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  • Writer's pictureLuis Rueda

The China Threat

By now, everyone should be painfully aware of the “China threat.” It is all over the place: television, newspapers, periodicals, you name it, everyone is talking about the threat China poses to the U.S. Depending on who is making the claim, China’s economy is, or will be, larger than ours. Their military is growing and modernizing at a rapid rate with new weapons coming off the production line every day. Their navy is now the largest in the world with extremely capable warships. Chinese espionage is in the news at least once or twice a month. And I read that for the first time China has more diplomatic missions throughout the world than the U.S. In every area one can think of, China is there, pressing on the U.S., attempting to overtake it and be the dominant power in the region, if not the world. According to many knowledgeable people, we are close to an actual shooting war with China. No claim is too extreme where China is concerned. Very scary stuff. But how much of a threat is China really? And how do we meet the challenge they pose? To look at the problem we have to look back at the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

After the USSR collapsed in 1991, there was a steady trickle of information dealing with Russian Cold War plans and capabilities. It quietly came to light that the USSR was not the threat that it had been made out to be. Yes, they had posed a strategic challenge to the U.S. and the West, but not in the way we believed. Yes, they dreamed of a world dominated by communism, but they also understood the weaknesses of the Soviet Union and how dangerous a foe the U.S. was. For example, the leadership in the Kremlin was a cautious, fearful group of geriatric men, not the evil, scheming demons they were made out to be. They were more opportunists than long-term thinkers. They seemed more afraid of us than we were of them.

The USSR wasn’t the only one to blame for this misinformation. The U.S. had also hyped the Soviet military threat, especially in its glossy Soviet Military Power magazine it published annually. The U.S. touted the massive Soviet army, over 194 active divisions ready to storm Western Europe at a moment's notice. What they did not highlight was that the majority of those divisions were not at full strength. They were, instead, what was called category 2 and 3, or category B and C, depending on one's frame of reference. The first (category 2 or B) were at 50-75% strength, would require 10-14 days to come to full strength, and had older equipment. The last (category 3 or C) were at 10-30% strength, would require two months to come to full strength, and had obsolete equipment. On top of that, much of the equipment did not work properly, wore out too quickly, and was of dubious utility. Because the so-called “simple yet rugged” Soviet equipment did not last long, Soviet troops had little experience or training in using the equipment, far less than NATO troops. The threat of the Soviet army was not as advertised.

But this false advertisement worked. Both sides spent money on weapons systems to counter the other side's weapons in an endless circle. We both sank money into weapons that didn't work or were obsolete by the time they reached U.S. forces. We expressed concern at the number of Soviet tanks being produced every year, which dwarfed U.S. production, yet failed to mention that half the tanks produced by the USSR were for foreign sales in order to earn desperately needed hard currency. We raised fears around the number of different weapons systems being produced by the USSR, multiple types of ICBMs (nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles), but did not note that different systems were produced side by side because many of these systems did not work, but the decrepit Soviet economic system was unable to stop their production.

Some might remember the infamous missile gap of the 1950s and 1960s. The U.S. raised fears that the Soviet Union would develop many more missiles than the U.S. Estimates of the number of Soviet ICBMs ranged into the 100s, with some estimates claiming the USSR would have 1,500 ICBMs by 1963 when the U.S. would have only 130 ICBMs. The CIA was less excitable, estimating that the USSR had between 12 and 24 ICBMs. The Pentagon said that while satellite and U-2 flights only saw approximately a dozen ICBMs, hundreds more were hidden elsewhere. The reality was that the USSR had 4, yes four, ICBMs and they were pitiful, using liquid fuel that was so unstable it had to be drained every 30 days to prevent combustion. The U.S. had 100 ICBMs.

Eventually, the Soviets caught up with the U.S. in ICBMs, but by the time they did, it was pointless. We each had so many nuclear warheads that the discussion was, “can we wipe out all human life 10 times over, or 11 times over?”

The point I am trying to make is that the Soviet threat, real in many ways, was grossly exaggerated and those in power knew it. Don't get me wrong, a strong defense is the best way to keep the wolves at bay, but there is something inherently wrong with not only lying to the American people about the threat, but pretty much lying to oneself. Basing our defense procurement and strategy on false premises led to waste and weapons systems that were pointless. In some regards, we became like the Soviets in our efforts to counter enemy capabilities that did not exist. (If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I encourage you to read The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine by Andrew Cockburn, 1983. It goes into fine detail about all this.)

Why did we do this? I'm sure there are a lot of reasons, some good, some bad. The Pentagon did it because it wanted more and newer weapons. Bolstering the Soviet threat would help them get support to do that. Weapons manufacturers wanted profits. The best way to do that was to support the idea of a great Soviet threat, thus helping the Pentagon buy more weapons from them. Congress would go along with this because it meant more defense sector jobs in their districts. The Pentagon has always been good at spreading weapons programs—and the jobs they come with—around the country to get influence with Senators and Congressmen. (I also ask myself whether there is a degree of self-interest among our political elite. Do they own stock in the same weapons companies that make billions on Pentagon contracts?) The media and think tanks that cover military issues depend on access to that same military for the papers they write and the influence they peddle. It is hard to criticize the military too much or disagree too strongly for fear you would lose that very same access.

For most of my life, I lived and breathed the communist threat. I am a child of the Cold War. I was around when the Cuban Missile Crisis raged for 13 days, all of us sitting around the television as President Kennedy declared that an attack launched from Cuba would be considered an attack by the USSR and we would respond with our full retaliatory capability. I was a child when the Vietnam war raged, and we all saw the cost of that war on TV every evening. I served with the CIA during the final struggle when we waged proxy wars in Latin America, South Asia, and Africa. So I understand that the China threat is real and we need to be armed to deal with it. However, we must gauge that threat realistically and develop our response based on accurate information. We must do what is good for the country, not what is good for everyone's profit.

We do have to retool the military for a different war than they have been fighting for the last 20 years. We will need new weapons systems. We will need to modernize our nuclear deterrent. There are a lot of things on the list, but my concern is that we do not go into panic buying because the 10-foot Chinese threat is on its way and frankly, I am skeptical of what comes out of the Pentagon. Having lived through the Russian giant, only to find its feet were made of clay, I have to ask myself how realistic is the Chinese military threat.

A case in point are Chinese aircraft carriers. It is true that China has embarked on building its naval aviation and we need to be prepared to meet the challenge. But there is a sense of serious concern on the part of many U.S. publications, with ties to the Pentagon and industry, about this threat. If we look carefully at the situation we see that China currently has two carriers, both of the old Russian type. They are of limited value in a war just by their design, which prevents the full weapons load and range of the aircraft due to a lack of catapults. They are for all intents and purposes training carriers so that the PLA Navy can learn how to operate carriers. There is a third being built that is indeed a full deck carrier similar to U.S.carriers. So the current Chinese carrier threat is limited.

To add fear to the threat there has been discussion of "small aircraft carriers" being built and operated by China. They are what we call “landing helicopter docks.” They are not aircraft carriers in the true sense of the word, but rather transport assault ships designed to take troops and land them on hostile shores via helicopter and landing craft. China has built three. Yes, they can carry aircraft, but given the lack of catapults or even a ski jump, China has no aircraft, other than helicopters, that can operate from these ships. We have 16 of these ships plus the vertical take-off and landing aircraft that can, and do, operate from these ships. If you get at what I am trying to say, the actual, current threat is exaggerated to some extent. Yes, we have to plan for the future and be ready. However, we should do that in a well-reasoned, measured way and not in a "my house is on fire" scenario. In the latter case, we make mistakes, spend money wastefully, and end up with equipment that does not meet our needs. Case in point, the littoral combat ships, poorly designed for a poorly thought out mission. They are being retired before their time, the navy has admitted that they have critical engine problems that cannot be reliably fixed for 10 years, and would have a hard time defending themselves in a peer-to-peer war.

I acknowledge that China is different from the Soviet Union and there are dangers in comparing them too closely. China has a stronger economy for one thing. But that also means our reaction to this threat should be different from our reaction to the Soviet threat. For now, I don’t see our actions being any different than what we did with the USSR. We try to meet the threat head-on, face to face, like two boxers standing like stones in the ring punching each other until one or both goes down.

In the end, did the U.S. military win the Cold War? I would argue it did not. It helped to hold the line, to prevent an opportunistic attack on Europe by the USSR, but what actually won the war was US economic and political might. We never went to war with the USSR, fortunately, though we waged a surrogate war of sorts. We defeated the USSR because of our economic might and influence. We could outspend them and the benefits of our economy made the majority of nations want to move in that direction rather than communism. Our diplomacy built alliances and won over nations to our side, countering the USSR at every turn. We waged surrogate wars to weaken Soviet influence. It was our culture and ideas that moved the world, that made people prefer to emulate us rather than the USSR.

I once spoke with an individual from a repressive, communist country. He explained his thoughts about the U.S. by saying, "You don't understand what reading Thomas Jefferson is like to a person in my situation. It is like giving water to a thirsty man." He meant that our values and ideas are what won him over. I would argue that while we do need to keep our military up to strength and ready for a peer-to-peer conflict, it will be what we represent that will either win or lose the greater conflict. It is our society, our ideals, and our ideas, it is our character as a people that will decide the final outcome.

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