

There is a close parallel in the way the Biden administration is escalating tensions with Russia and China, the use of proxies Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively. Washington is keeping claims that Russia and China are threatening its allies which, in turn, provides a pretext for the US to step up its own provocative actions. The bigger picture for all of this is the geopolitical great game which Washington sees as a zero-sum challenge. This narrative is studied in many of my articles and blogs on this website.

Biden’s sleepwalking in Europe… and elsewhere

Biden’s administration seems not to realize that Russia is the other of two great nuclear powers and currently the only adversary power that can destroy the whole US and kill tens of millions of Americans in short order and this is not the extreme overstatement but the pure military fact. China will be capable with the similar power far in the late 2030s. There are at least 4-5 known mistake or misinterpretation of intentions in history that could have led to a catastrophic accident between America and Russia. If the US is to confront Russia, it should be over something of existential importance. The case of Ukraine today seems highly risky with limited or zero benefit for the US and certainly is not of existential importance.

The US, with its European servants, has long sought to include Ukraine into NATO, although Ukraine is deeply divided country and nation, at least 3-4 different parts. This issue has been behind a lot of the problems the US has had with Russia during the post-Cold War era. Ukraine is an area of pivotal strategic importance to Russia. Not only is access to its Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol important but Ukrainian territory was used by the Nazis for part of their invasion to Russia during WW II. This feeds into Russia’s historic sense of insecurity as well mental bonds between Russia and Ukraine, critical to Russian self-conception, going back far in the history.

Therefore, it has been a huge strategic error to keep Ukrainian NATO membership a live issue for so many years and in the face of shifting geo- and military political winds. By spending much time and resources in confronting Russia over Ukraine, the US leaves much more freedom to Chinese operations in Asia and elsewhere. Getting bogged down in Europe would afford China an excellent opportunity to exploit American basket weaving in Europe. Given China’s rise in the economically essential East Asia, its growing clout and constantly improving military, this is a more essential challenge for the United States than any Russian affair in Europe.

Further, East Asia represents the locus of the future balance of global power and is thus an arena of far greater strategic concern than Ukraine. If China is able to create a situation where it has a “de facto veto” over US actions in the East and South China Seas, something like a seizure of Taiwan, it would have secured for itself a Sino-centric order in Asia and beyond for far in the future. This would have far more calamitous long-term economic and political fallout for the United States than the status of Ukraine.

This kind of consideration requires serious-minded assessments by US leaders. However, instead of true assessments, President Joe Biden is calling Putin a “killer” and offering a possible blank check to Ukraine for their own military adventurism without noticing the strong neo-Nazi movement in Ukraine.

American present grand strategy states clearly “avoiding the rise of any Eurasian hegemonic power or concert of powers” but a Sino-Russian axis is already becoming America’s ultimate geopolitical nightmare. China’s long-standing BRI is already knitting Eurasia together under Beijing’s economic clout as has been illustrated most recently with the China-Iran deal.

Allowing for China a freer hand to consolidate its Asian gains and concentrating on “European basket weaving” will only exacerbate this nightmare and would be an example of failed grand strategy. The American society should demand something better than the simplistic, moralistic and ultimately naive thinking and behavior on display in Washington right now. The US leaders risk sleepwalking into a grand strategic meltdown that they may not be able to fix.