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August 23, 2013


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I don't think that there is a chance that anyone builds a true global power-projection military in the next 30 years. The Soviets were about where the Chinese are today in the 1960's, and by the 1980's they did not have a military that could operate several hundred advanced tactical aircraft on the far side of the world. And the Soviets didn't have the major demographic challenges that the Chinese face (in 2050 they are going to have over 450 million people age 60+- over 1/3 of the population. You don't build a global power projection military with that kind of a population, unless the robot singularity has come, in which case all bets are off) and devoted an unsustainable portion of their economy to military production.

Brazil and India are even farther behind, and building the logistical infrastructure necessary to support that kind of force on the other end of the planet doesn't come quickly- even the US went several decades from the Spanish-American War to having a true global power projection military (somewhere in the 1930's-1940's, depending on how you define it).

So if/as the US declines[1], I think it's unlikely that anyone is going to even be able to significantly supplement them.

You haven't said yet what you think the objective of American action is/should be.

If the objective is to make it clear that Assad crossed a red line and has to pay, it ought to be possible to do a simple retaliatory raid involving a lot less hardware than you listed, and with the added benefit of hopefully not owning the conflict when it was over.

If the objective is to somehow put a stop to this miserable thing, then... Then I don't know. The idea is nice, but the price is prohibitive.

I have to concur with Chris. There's no replacement for the US in the next 1/2 century. Europe, as in the European Union, but they have let their militaries decline: the Brits will have two light carriers; the French, one; Italy and Spain, jeep carriers. You park 2 Lizzies, Chuck and the beepbeeps, you won't equal two Nimitz/Fords...

The Chinese have a really steep learning curve ahead of them and they know it: The Kuzzies are ... not power projection platforms.

Interesting that the Brazilians are supporting the Chinese. Is this a case of the "enemy of the annoying hegemon is a useful distraction?" Or is it a case of "the unipolar world is a little too uncomfortable?" Or are those the same thing?

... is there any prospect of any other nation (or coherent non-U.S. alliance) having these capabilities in the next two decades?

China, of course, and I suspect it will happen a lot quicker than many here imagine.

Some data points: It already has more warships than the US; it now has close to half the world's shipbuilding capacity which means lots of competition and cheap prices (contrast with the US, where there is no longer any civilian shipbuilding industry, and naval programs are dogged by cost overruns); and as early as 2020 it should have six aircraft carriers (the US now has 11).

You don't particularly need vigorous demographics to have a superior navy. It's not like you need tons of conscripts to man ships. In fact, in today's hi-tech environment, that would be downright inadvisable.

Well, there are several problems with your assertion, Anatoly. It ain't impossible; it also ain't likely.

The first issue is that China isn't building five carriers. They're building one, with vague plans for more. Given that it's 2013 now, having six by 2020 is mighty unlikely. (That said, this post's question is aimed at 2030, when my son hits draft age.)

The second problem is the type of carrier that China is building. They are STOBAR fleet support ships intended to gain air superiority in a war with Japan or America. Their range is limited. (4000 miles and 45 days, IIRC - I'm writing this from an old iPhone so forgive minor errors.) So is the kind of aircraft that they can carry: light fighters, not heavy strike craft. Even if China builds six or twelve or thirty (unlikely but possible) of these by 2030, it won't have the USN's global reach.

The third issue is training and operations. Even if China built three long-range supercarriers by 2030 (the minimum necessary to have a global reach) it would be way behind America, Britain and France in how to use them. In theory, China could get a jump by building next-generation carriers with minimal crew, automated aircraft, and other brand new weapons systems ... in practice, China has shown few signs of leapfrogging in military technology. (Will and Doug and Alex could say more, I'm sure.)

In short: China's current program is half-assed, building the "wrong" kind of carrier, and faces a long learning curve. 2020 is near impossible and 2030 bloody unlikely. Moreover, by 2030 the country may have other issues that take even the thought of global power projection off the table ... but that's more for your blog than this one!

Will: regarding Brazil and China. I can only speculate, but outside the near-abroad, Brazilian foreign policy is completely incoherent. (Even inside it things can be a mess when economic interests aren't involved: consider Paraguay. I'll blog if there's interest.)

So if you ask me to guess, here's my guess: "China is paying us, plus we get to show off to the world that we have a mighty good navy!" Considerations of geopolitics are highly unlikely to have been a factor. And if the U.S. had complained, well, this is so low priority for Brasilia that it's inconceivable that the Brazilian government wouldn't comply.


China is building its own indigenous aircraft carrier, but let's not go overboard- six operational carriers by 2020 is a fever dream.

While I am not an expert- I'm monolingual with a day job that does not involve analyzing the Chinese military- it appears to me that China is focusing their military on local area denial, not the logistics necessary to do global power projection. I do not see China investing in the boring logistics necessary to do something like what Carrier Strike Group 3 just did: all told Vinson and Co. were gone from home for 8 months, with five of them spent supporting operations in Afghanistan. The ability to stay in combat for months- to replace spares, munitions, fuel, people, etc.- that's what I'm not seeing from the Chinese navy right now. And given that the Soviets never mastered that ability I suggest that it takes at least 20 years to master.

My point about the demographics was not that the Chinese wouldn't have the manpower to operate such a military. It's that they won't have the economy to pay for such a military. The ability to operate 300 advanced tactical aircraft in combat conditions on the other side of the planet is a hideously expensive thing, and in the context of a country with 1/3 of its population over the age of 60 I just don't see how they can feed and care for all those not-so-productive old people and afford such expenses.

I expect the Chinese military- purely as a global power projection force, not looking at it's local area denial capability- to fit right into UK/France/Russia tier of powers, that can operate a token force globally, but can't defeat a third-tier air defense like Syria has when it's out of area.

I'm also not sure how much longer the US can/will afford to maintain such a military. While US demographics are significantly better than China's over the next twenty years, they certainly aren't as good as they were over the last twenty years.

And yes, long term demographic trends do change, but that's not the way to bet.

I agree with all of Christopher's points. I do, however, disagree with the hypothesis that the United States cannot maintain its current military indefinitely.

The good thing about demographics is, as Chris said, that the underlying trends are remarkably stable.

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5.2% of GDP by 2030 is not a prohibitive burden. We could keep spending 4% on the military without breathing hard.

(Will: military automation, how fast? With health costs a big driver of the defense budget, it's an important question.)

Six carriers by 2020 is a fever dream, honestly. The ABSOLUTE best unless they go to a war footing is 4 carriers. Most likely, they will have two (the ex Varyag and the new built carrier) with perhaps another one being built. Remember, this is a learning process and the chinese have shown they are willing to go step-by-step, carefully. So, 2030, they will probably have 5 carriers, at least 3 of which are will be of the same class as the xVaryag.

A blue water, power projecting navy is hard. The Soviets went with access denial rather than power projection. The Chinese will probably go for first area denial: keep the US and whatnot away from the cities. Then they will build a middle power navy beater.

Logistics are hard. Folks see the US move corps and whole armies around the world and think this means anyone can. That's a whole different curve to learn. Consider the US dropped two armies on two radically different locales earlier in the Oughts which had NO land borders with the US. The Chinese recognize the difficulty.

And keep in mind the level of commitment to being a rival of the US if not surpassing the US is a moving target: carrier based combat drones, railguns, free electron lasers, etc are all coming to the US fleet. That we have to take a few year to deal with the stupidity of sequestration may actually play into the fact these technologies are nearly there. The Zumwalts are stopped. This allows for a house cleaning of the Pentagon (lots of folks move on because of the furloughs and are not replaced) and the nextgen destroyers then are something out of star trek.

The Chinese themselves are stating they won't be a first ranked military power until the 2050s (Grandson's draft age, Noel). I'd recommend you take them at their word.

Military automation: you can expect improvements, but you need to see an attitude change really.

The TerraMax trucks from Oshkosh are ready. There's a fear an unmanned truck will run over a civvie and make life difficult. You could drop the logistics arm of the army by 1/3 to 1/2 the people with that truck and equal level improvements.

The Navy will take a long time. They do a LOT of things manually which industry has been doing automated since the 1970s. A robo wing of aircraft is expected to have 140 people still. Automating is largely a function of introducing a new ship class. Nextgen destroyer and cruisers are the next possibility for it and the surface fleet is more receptive than the flyers.

The Marines will go for it fastest I actually bet.

Blue beanies (USAF) are going to be problematic: everyone wants to be a pilot, not an operator.

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