Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A word on the inexorable eastward shift in the global military balance

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies released its annual Military Balance report yesterday to some fanfare in the British press. (And unless you want to spend ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-EIGHT POUNDS to download the actual pdf, you'll have to depend on media reports and the Institute's own press release to summarize the contents.) In a representative example, Reuters' write-up is headlined "East-West military gap rapidly shrinking: report."
Western cuts and swiftly rising defense spending in emerging economies are redrawing the global strategic map, a leading think-tank said on Tuesday, with the danger of conflicts between states also rising.
In its annual Global Military Balance report, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said the shift in economic power was already beginning to have a real military effect and closing any strategic gap.
"Western states' defense budgets are under pressure and their military procurement is constrained," said IISS director general John Chipman. "But in other regions -- notably Asia and the Middle East -- military spending and arms acquisitions are booming. There is persuasive evidence that a global redistribution of military power is under way."
The Drudge Report later tweeted the Reuters piece, but otherwise the report's release made barely a ripple in the American media. This comes as a bit of a surprise to me, seeing as the Retuers headline alone seems such perfect fodder for the defense defenders.

What of it, then? Are you persuaded by Chipman's "persuasive evidence that a global redistribution of military power is under way"? If so, should we be worried?

Before we get to discussions of "military power," we ought to talk about the raw numbers: spending. Should we be spooked that western defense budgets are continuing their steady decline in most cases, while those of China and several other developing countries are increasing? Well, for one thing, we can't treat "the west and the rest" as differentiated, analytically meaningful groups. Most people are going to focus on China, and that's fair enough. But several of the other big spenders cited in the report -- India, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Colombia, and the GCC countries, for example -- are U.S. allies or partners. Furthermore, a significant share of the cash they're pouring into military modernization will end up in the coffers of western defense industries, helping to sustain the industrial base necessary to field equipment to the U.S. military in a relatively expeditious and cost-effective (meh, ok, not really) manner. We ought to keep some perspective on this when considering the "shifting East-West military gap."

As for China: we see a lot of talk about threatening annual growth in Chinese defense spending, with estimates ranging from sustained yearly increases of perhaps 7% to over 12%. I'd suggest this is only natural and concommitant with the broader growth of China's economy and national aspirations (particularly those associated with efforts to sustain the supply of natural resources helping to fuel that economic growth). But, dude, they're a developing country. Double-digit increases in growth are impressive, no doubt, whether you're talking about economic growth or budget growth. I'm hesitant to draw an imperfect parallel from another putatively communist country almost a century ago, but I'm going to do so anyway. You know where else I've seen double-digit economic growth over the course of a decade? During the first couple Soviet Five-Year Plans. They grew their economy by 12 or 13% a year through much of the 1930s. And you know where they were at the end of that? Still an economic midget compared to the U.S. Why? Because it's pretty simple to create growth by aggressively industrializing and modernizing a largely agrarian economy, one that was starting out on a pretty low rung of the ol' economic development ladder. The same is roughly true of modernizing a massive, reasonably unsophisticated "people's army" (especially as of 1989, when spending increases really jumped). Like I said, Soviet economic growth is an imperfect parallel for China's military spending, but I think there's a lesson here: you can throw a whole bunch of money at mud huts and show dramatic, impressive "growth," but I'll still take the city with the glass and steel skyscrapers chugging along at zero real growth.

But let's stipulate for a second that aggressive spending plans are significant to the discussion, and that we ought to care about tanks and planes and submarines. What exactly is military power, and how do the numbers figure in? Chipman doesn't give his own definition, but we can presume that any assessments based on a reading of what the press release calls "an increasingly detailed record of the numerical indicators of the military strength of an expanding number of states" will be necessarily quantitative in nature.
Thus, using The Military Balance, it is possible to make time-series comparisons over many years of states’ defence spending, military personnel numbers, and equipment holdings. But it is entirely valid to ask how much this tells us about real military capabilities: the ability of states to deter potential adversaries and, if necessary, to deploy and use military force effectively.

The IISS already includes substantial qualitative analysis in The Military Balance, in order to strengthen its utility to those assessing military capability. For example, for many air forces we indicate the number of flying hours per operational pilot. We include a table showing selected major military exercises and training activities. We provide extensive narrative surveys for each region, which among other things highlight national efforts to develop military capability.

We recognise, though, that The Military Balance could more systematically take account of a fuller range of factors contributing to contemporary national military capabilities. Specifically, we plan in future editions to assess key states’ capacities in areas such as logistics and combat support, C4ISR, training, joint-service operations, and interoperability with allies. In that light, we expect to increase country-specific narrative capability assessment significantly from next year onwards. At the same time, we are reconsidering the categories of equipment that we list in the context of their contribution to military capability.
This is a very important qualifying statement, and it's heartening to see the report's authors acknowledging its qualitative limitations. In the acquisition and materiel world, people have a habit of using the word "capability" to refer to a piece of gear. It's easy to forget that a weapon system only translates into a warfighting capability when that piece of gear is nested into a comprehensive framework for its employment, one that takes into account training, doctrine, organization, and so on. (This is what the U.S. DoD refers to as the DOTMLPF construct (pronounced "DOT-muhl-pee-eff"; yes, seriously) -- for Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and education, Personnel, and Facilities.). To put this another way, if you give two different organizations the same piece of kit, they won't necessarily be able to employ the same capability.

Why this digression? Because I think it's important when you're looking at a bunch of whiz-bang charts showing numbers of big hull ships and armored vehicles and fighter/bombers to remember that existence in the arsenal does not equal fightability. So while we can certainly say that there's a global redistribution of military spending, we should be careful not to draw unsupported conclusions about relative military power.

Let's take a gander at what I think might be the most interesting feature of the materials that were publically released (for FREE, that is) by IISS yesterday: a graphic comparing U.S. aircraft assets with those of our NATO allies.
Take a look for yourself, but let me highlight some numbers I think are significant:
Total number of heavy transport aircraft: U.S. 285; European NATO allies 16.
Total number of tankers and multi-role tanker/transport aircraft: U.S. 538; Europeans 72.
Total number of heavy transport helicopters: U.S. 632; Europeans 205.
Total number of medium transport helicopters: U.S. 2090; Europeans 633.
That's 18 times as many heavy transports, seven times as many tankers, and three and a half times as many medium and heavy lift helos. Whether you're talking about inter- or intra-theater, operational or tactical transport, the U.S. is still absolutely essential to NATO. You can obviously do a bunch of analysis with just these few numbers and draw a lot of conclusions about strategy, policy, and spending -- the Europeans don't spend enough; the Europeans are too dependent on U.S. lift assets and this highlights a flaw in both concepts and procurement strategy; the U.S. has made a good/bad decision in making itself indispensable to NATO efforts to conduct out-of-area operations; etc. -- but one thing you cannot do is take a chart like this, change the row names to "country A" and "country B" to avoid all the geopolitics inherent in this kind of hypothetical, and then assume that country A is going to kick country B's ass in a war because it's got more of X and Y.

Which brings us back to relative military power: from a strategic planning perspective, comparative measures aren't particularly useful. We should more appropriately be asking "what is X country's capability to perform this particular mission?" Frankly, it doesn't matter one damn bit whether China achieves parity in global military power with the U.S. next year, ten years from now, in a century, or never. What does matter is when Chinese capabilities begin to meaningfully impinge upon the USG's ability to accomplish its desired ends in a particular theater, the most important of which, of course, is probably Northeast Asia/the Western Pacific. You could argue that this is already happening, and that the pace at which this is happening is accelerating. That's a much more important piece of analysis than simply projecting that Chinese defense spending will match the U.S. budget in real terms within a certain number of years.

Hopefully that's some food for thought. (Wish I didn't have to chip in three Benjamins to get more to chew on!)


  1. Very well put. Your point at the end is especially pertinent. Just looking at the balance of military spending totally ignores not just qualitative differences in training, logistics, coordination, etc. It also totally ignores the context of the way states can actually use their military power, as mediated by the strategic geography, the political objectives of the states, and the doctrines each side is using.

    In this sense, China could spend far much less than us, and on different systems, and threaten our interests far more than if they tried to simply match US capabilities.

    (My university library has old copies of these reports from ~2007 or so and before, alas)

  2. "Just looking at the balance of military spending totally ignores not just qualitative differences in training, logistics, coordination, etc."

    I always found a good back-of-a-fag-packet way of accommodating for this deficiency was to divide military spending by active manpower, thus arriving at a budget/squaddie metric.

    I used it here:

    Of course it isn't perfect, but it adds to the picture.