New Report Notes Erosion of Pentagon’s Technological Advantage

Expect China’s air-to-air combat capabilities to get a boost in the next 12 months when the PL-15, an extended-range air-to-air missile, comes online. Expect China’s air-to-air combat capabilities to get a boost in the next 12 months when the PL-15, an extended-range air-to-air missile, comes online. Chen Qingshun/China Military Online

The U.S.’s latest national security documents aren’t alone in warning that many of the technical military advantages America and its allies have taken for granted the last two decades are eroding. More evidence is marshalled in the latest edition of The Military Balance, an annual quantitative assessment of the world’s armed forces by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank.

“The second thing that comes out of the data in The Military Balance is that the great powers are getting ready for great-power wars,” said IISS Deputy Director-General Kori Schake. “That too, is a recent phenomenon, and one that I think we're still limbering up our minds about.”

With that in mind, here are four things — some threats to the West’s military supremacy, others possible solutions to those threats — to watch in 2018 and the coming years.

Expect China’s air-to-air combat capabilities to get a boost in the next 12 months. Its first long-range air-to-air missile a decade ago, but the PL-12 was more of a “transitional weapon” as Beijing shifted from buying Russian missiles to building its own, said Douglas Barrie, a IISS military aerospace analyst. Barrie says it’s very likely that the much-improved follow-on, the PL-15, will come online in 2018 or early 2019.

That’s significant for two reasons: The PL-15 almost certainly has an active electronically scanned radar seeker, a capability only a handful of nations have. Moreover, the upgraded missile has a notably longer range than its predecessor, one that spells trouble for American jets even 60 or 70 kilometers away. A plane “pulling a 9G-maneuver against the current generation weapon has a reasonable chance of survival; against the PL-15-class weapon, it becomes much, much more difficult,” Barrie said.

Armed drones are proliferating, despite U.S. efforts. Even if a war with China or Russia never comes, the world is getting more dangerous, thanks in part to those countries’ efforts to grow their defense industries and influence abroad.

China alone has now exported armed drones to nine different countries, according to The Military Balance. That includes nations — even strong partners of the U.S. — with whom America declined to share the technology, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan and Nigeria.

Coupled with the declining cost of militarily useful technologies, exports like these mean that “previously low-risk environments for deployed Western troops will have to be reassessed for future operational environments,” said James Hackett, who edits the annual IISS report.

Europe is improving its joint defense research and development. Last year, the European Union agreed to start the European Defence Fund with 90 million euros ($111 million) between 2017 and 2019 to develop “innovative defence technologies and products” — a step European leaders hailed as “historic.” The first projects were awarded last week.

If the initiative's second phase is fully funded starting in 2020, the EU would become the fourth-largest spender on R&D on the continent, behind France, the U.K., and Germany. That’s coupled with a coordinated annual review, intended to better align countries’ defense planning processes. And at the end of last year, 25 European countries also signed onto the Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, an agreement to collectively develop security capabilities.

“The key question about any of this is will these political and financial incentives for more collaboration generate new multinational projects? Because that is really what was absent from the last 10-15 years — you just didn't have any significant ones,” said Bastian Giegerich, who directs defense and military analysis at IISS.

But determining whether longstanding military advantages exist is only going to get harder.  It’s one thing to look at the number of ships a potential adversary is putting into the water and say your advantage is eroding. For example, China’s new naval tonnage over the last four years nearly matches the entire British Royal Navy. But assessing a competitor’s asymmetric capabilities presents a whole other problem.

How do various countries’ cyber capabilities stack up? You can compare allocated funds, or perhaps assigned personnel. But that doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about what those countries can actually do in the cyber domain, Giegerich said.

And in the era of the airborne IED and swarming drones, small platforms are increasingly relevant pieces of an adversary’s arsenal. But tracking them another matter; it’d be like trying to compare countries’ military might by toting up their small arms.

“The way we've managed to do unmanned aerial vehicles more broadly is to adopt the NATO Joint Air Power Competence Centre study on weight,” Giegerich said. “So we weren't doing under 20 kilograms, because they're just too ubiquitous — we don't do small arms and light weapons, because they're everywhere. We would spend all our time chasing those data points.”

But it’s “certainly an issue,” he said. “Commercially available technologies … and empowered individuals have the power to affect military balances.”

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