The Pentagon's effective use of drones, global positioning systems and advanced radars for years has made the U.S military a mighty superpower that could exert its dominance across the globe. But recent cuts in the U.S. military budget and China's continuing military buildup have threatened the Pentagon’s position as a technological leader in defense amid increasingly tense relations between Washington and Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was slated Tuesday to begin his official state visit to the U.S. While issues such as cybersecurity, Chinese sovereignty in the South China Sea, trade and investment were expected to dominate discussions, China’s military, which has successfully harnessed decades of economic growth to become the second-biggest military spender in the world, will likely be a subtext to the visit. Recent advances in submarine and missile technology and the growth of the country's once dilapidated navy, have enabled China to significantly close the military technology gap between itself and the U.S., prompting political and military leaders in Washington to scramble for new solutions to keep it ahead of the competition.
“The technological capabilities China has developed have been really impressive and completely across the board,” said Eric Heginbotham, a senior political scientist specializing in East Asian security issues at the Washington global policy think tank Rand Corp. “For example, in aviation they went from second-generation fighters, versions of 1950s designs, to fourth-generation advanced fighters. Today they have as many as 800 modern fighters, which is quite an evolution over the course of 10 or 12 years.”
China's Military Surge
China's ascent to becoming a top military country has not been by chance. As the Chinese economy averaged year-over-year economic growth of around 9.5 percent over the past two decades, its military spending also rose sharply. In 2015, for example, China increased its defense budget by 10.1 percent to $145 billion, making it the second-biggest military spender in the world, behind the U.S. and ahead of Russia, according to a New York Times report. In contrast, China’s defense budget was around $10 billion in 1997.
Along with the rise in spending capability, China is also educating more engineers than ever before, who are quickly populating the country's growing government-run defense sector, Heginbotham said. Less than 10 years ago, China would have struggled to command the waters off its own coast, but now Beijing has developed ballistic missiles capable of reaching nearly every corner of the United States. Meanwhile, the country's navy is attempting to impose its will in the South China Sea by creating islands that it hopes will boost its military presence in the region and give it sovereignty over the sea lanes, rich fishing grounds and energy reserves in the area.
“They’re developing and fielding new and advanced aircraft and ballistic, cruise, anti-ship and anti-air missiles that are longer-range and more accurate,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said last week while giving a speech at the Air Force Association’s annual conference outside of Washington. “It’s evident that nations like Russia and China have been pursuing military modernization programs to close the technology gap with the United States. They’re developing platforms designed to thwart our traditional advantages of power projection and freedom of movement.”
A recent Rand report concluded that any technological advantages the U.S. military still has over China’s military would be counterbalanced if the two country's were to clash in the Asia-Pacific region. That’s highly significant to the U.S., given that the Pentagon has been attempting to make a strategic military shift to the region since 2012.
Xi, leader of China's Communist Party, is expected to use the trip to the U.S. to improve his standing in China, where economic growth has stalled in recent months. While the specifics of defense are not on the agenda for the White House visit, Communist Party officials and Obama's administration are expected to make progress on climate change and trade issues, according to a New York Times report. However, it's unlikely that the two leaders will see eye to eye on cybersecurity or the contentious building of islands in the South China Sea, which the U.S. has asked China to stop.
The Chinese leader's visit begins Tuesday in Seattle and then moves to the White House Friday before he travels to New York a day later for a speech at the United Nations. He will depart in the evening of Sept. 28.
U.S. Military Decline
While the U.S. has been the leading country for developing the most significant and important military technology since the 1950s, big cutbacks in military research and development in recent years have given defense leaders cause for concern. Long before the forced sequestration of 2013, which cut $1.2 trillion evenly from the country’s budget, research and development spending, the U.S. military had suffered significant cutbacks. Since 2005, the Pentagon has cut research and development spending by as much as 22 percent, prompting President Barack Obama’s administration to declare it “deeply destructive to national security.”
“The sequester for the U.S. military has been quite disruptive,” Heginbotham said. “Reductions are to be expected since the country is drawing down from the long wars in the Middle East, but the sequester has caused a lot of harm.”
A November 2014 report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit public policy think tank based in Washington, outlined the scale of the cuts. The Army and the Missile Defense Agency have had their technology budgets cut by nearly half in a decade, while the Navy has seen a 20 percent reduction over the same period. Even the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an organization whose sole task is to keep the U.S. military ahead of the technological curve, has had to slash spending by 18 percent. The Air Force, meanwhile, has cut 4 percent from its technology budget in recent years.
China's rise to military prominence has prompted U.S. military leaders to embrace a new strategic plan to keep the U.S. technologically ahead of the competition. In November, Chuck Hagel, the secretary of defense preceding Carter, made a keynote speech where he said that the Pentagon would begin what he called the “third offset strategy,” which follows two previous large-scale military strategies launched in the 1950s and 1970s that attempted to deal with the strength of Soviet forces and then a lack of technological innovation in the U.S. military.
“Our technology effort will establish a new Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program that will help identify, develop and field breakthroughs in the most cutting-edge technologies and systems -- especially from the fields of robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data and advanced manufacturing, including 3D printing. This program will look toward the next decade and beyond," Hagel said in the speech at the Reagan National Defense Forum in November 2014.
But even military leaders admit more needs to be done.
"China’s military modernization has the potential to reduce core U.S. military technological advantages," the Department of Defense noted in its annual report to Congress published in April.