Editorial: Is China the new `missile gap'?

Tue, Oct 02, 2007 - Page 8

US Air Force Lieutenant General Bruce Wright, the commander of US forces in Japan, dropped a bombshell of sorts last week when, during an interview, he painted a disconcertingly grim portrait of US capabilities vis-a-vis China's growing military strength.

Comments to the effect that China's air defenses are now "difficult if not impossible" to penetrate by the US' aging F-15s and F-16s, in addition to complaints that operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have cannibalized US military resources in East Asia, could be seen as ringing alarm bells for Taiwan.

But we've heard all that before. Wright, like any other official in his position, is a bean counter who vies with other branches of the US Defense Department for resources. If he sends the right signals, his share of the defense pie could grow in the next annual budget. After all, no commander in his right mind would come out and say he has enough -- or perhaps even too many -- resources to meet his requirements. What they want is what writer James Carroll, in his excellent history of the Pentagon, House of War, calls the "upwards spiral of weapons accumulation" -- more, more, more. And they are encouraged to do this by defense contractors who can only benefit from such pleas.

So they decry the poor state of one's order of battle, bemoan its age, while at the same time overestimating the capabilities and resources of the opponent -- a tradition perfected by defense analysts during the Cold War, who gravely warned of a growing "missile gap" with the Soviets, a wild overestimate (in fact a lie) that indeed led to a substantial missile gap -- in the US' favor.

While acknowledging the great strides China's military has made in recent years, it is important to recognize that the capabilities alone -- the number of aircraft, destroyers, personnel and so on -- an army possesses is insufficient to determine the likely outcome of a military engagement.

While it is true that the US' F-15s and F-16s are older than China's Su-27s, Su-30s and the quasi-mythical J-10 (a reference that emphatically screams for a bigger and permanent deployment of brand new, albeit costly, F-22s to Okinawa), Wright's assessment leaves out other, equally important factors such as training, combat experience, command-and-control and spatial mapping.

In all these aspects, the US military is light years ahead of China. US pilots receive far better training and get many more flight hours than their Chinese counterparts. And given engagements like the Gulf War in 1991, Somalia in 1993, the Balkans in the mid-1990s, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and the ongoing war in Iraq, US military personnel have a tremendous advantage in combat experience over the Chinese, whose last conventional military ventures were the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and the invasion of Vietnam in 1979.

That China's modernization of its military warrants careful scrutiny by the international community is indisputable. That regional powers like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the US must position themselves so that they can meet China's growing capabilities is beyond question.

But, simultaneously, we must shield ourselves against depictions, such as Wright's, that overestimate the nature of the Chinese "threat" and in the end constitute little more than an attempt to grab as much as possible from a growing, though nonetheless finite, US military budget.