China and Russia: Two Big Threats the U.S. Military Can't Ignore


China and Russia: Two Big Threats the U.S. Military Can't Ignore

Feb 2, 2021 8 min read
The Hon. J. William Middendorf II

Emeritus Trustee since 2022

Heritage Trustee from 1988 to 2022
National flags of Russia and China wave during the Open Water contest between pontoon bridge units as part of the 2020 International Army Games. Vladimir Smirnov / Contributor / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

On December 22, 2020, six strategic bombers—four Chinese and two Russian—flew a joint patrol mission over the East China and Japan Seas.

Questions persist as to whether the U.S. Navy is up to the challenge of doing what’s necessary to protect allies in the Western Pacific.

The best way to prepare for war is to be prepared to win it.

On December 22, 2020, six strategic bombers—four Chinese and two Russian—flew a joint patrol mission over the East China and Japan Seas. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the mission was intended to develop and deepen the comprehensive Russia-China partnership, further increase the level of cooperation between the two militaries, expand their ability for joint action and strengthen strategic stability.

It was the second joint patrol since July 2019, confirming Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement that “the idea of a future Russia-China military alliance” cannot be ruled out. And this is happening even as the Biden administration considers making deep cuts in the U.S. defense budget.

The threat from China alone is rapidly rising. Its destabilizing actions include encroachment in the South China Sea, imposing an air defense zone in the East China Sea, aggression against the Philippines, coercion of Vietnam, harassment of Japan, border confrontations with India, and increasing pressure on Taiwan. Beijing currently is using non-military means—psychological, diplomatic, propaganda, and informational warfare—against Taiwan, but the regime has long suggested that it could take Taiwan by force if its non-violent ways are unsuccessful.

Questions persist as to whether the U.S. Navy is up to the challenge of doing what’s necessary to protect allies in the Western Pacific.

The Chinese Navy, already the largest in the world, boasts an estimated 350 ships and submarines. These forces are augmented by a shadow fleet of more than 2,000 “sea phantoms,” disguised as fishing boats but equipped with 16-tube rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns.

Nor is the Chinese Navy lacking in sophistication. Six new classes of destroyers feature more advanced hull designs, propulsion systems sensors, weapons and electronics. China’s ballistic submarine fleet is being improved and expanded as the older Type 092 Xia-class nuclear powered ballistic missiles are replaced with Type 094-Jin-class SSBNs. Four of these newer submarines are already operational and will be equipped with the new, longer-range JL-2 missile with a range of 5,281 miles. China’s DF-21D mobile missile is capable of destroying the decks of a U.S. supercarrier at a distance of up to 1,000 miles.

By 2030, China’s Navy will be twice the size of the U.S. Navy, retired U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell told a House Intelligence Committee hearing recently. “The future size of the People’s Liberation Navy will be about 550 warships and submarines by 2030,” Fanell predicted.  The growth of the Chinese Navy is seen as part of a plan to push the U.S. out of Asia, becoming the world’s predominant power along the way.

A more immediate concern arises in the vicinity of the Spratly islands, the site of China’s most provocative military preparation. Nearly half of the entire world’s maritime traffic steams by the Spratlys on the way to or from the Malacca Strait, making the site a principal choke point of global commerce.

Despite protests by other Asian nations, the United Nations, and the United States, China has proceeded with extensive development of some of these islands. Dredging has provided building material at the cost of natural reefs and the resulting islands now accommodate airfields and military support facilities. The U.S. Navy’s capabilities for handling this and other potential crises are hampered by its reduced sized. We are attempting to perform a 306-ship mission with 260 ships.

>>> Index of U.S. Military Strength

Seeking future dominance through high-tech weaponry, China is developing an array of advanced weapons such maneuverable missile warheads, hypersonic weapons, laser beam weapons, various counter-space weapons and artificial-intelligence-directed robots. These weapons could knock out U.S. satellites, shutting down the Global Positioning System network (GPS) and our most critical intelligence and communications systems. As a result of this threat, the United States Naval Academy has revived a course in celestial navigation.

Another threat comes from the WU-14, a hypersonic glide vehicle which, from 60 miles above the earth, could release a precision guided missile achieving hypersonic speeds (Mach 20, 15,000 mph.) and against which we have no present defense. An Electromagnetic Pulse Attack (EMP) would fry the nation’s electronics, devastating power, transportation, communications, medical, and financial networks, as well as leaving the U.S. military unable to retaliate. Other Chinese smart-weapon programs include robotic, self-thinking cruise missiles, autonomous vehicles, unmanned submarines and swarms of drones. China is committed to developing artificial intelligence (AI), the key to future warfare. It is already the second-largest R&D spender and has set a goal of achieving AI dominance by 2030. If China makes a breakthrough in crucial AI technology, it will result in a major shift in the strategic balance.

China is also engaged in a campaign of information theft, using cyber attacks against the United States to steal military research and industrial secrets.  Chinese government hackers stole massive amounts of highly sensitive data related to undersea warfare from our strategically important Naval Underwater Facility in Newport, Rhode Island.

China continues to engage in both nuclear offensive and defensive programs. It is building a new ICBM, the DF-41, which may potentially mount multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). China also continues to construct underground nuclear bomb shelters for its civilian and military personnel capable of protecting millions of its citizens in the event of a nuclear war.

China is also using a “debt trap” strategy to potentially gain access for its military around the world. For example, it will loan a small country a large sum of money to help build a port, then exact tough terms of repayment. When the country cannot make the payments, China takes control of the port. This recently played out in Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Russia has taught China some unsettling lessons—unsettling for us. When the U.S./EU coalition caved in on Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and put up with Putin’s military support for the separatists in Ukraine’s eastern provinces, it exposed the coalition as less than robust and reliable.

It used to be fashionable to say that Russia is nothing more than a gas station with nukes. The dismissal of Russia as a “nuclear-armed filling station” is far out of date and dangerously misleading. Along with its vast oil and gas exports and control of pipelines, in particular a natural gas line to Germany, Russia has transformed the decrepit ex-Soviet military into what experts describe as an “agile, professionalized fighting force.”

Russian speaking “volunteers” seized the Crimean Peninsula and a quick mobilization by both air and sea saved Bashar al Assad’s collapsing Syrian regime. Russian-backed separatists have often been able to inflict devastating losses on Ukrainian forces. Russia remains an acute and formidable threat to the U.S. and our interests in Europe. From the Arctic to the Baltics, Ukraine, the South Caucasus, and increasingly the Mediterranean Sea, Russia continues to foment instability in Europe.   

Overall, Russia has developed advanced weapons systems and nuclear capabilities and remains the foremost threat to European security. Its aggressive stance in several theaters, including the Balkans, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine, continues both to encourage destabilization and threaten U.S. interests.

Among the key weapons in Russia’s inventory are 313 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 2,780 main battle tanks, more than 5,140 armored infantry fighting vehicles, more than 6,100 armored personnel carriers, and more than 4,328 pieces of artillery. The Russian Navy has one aircraft carrier, 62 submarines, including 13 ballistic missile submarines, five cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 frigates: and 100 military patrol and coastal combatants. The Russian Air Force has 1,176 combat-capable aircraft.

Reinvigorating submarine construction has been one of the visible accomplishments of the Russian Navy’s modernization program for 2011–2020. On April 24, 2019, Russia unveiled one of its nuclear super weapons, the first submarine capable of firing high-speed underwater drones armed with massive nuclear weapons. The first Project 09852 submarine, described as a nuclear-powered Belgorod, was launched from Sevmash shipyard in northern Russia. U.S. defense officials claim the drones, called Kanyons, can blow up entire ports and cities, such as Groton, Conn., Kings Bay, Ga., and Puget Sound, Wash., where U.S. nuclear missile submarines are based. The U.S. Navy has no unmanned underwater vehicles like the Kanyon.

Russia is expected to produce a fifth-generation nuclear-powered submarine by 2030 and arm it with Zircon hypersonic missiles, which have a reported speed of from Mach 5 (3,806 mph) to Mach 6 (4,567 mph) amd a range of 620 miles. The first ship in the Yasen class, Severodvinsk, is approximately 393 feet long and displaces 11,800 tons submerged. An OK-650KPM pressurized water nuclear reactor provides 200 megawatts of power, driving her to speeds of up to 31 knots submerged. An Irtysh-Amfora sonar system provides all-around sonar coverage. The Severodvinsk’s combat systems are formidable with 10 533-millimeter torpedo tubes armed with UGST-M heavyweight guided torpedoes. The launching of the Russian Yasen-class nuclear attack submarine Kazan on March 31, 2017, initiated a new but disturbingly familiar phase in the U.S.-Russian contest for naval superiority in the North Atlantic.

Russia’s 27 nuclear-powered multi-purpose fast-attack submarines now in service compares with 60 similar submarines in the U.S. Navy. The Russians plan to add six more Yasen-class boats. Should a conflict erupt with NATO, the Russian Navy will try to: secure a favorable operational regime in such critical waters as the Barents, Norwegian, Baltic and Black Seas; ensure access through chokepoints such as the Greenland-Iceland-gap; conduct strikes against opposing cruise missile-armed ships and submarines and carrier strike groups; target U.S. reinforcements transiting the Atlantic; and ensure the security of the vital ballistic missile-armed submarines.   

Meanwhile, Russia and China officially support space arms control even as they both view space as a war-fighting domain. They both pursue counter-space systems to neutralize or deny U.S. space-based services—military as well as commercial. China and Russia have developed space warfare capability including three types of ground-launched anti-satellite missiles, anti-satellite lasers and maneuvering satellites.

On Oct. 6, 2020, former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper rolled out a new 25-year road map with a goal of 355 manned ships and half as many unmanned surface and subsurface ships. His plan calls for fewer large carriers and more submarines in a Navy of 500 ships or more. He also increased the Virginia attack submarine force from 70 to 80 boats. With unlimited range, attack submarines can prowl the globe, shadowing Russian and Chinese ICBM submarines or delivering devastating missile barrages. They covertly collect intelligence that cannot be obtained in any other way. Six years ago, General Dynamics was awarded a $17.8 billion contract to build 10 Virginia-class submarines to replace the Los Angeles class, which has been in service since 1976. Esper proposed to increase the production of Virginia class submarines to three a year, up from the current two.

The U.S. Navy is also committed to building 12 Columbia-class nuclear ballistic submarines to replace the Ohio-class submarines. The sole mission of the Columbia class is strategic nuclear deterrence, for which it carries long-range submarine-launched ballistic missiles. They provide the most survivable leg of America’s strategic nuclear deterrence, with 70 percent of the nation’s accountable nuclear warheads, and constitute its only assured second-strike capability. Our greatest danger lies between now and 2031 when the first of the Columbia-class submarines will be deployed. That’s a long period of terrifying vulnerability. Nothing should be done to slow the development and deployment of the Columbia or Virginia class, and we should support any opportunities to speed it up.

The best way to prepare for war is to be prepared to win it. We need to stop underfunding the military, especially in such key areas of research as non-conventional war, space, cyberwar and artificial intelligence. War is changing, and we need to change with it. We cannot expect success fighting tomorrow’s conflicts with yesterday’s weapons.

This piece oringinally appeared in Natinal Interest