There is a popular notion that the world has changed
dramatically with the election of a new American President and that
the United States will not be challenged by ambitious peer
competitors in the coming decades. While this is a hopeful concept,
it is also inaccurate.
The world remains a dangerous place, populated with countries
that will compete with the United States for political, economic,
and military preeminence and could hold American interests around
the world at risk. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and against
al-Qaeda certainly should be at the forefront in defense spending
and planning, but we also need a balanced force that can address
emerging conventional and strategic challenges from rogue states
and rising nations.
North Korea continues to be a significant threat to peace
and stability, both on and beyond the Korean peninsula. The
peaceful reunification of North and South Korea seems as distant as
ever, and there are big questions about a successor to North
Korea's ailing Kim Jong-Il. The number of North Korean provocations
just since the beginning of the year has been staggering.
On the conventional front, Pyongyang's forward-deployed
million-man army could lash out at South Korean and American forces
across the DMZ at a moment's notice. This spring, Pyongyang
declared that it was no longer bound by the conditions of the 1953
Korean War armistice. On the strategic front, in April, it launched
a long-range Taepo Dong ballistic missile with
intercontinental-range potential. Pyongyang claimed that the launch
was a satellite shot, but experts say that it was a cover for an
intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program. Another
long-range missile test is expected in the coming weeks.
While walking out of the Six-Party talks aimed at containing
North Korea's nuclear ambitions, Pyongyang last month also
conducted its second nuclear test in less than three years and
reopened a shuttered nuclear facility that could be used to expand
its nuclear arsenal. These recent missile and nuclear developments
fuel concerns that North Korea is making progress on developing a
warhead to fit atop the Taepo Dong ballistic missile that could
reach American soil.
Beyond its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and its role as
the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism, Iran is
looking to project power across the region and beyond as it seeks
to become the most powerful country in the Middle East and the
Tehran's effort to modernize its conventional forces by
purchasing arms from Russia and China, while important, is dwarfed
by its nuclear and ballistic missile efforts. Iran is almost
assuredly involved in a nuclear weapons effort under the guise of a
peaceful nuclear power program, and some experts believe it now has
the wherewithal to produce a single nuclear device. It may be
developing a nuclear warhead. With the Shahab-class missile, Tehran
can already reach all of the Middle East and parts of Southeastern
But Iran's ambitions seem to go beyond that. This spring, Iran
launched its first indigenously produced satellite, putting Tehran
on a trajectory to develop an ICBM capability that could be matched
with its budding nuclear program.
Whilethe global economic downturn has affected Russia's
military modernization programs, reducing Moscow's defense spending
increase this year from a planned 25 percent to 10 percent, Russia
still has every intention of developing a modern force to protect
its periphery. It also appears to have every intention of
reasserting itself as a world power.
A top Russian Air Force general this spring claimed that
Venezuela could host Russian long-range bombers. This follows the
visit of Russian bombers and a small flotilla to Venezuela last
year. Cuba was mentioned as a possible home to Russian planes as
well. Russia is also looking at reestablishing its Cold War naval
base in Syria and is discussing basing rights in Libya and Yemen to
forward-deploy warships. Russian strategic bombers are operating
widely from bases across Russia, and some have conducted flybys
near U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.
In our own hemisphere, Venezuela, led by stormy president
Hugo Chavez, has been involved in a notable military buildup that
is seemingly aimed at exerting regional hegemony. With one of Latin
America's largest defense budgets, Venezuela has purchased as much
as $4 billion in Russian arms, including fighters, attack
helicopters, and assault weapons, and reportedly has signed
contracts with Moscow to build nuclear reactors in Venezuela, since
other regional powers have shunned cooperation due to concerns
about possible nuclear proliferation.
The biggest challenge to American military preeminence will come
from China. Beijing's unprecedented military buildup has
included double-digit increases in defense spending for more than a
decade. China now has the world's second-largest defense budget,
and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
has observed that Beijing's military modernization is "very much
focused on the United States."
Beijing is professionalizing the People's Liberation army and
has focused its defense budget on asymmetric and power-projection
forces such as its navy and ballistic missiles. While long focused
on Taiwan, China is evaluating its forces for operations beyond
East Asia. It has one of the world's most active ship- and
submarine-building programs, and an aircraft carrier program
is almost a given. A new anti-ship ballistic missile reportedly can
target ships at sea--a threat never before faced by our Navy.
The central argument that the United States can reduce its
defense budget, especially its investment in next-generation
systems, because it is unlikely to face threats from any peer
competitors in the next 20 years is clearly specious. Ambitious
rising nations will be sure to challenge the United States
militarily if they sense decline or weakness.
While Iraq, Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda are the wolves closest to
the sled, they are not the only ones out there. Now is not the time
for complacency about the threats looming on the horizon or the
need to invest in a strong national defense.
is Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs in the Kathryn and
Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Chung
Ju-Yung Fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage