Don’t assume the US will fight China and Russia one at a time

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China and Russia last week conducted their first-ever joint naval patrol in the Western Pacific following a combined exercise in the Sea of ​​Japan, underscoring deepening defense cooperation between key US competitors . While US military planners have long hoped and often assumed that any conflict with China and Russia could arise one by one, this assumption is increasingly questionable and even dangerous.

If the Biden administration is to develop an effective 2022 national defense strategy and build up the U.S. defense capability and the capability that U.S. interests need, the administration must abandon outdated assumptions and recognize that the U.S. could simultaneously face the challenges. Chinese and Russian military forces.

Anyone skeptical of the claim should consider Joint Sea 2021, an annual combined naval exercise that China and Russia conducted from October 14-17. The Russians provided a Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyer, two Steregushchy-class corvettes, two coastal-type minesweepers, a Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarine and a missile boat. China sent a large Type 055 destroyer, which would have served as a command ship, plus a Type 052D destroyer, two Type 054A frigates, a diesel submarine and a supply ship. A contingent of naval aviation comprising 12 Chinese and Russian planes and helicopters also participated. The exercise apparently marked the first time that a Chinese heavy destroyer and anti-submarine warfare aircraft participated in an overseas exercise.

During the first stage of the exercise, Russian minesweepers escorted Russian and Chinese warships into the Sea of ​​Japan. The warships then fired artillery at fictitious floating mines and at a towed target simulating a surface warship. They also practiced air defense, with the opposing force played by Russian Su-30SM multirole fighters and naval helicopters. In a clear indication that both armies view US submarine capabilities as a major concern, Russian and Chinese ships, supported by anti-submarine planes, also tracked down and trapped a simulated enemy submarine.

Once the exercise was over, the Chinese and Russian warships together crossed the Tsugaru Strait – another first – before descending the east coast of Japan and returning to China via the Osumi Strait. They were joined by the Russian-class destroyer Udaloy Admiral Tributs, which Moscow claimed days earlier to have driven out the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Chafee for allegedly violating Russian waters closed for Joint Sea 2021 (a claim disputed by the US Navy). Chinese state media said the combined patrol “sends a warning to Japan as well as the United States, which has gathered allies to confront China and Russia.”

These developments follow another combined exercise this summer that underscored the growing confidence and military interoperability of China and Russia. The exercise, Sibu / Interaction-2021, held in north-central China in August, included more than 10,000 troops and marked the first time that Russian forces participated in a Chinese strategic exercise.

Chinese and Russian forces are said to have operated for the first time under a joint command, using a specially designed “Joint Command Information System”. Russian Su-30SM multirole fighters, motorized rifle troops and a special forces unit integrated into Chinese formations, training to improve their capabilities of “joint reconnaissance, search and early warning, information attack electronic and joint strike, ”according to the Chinese Defense Ministry. China’s fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighter is said to have made its first appearance in an international exercise. Russian forces first used modern Chinese equipment (ZTL-11 infantry support vehicles and ZBL-08 armored personnel carriers) exercise last year.


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In addition to strengthening operational and tactical interoperability, Sibu / Interaction-2021 allowed the two armies to share valuable lessons. Beijing’s relatively inexperienced army had the opportunity to learn from Russia’s combat experience in Syria and elsewhere. The Russian Defense Ministry noted that Chinese and Russian officers were relying on “the experience [from] modern armed conflicts ”while jointly planning the simulated counterterrorism operation of the exercise.

Even though the Chinese and Russian military have more work to do in terms of combined capabilities and operations, the increasing frequency of military exercises suggests a worrying level of strategic coordination between the major opposing US powers. Contrary to claims by some academics and policymakers that China-Russia relations are merely superficial or tactical in nature, their strategic alignment appears to be deepening. This is of particular concern given the massive modernization efforts of both armies, which are eroding the US advantage.

Chinese defense spending has skyrocketed as Beijing strives to complete military modernization by 2035 and deploy what Xi Jinping has called “world-class forces” that can dominate and “fight Asia-Pacific” and win “world wars by 2049. China has built at least 12 nuclear-powered submarines and commissioned its first nationally-built aircraft carrier in 2019, with a second expected to enter service by 2023.

The Russian military, on the other hand, is more capable, 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, counter-space and unmanned capabilities. Additionally, the two countries are aggressively deploying a modernized nuclear triad that can target 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 rules-based international order led by the United States.

The fallout with the West following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014 led Moscow to accelerate its pivot to Beijing. China participated in Russia’s strategic synthesis exercises in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and conducted joint strategic air patrols in Northeast Asia in 2019 and 2020.

Governments have also pledged to increase arms sales. From 2016 to 2020, Russia supplied 77% of China’s total arms imports, including equipment such as the fourth-generation advanced fighters Su-35 and SAM S-400 systems. As China’s defense industry progresses, Beijing and Moscow may move towards co-developing some systems. In 2019, Putin said Russia was helping China build a missile early warning system.

In fact, the US intelligence community assessed in 2019 that “China and Russia are more aligned than at any time since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to grow stronger.”

So what should be done?

At the grand strategic level, the Americans should note that Beijing and Moscow value military partners. The United States should do it too. As China and Russia become more aligned, America will need its allies and partners more than ever.

At the strategic and operational levels, the Pentagon should urgently assess relevant war and emergency plans. Even without prior coordination, it is entirely plausible that Beijing or Moscow could exploit a military crisis involving the other power to pursue its own objectives in the Taiwan Strait or in Eastern Europe, respectively.

Any plans that assume that the United States will face only one high-powered adversary at a time should be reviewed and updated without delay. Any additional capacity and baseline requirements identified should inform ongoing program and budget discussions.

Such an assessment would almost certainly indicate the need for greater US military capability, requiring at least 3-5% real annual growth in the defense budget. It should be noted that this is exactly what the 2018 National Defense Strategy Biparty Commission recommended.

Whether the Pentagon actually gets the money to fund its updated war plans is ultimately, of course, a decision of Congress. Either way, the Pentagon has a responsibility to inform political leaders and policymakers if war plans are increasingly out of touch with reality and based on questionable assumptions.

Changing realities are expected to inform not only US war plans but also the Biden administration’s 2022 national defense strategy, the administration’s defense budget request for fiscal 2023, capacity assessments needed by the US military and the advanced US military position in the Indo-Pacific. and European.

After all, in light of the growing anti-access and area denial capabilities of China and Russia, it was already risky to assume that the US military could unchallenged and swiftly ramp up its forces. Continental United States to the Baltic States or the Taiwan Strait. If these US-based response forces were needed in both locations simultaneously, then the US military would have an even bigger problem.

One such potential scenario emphasizes building additional US and Allied military capabilities and capabilities that are forward positioned in both Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

Beijing and Moscow dramatically increase the power of their armies as well as their strategic coordination. The Americans and our allies would do well to be careful and act on it.

Bradley Bowman is the Senior Director of the Defense of Democracies Foundation’s Center on Military and Political Power.

John Hardie is research director at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Zane Zovak is a research analyst in the China Program of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Center for Military and Political Power.


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