Russia and China are increasingly challenging the military superiority that the United States has held since the early 1990s.
Since the end of the Cold War, America’s naval, air, land and space capabilities, paired with key bases in Europe and Asia, has created a strategic advantage over other major superpowers.
The United States still outspends its rivals on the military, with a roughly $600 billion budget that is three times as much as Beijing and more than six times as much as Moscow.
But much of the U.S. spending is paying for military operations overseas, such as the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“U.S. forces … go halfway around the world to fight. And they fight in the other guy’s backyard, at times in places of the other guy’s choosing. And that’s the problem,” said David Ochmanek, senior defense researcher at the RAND Corporation.
China and Russia, meanwhile, are spending heavily on “modernization” to improve the quality, efficiency and overall performance. The strategy is paying huge dividends, especially for China.
“It’s not just one area or few areas. If you look at the evolution of [China’s] military over the last 15 years … it’s rather astonishing. Ballistic missiles, air defense, aircraft, electronic warfare, naval vessels — they’ve just invested very substantially in modern capabilities,” Ochmanek said.
But China is not trying to match America’s military might, experts say. Their objective is greater control over the Asia-Pacific region.
“China doesn’t need to reach parity with U.S. capabilities to pose a major threat, they just have to be ‘good enough’ — and they will be there soon, if they are not already,” Harry Krejsa, a researcher at Center for a New American Security, told The Hill.
“China’s goal is to [exert] control over their near seas, a much narrower ambition than the United States’ global mission to assure freedom of navigation and commerce.”
According to the experts, China’s military advancement is most noticeable in its new naval and ballistic capabilities. These include anti-ship missiles that are designed to destroy aircraft carriers and cyber systems intended to disrupt U.S. logistics and communications.
China’s ballistic missiles also pose a new threat to the U.S., particularly when it comes to air bases in the region.
“If you think about the conflicts we fought since the end of the Cold War going back to Desert Storm, we have not worried about missiles landing on our air bases … So that creates serious problems for U.S. military planners,” Ochmanek said.
Researchers at the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted the rapid development of China’s new air-to-air weapons that will “make the air environment more difficult for the F-35 and supporting aircraft.”
Krejsa explained that the latter advancements are a part of a “bucket of capabilities sometimes called ‘anti-access/area-denial’ or A2/AD,” and are created in order to “target the United States’ ability to project force and influence in the western Pacific.”
Moscow, meanwhile, is seeking to develop new technologies that would undermine U.S. capabilities in Europe and Asia.
The Kremlin’s most visible progress comes in the sphere of modernizing its nuclear weapons and improving offensive capabilities that can bypass U.S. missile defense systems.
In summer of 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted the country’s military progress, asserting that Russia had achieved “substantial success” in modernizing its forces.
“I am not going to mention everything, but we have modernized our systems and are successfully developing new generations. I am not even talking about the technologies that penetrate missile defense systems,” Putin said in June of last year.
“We warned that we are going to do this, we said it, and we are doing it. And I guarantee you, today, Russia has achieved substantial success in this area.”
Tony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said improvements to Russia’s nuclear weapons and precision cruise missiles should be a major concern for the Pentagon.
“Were you have seen technological improvement are in areas like missiles. They are obviously pursuing more modern nuclear weapons including strategic systems,” Cordesman said in an interview with The Hill.
“Certainly Russian performance with precision cruise missiles is also of concern,” he added.
Another highlight of Russia’s push toward military innovation is it’s lethal T-14 tank. The Military Balance 2016 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies said “revolutionary” tank will feature new technologies that will “change battlefield dynamics” in the future.
“Most revolutionary is the Armata-based T-14 Main Battle Tank featuring an uncrewed turret … When it enters service Armata will be the first tank designed for an unmanned turret and [an active protection system] APS … This will change battlefield dynamics by increasing the importance of cannon, anti-tank guns and tanks,” the report stated.
However, unlike China’s broad push to modernize its entire military, the Kremlin’s defense spending is strongly affected by Russia’s recent fluctuations in economic productivity. Despite spending much less on defense than U.S. and China, Russia often ends up allocating a larger share of its GDP on the military.
According to the latest figures of the World Bank, Russia spent approximately 5 percent of its GDP on defense in 2015 as opposed to 2 percent by China and 3.3 percent by the United States.
All the recent innovations of Russian and Chinese forces seems to have prompted a response from the new U.S. administration. President Trump’s upcoming defense budget is expected to grow by another 10 percent in 2017.
Immediately following Trump’s announcement of additional military funds, Beijing promised yet another 7 percent increase to its own defense budget.