The China Syndrome

On February 4, President Bush announced a baseline military budget of $515.4 billion for the next fiscal year, not including funds for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the largest one-year Pentagon request in real, uninflated dollars since World War II. This Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 figure represents a 7.5% increase over the 2008 appropriation of $479.5 billion and is expected to be the first of many rising requests supposedly needed to replace equipment lost and damaged in Iraq and to gear up for the security threats to come. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen explained last October, “we’re just going to have to devote more resources to national security in the world we’re living in right now.”

At first glance, all these additional funds will be used to sustain the Global War on Terror (GWOT, in Pentagon shorthand) and replace equipment destroyed or rendered inoperable in the wars now under way. “The Fiscal Year 2009 Defense budget request sustains the President’s commitment to growing U.S. ground forces that are needed to prevail in the current conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan,” a Pentagon press release notes. Additional funds are allocated for “Operations, Readiness, and Support” – troop training, replacement parts and equipment, combat supplies, and so on.

But a close examination of the FY 2009 request indicates that the principal sources of future budget growth are not the GWOT or other such low-intensity contingencies but rather preparation for all-out combat with a future superpower. Probe a little deeper into Pentagon thinking, and only one potential superpower emerges to justify all this vast spending: The People’s Republic of China.

Strategic Modernization

Not that China is actually mentioned in the public, unclassified budget documents. Rather, discussion is limited to the need to “invest in the strategic modernization necessary to meet current and future threats from land, sea, air, or space.” This entails both the procurement of advanced weapons and stepped-up research on promising technologies for eventual incorporation into future combat systems. To achieve these objectives, $183.3 billion is allocated for “strategic modernization” in FY 2009, representing the largest share (36%) of the overall budget.

Look closely at some of the most costly weapons being sought in FY 2009, and it rapidly becomes apparent that they are not designed to fight insurgent bands or Third World armies equipped with third-class weapons. Instead, they are designed to fight some imaginary successor to the USSR, a “peer competitor” equipped with a full complement of modern weapons. Among the items highlighted in the “strategic modernization” category are:

  • F-22 Raptor air-superiority fighter: The most advanced fighter aircraft in the world today. According to the budget request, “The F-22 penetrates enemy airspace and achieves first-look, first-kill capability against multiple targets. It has unprecedented survivability and lethality, ensuring that the Joint Forces have freedom from attack, freedom to maneuver, and freedom to attack.” (FY 2009 request: $4.1 billion for 20 aircraft.)
  • CVN-78 Advanced Aircraft Carrier: A futuristic replacement for the Nimitz-class vessels that now form the backbone of the U.S. carrier fleet. It will incorporate many new technologies, including a new nuclear propulsion plant, an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launching System, advanced radars, and other innovations. Among other functions, the new carrier is intended to “carry the war to the enemy through multi-mission offensive operations.” (The FY 2009 request of $4.2 billion for the first vessel includes long-lead time items for a second ship of this class, CVN-79.)
  • DDG-1000 Zumwalt-Class Destroyer: Armed with an array of missiles and employing the latest stealth technology, the DDG 1000 will be a “multi-mission surface combatant designed to fulfill volume firepower and precision strike requirements.” It will also serve as a test-bed for a new stealth cruiser, the CG(X). (FY 2009 request: $3.2 billion for one ship.)
  • Virginia-Class Submarine: A nuclear-powered submarine designed to replace the existing, Los Angeles-class ships in the U.S. submarine fleet and “provide the Navy with the capabilities to maintain undersea supremacy in the 21st century.” The Virginia class vessels “are able to attack targets ashore with Tomahawk cruise missiles and conduct covert long-term surveillance of land areas, littoral waters, or other sea-based forces.” (The FY 2009 request of $3.6 billion includes funding for one ship plus advance items for several others.)

Against whom are these super-sophisticated ships and planes intended to be deployed? Not Iran, which is still largely equipped with aging U.S. arms acquired in the 1970s during the reign of the former Shah. Not Syria or North Korea, both still equipped with Korean and Vietnam War-era Soviet castoffs. Not any of the other so-called rogue states against which President Bush has railed so often. In fact, it is impossible to conceive of any adversary with the capacity to engage the United States on anything approaching major-power status except China.

The China Threat

In their efforts to secure funding for all these costly new weapons, U.S. military officials – and their allies in Congress and the corporate world – have begun highlighting the China threat. When China successfully tested what Washington described as an anti-satellite missile last January, the threat-mongering kicked up a notch. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also cited this test as justification for an increase in Pentagon spending on space technology. “The department’s heavy reliance on space capabilities is clear to potential adversaries, some of whom are developing anti-satellite weapons,” he declared on February 6, in an obvious reference to China. “Protecting our assets in space is, therefore, a high priority.”

Supporters of the F-22 program have also hyped the China threat. “I’m trying to look beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m trying to look at what is the threat down the road,” said Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, chairman of the Defense Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee at an industry meeting in February. Murtha favors increased spending on the F-22, and he left no doubt in the minds of his listeners that China is the most likely “threat down the road” against which the extra fighters would be needed. In his efforts to promote the F-22, Murtha recently met with Secretary Gates, who told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 6 that the fighter “is principally for use against a near peer in a conflict, and I think we all know who that is.”

Just as the Department of Defense and its corporate allies often touted the “Soviet threat” during the Cold War period to stampede Congress and the American public into supporting ever-increasing spending on advanced weapons, so a hypothetical “China threat” will now be conjured up to achieve the same purpose in the post-Cold War era. With the U.S. public concerned over the rising costs of the Iraq war and other national priorities – health care, education, alternative energy development, the mortgage crisis, and so on – such threat amplification will become indispensable to ensure adequate funding for the Pentagon’s favored weapons programs.

Indeed, an early indication of this inevitable phenomenon was revealed on March 3, when the Department of Defense released its annual report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China. Compared to previous reports of the same title, it trumpeted a heightened effort by China to challenge America’s supremacy in a wide variety of military capabilities, especially naval, missile, and space warfare. In particular, the report warned of China’s “continued development of advanced cruise missiles, medium-range ballistic missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles designed to strike ships at sea, including aircraft carriers, and the January 2007 successful test of a direct ascent, anti-satellite weapon.” The report further chided the Chinese leadership for shielding the details of its military budget from scrutiny. “The lack of transparency in China’s military and security affairs poses risks to stability by increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation. This situation will naturally and understandably lead to hedging against the unknown” – an unmistakable call for increased U.S. military spending.

As the national debate over U.S. military spending intensifies, these sorts of claims are certain to be repeated with ever greater regularity and sense of alarm. It is not that Pentagon officials dislike the Chinese or believe that war with China is inevitable or even likely – they don’t. It’s just that they want to deploy ever more sophisticated weapons, and the only way to justify the acquisition of such costly munitions is to posit the existence of a superpower-like enemy. Because only China fits that role, it must be demonized as a potential adversary. Thus, even as U.S. trade with China increases, we could be thrust into a New Cold War simply to satisfy the institutional and financial objectives of what President Dwight D. Eisenhower once termed the military-industrial complex.

Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.