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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

WPA Poster, 1940.

WPA Poster, 1940.

Downgrade editon:

I’m sure everyone has seen this, but it’s good: Economics of Contempt has harsh words about the S&P downgrade.

Felix Salmon has a good piece about the difference between S&P and Moody’s.

Why are Treasury prices rising after the S&P downgrade?

The lessons of Aum Shinrikyo.

Chinese Missiles and the Walmart Factor.

The New Republic does not enjoy the National Conservative Student Conference.

More educated people spend more on alcohol.

Since I’ve always thought Game of Thrones would have worked better as an elaborate Jay-Z concept album, I’m happy Watch the Throne is out. I feel like that’s as close as I’m going to get.

Os Korimbas – Sémba Braguez.

I’m going to be in Mexico and away from a computer this week, so no posts. Sad.

What Soviet Naval History Can Tell Us About China’s New Carrier

By Taylor Marvin

Shi Lang. Image from Google Maps.

The ex-Varyag docked. Image from Google Maps.

Yesterday China began sea trials of it first aircraft carrier, which began its life as the Soviet carrier Varyag before being bought and extensively refitted by the Chinese over the last decade. Via Defense Tech, the Wall Street Journal is apprehensive about this new demonstration of Chinese naval power:

“It is the most potent symbol yet of China’s long-term desire to develop the power both to deny U.S. naval access to Asian waters and to protect its global economic interests, including shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and oil sources in the Middle East.

Its launch is thus seen as a milestone in relations between an ascendant China, bent on reclaiming its historical role as a global power, and a debt-ridden U.S. that wants to retain the military supremacy it has wielded in Asia since 1945.”

However, there is good reason to doubt how significant this event really is. In The Guardian, Asian military expert Ian Storey argues that the launch of the ex-Varyag, which has been possibly renamed the Shi Lang, signals the start of a shift towards Chinese supremacy in the western Pacific, though he is careful to emphasize that the actual tipping point toward Chinese control is far away:

“By itself, the ship does not erode the credibility of America’s military presence in the region nor greatly increase China’s power projection capabilities. Nevertheless, the vessel is a potent symbol of China’s aspirations to become a global maritime power and is yet another indication that the military balance of power is gradually shifting in China’s favour.”

Matt Yglesias makes a similar point about just how difficult it is to actually operate carriers:

“The basic issue here is that the learning curve at the initial stages of carrier operation is extremely steep. Not only is it difficult and expensive to build a working aircraft carrier, but if you don’t already have a fleet of working aircraft carriers, you don’t have pilots and flight crews who can reliably operate it. And if you don’t have pilots and flight crews, you don’t have experienced people who can train new pilots and flight crews. What’s more, the United States got to go through this bootstrapping phase decades ago when ships and planes were simpler. Then we had a solid foundation of human capital to go through the process of building more advanced hardware. But if you want militarily useful equipment for the 21st century, your human capital gap is much bigger than any that we ever faced.”

However, the deficiencies of the ex-Varyag are deeper than the PLAN’s lack of experience operating carriers. The ex-Varyag is based on the Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov-class carrier design, which was originally built for a different mission than American carriers and is much less capable than its US counterparts. The ex-Varyag has inherited the Admiral Kuznetsov-class’ deficiencies, limitations the Wall Street Journal almost entirely glosses over. The Wall Street Journal’s presentation of the ex-Varyag as a much more capable design than it actually is is reinforced by its accompanying graphic, which makes the ship appear almost as large as a modern Nimitz-class supercarrier:

Image from the Wall Street Journal.

This presentation is strictly factual: the ex-Varyag is almost as long as the US Nimitz-class. However, size does not necessarily equal operational effectiveness, and the capabilities of the ex-Varyag and the Soviet Admiral Kuznetsov-class it is based on are much less than a modern US supercarrier. The roots of these deficiencies lie in the Soviet Navy’s long struggle to acquire carriers, and the compromises it made to finally acquire them, compromises the ex-Varyag inherited.

The Admiral Kuznetsov-class was born from compromise — while the Soviet Navy had desired large, American-style carriers since the 1950s, the funding to construct them never appeared, despite the USSR’s enormously high levels of military spending. There were several reason for Soviet admirals’ continuing disappointment: the Soviet Navy had historically taken a backseat to the Red Army, and due to limited funding the Navy had made a conscious decision to focus on their submarine rather than surface fleet. In many ways, this was a rational decision. Unlike the United States, the Soviet Union had no pressing need for naval capabilities: because a conventional war between the USSR and Western democracies was likely to take place in Europe, the Soviets did not need the extensive navy required to transport thousands of troops across the Atlantic. Without the same core mission as its American counterpart, the Soviet Navy never enjoyed the political clout the US Navy did. Because the Soviets would not strictly require a blue water navy in a conventional European war, there was little reason to mount an expensive effort to achieve parity with Western surface fleets. Instead, the Soviets focused on fielding advanced submarines and cruise missile systems to defeat Western navies, and there was not much room for expensive carriers in Soviet naval strategy. This led to the emergence of a Soviet navy very different from America’s: the Red Navy was more focused on submarine warfare and was more integrated with land-based aircraft armed with very long range cruise missiles than its American counterpart, and unlike the US Navy had little surface presence outside of local Russian waters. This was reflected in the organization of Soviet surface fleet — unlike in the US Navy, late-period Soviet flagships were not aircraft carriers but unique nuclear powered guided missile cruisers.

However, Soviet admirals repeatedly pressed for aircraft carriers similar to those of their US adversaries, partially for military reasons, but also to defend their institutional pride. For the most part, they were unsuccessful — Soviet politicians were not willing to fund expensive carriers they saw as peripheral to Soviet security aims. However, in the late 1960s the Soviet Navy was able to acquire small Moskva-class helicopter carriers that were optimized for anti-submarine warfare and, reflecting Soviet naval doctrine, relied on anti-ship missiles for self-defense. Even calling the Moskvas helicopter carriers is a bit misleading — unlike modern flat decked US or UK helicopter carriers Moskva-class ships resembled a small cruiser with a small deck covering the back half of the ship. While these ships were incapable of launching fixed wing aircraft, they did allow the Soviet Navy to begin acquiring experience in naval flight operations.

The clear limitations of the Moskva-class led Soviet admirals to continue pushing for larger, more capable carriers. When naval lobbying for an American-style nuclear powered supercarrier failed, the Soviet Navy decided to settle for an intermediate design between the Moskva-class helicopter carriers they were familiar with full-scale aircraft carrier they desired. The result of this compromise was the Kiev-class.

Kiev-class carrier Novorossijck. The half-deck is clearly visible in this picture, as is the ships cruiser-like bow, which is dominated by large anti-ship missile lauchers.

Kiev-class carrier Novorossijck. The half-deck is clearly visible in this picture, as is the ship’s cruiser-like bow, which is dominated by large anti-ship missile launchers. Author unknown, via Wikimedia.

The compromises involved in the Kiev-class’ development were immediately apparent — the ships resembled a conventional cruiser with a small aviation deck, which due to its restricted size was only capable of launching a small number of specialized vertical take off and landing (VTOL) aircraft. The Kiev-class was generally a failure. The ambitious Yak-38 VTOL aircraft design intended to fly off Kiev-class carriers was plagued by developmental problems, offered middling performance, and was never produced in large quantities. Even outside of the failure of the Yak-38, the core mission of the Kiev-class was never fully defined: its small deck and reliance on short-range VTOL aircraft meant that its air wings were only suitable for reconnaissance and interception missions, and it was not clear of the class’ mix of the missile cruiser and carrier role would be competitive with more focused US designs. Despite the failings of the Kiev-class, they did give the Soviet Navy its first experience operating fixed wing aircraft off of ships.

This experience proved valuable. Despite the chronic political opposition to aircraft carriers from Soviet higher ups, the Red Navy was able to secure funding for a much more ambition successor to the Kiev-class. These new Admiral Kuznetsov-class carriers were designed from the outset to support conventional Soviet Air Force fighter aircraft, which were much more capable than the poorly-performing Yak-38s the smaller Kievs were dependent on. Unlike the Kievs‘ half-deck, which spanned only about half of the ships’ length, Admiral Kuznetsov-class ships featured a full deck that covert the entire ship’s upper surface, similar to its American counterparts, and could launch formidable Soviet aircraft. However, despite their size the Admiral Kuznetsovs were much less capable than American supercarriers. Unlike American carriers, the Admiral Kuznetsov-class did not feature a powerful catapult to launch heavily-laden aircraft, instead relying on a ski jump-like ramp at the ship’s bow to boost aircraft into the air. Similarly, the Admiral Kuznetsovs were not nuclear powered, giving them less range and endurance than American carriers, and carried less aircraft. These deficiencies were partially driven by cost constraints, and by Soviet naval doctrine: unlike American carriers, which were the centerpiece of the US Navy and whose core mission was to project power across the globe, the Admiral Kuznetsovs were intended to support the rest of the Soviet fleet, rather than the other way around. While the core weapon of the US Navy is aircraft launched by carriers, the core mission of the Soviet fleet was to destroy Western shipping with submarines and missile cruisers that the Admiral Kuznetsovs defended. Soviet terminology supported this distinction — instead of referring to the Admiral Kuznetsovs as ‘aircraft carriers’, the Red Navy officially titled them ‘aircraft-carrying cruisers’.While the effectiveness of Soviet carrier doctrine is debatable, it meant that the Admiral Kuznetsov design was much less capable or flexible than American supercarriers.

The Admiral Kuznetsov. The ski jump at the bow is clearly visible. The helicopters on the aft deck provide scale.

The Admiral Kuznetsov, which is structurally identical to the ex-Varyag. The ski jump at the bow is clearly visible. The helicopters on the aft deck provide scale. US DoD photo by Paul A. Vise, via Wikimedia.

The Admiral Kuznetsov had the misfortune to be launched in 1985 and commissioned in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. While the Admiral Kuznetzov entered service in the Russian Navy, the only other Admiral Kuznetsov-class ship built, the Varyag, was not completed and sat unfinished in Ukraine for a decade before being sold to the Chinese. While the ex-Varyag has been extensively refitted by the PLAN, it still inherits the deficiencies of the Admiral Kuznetsov-class, and entirely lacks the power projection capabilities of modern US carriers Given these deficiencies and the PLAN’s lack of  experience operating aircraft carriers, it is unlikely that the ex-Varyag will ever be used operationally. It’s much more likely that it will be used exclusively as for training purposes, which despite its limitations is an achievement sure to be heavily leveraged for domestic consumption within China. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the launch of the ex-Varyag isn’t significant — China has spent nearly a decade refurbishing the ship, and the technical and operation experience gained from operating the ship is fundamentally important to the success of China future, more capable indigenous carriers. But the alarm trumpeted in the Wall Street Journal is unwarranted. It’s also not clear how dangerous of a development the emergence of a Chinese carrier actually is. Chinese officials have often pointed out that their country is the only with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council to not field a carrier, and it’s hard to argue that they aren’t entitled to one.

Matt Yglesias is right to note that the Chinese Navy will face a long and difficult process building the technical experience and human capital necessary to operate its own carrier fleet. The Soviet experience acquiring carriers supports this assertion — the Soviet Navy’s progression from helicopter carriers to a fully developed carrier capable of supporting conventional fixed wing aircraft was a thirty year process. Of course, in the coming decades China will be able to devote significantly greater resources to its naval modernization than the Soviets ever were. However, the USSR also was a global superpower that spent a much higher percentage of GDP on its military than China does today (in the mid-1980s the USSR was spending at least $300 billion a year on defense, compared to China’s roughly $120 billion today), and the Soviet Navy enjoyed a much more developed naval heritage than the modern PLAN. It will not take China three decades to field its own indigenous carrier, but it will not be a fast process.

The Chinese military leadership seems to be aware of these difficulties. China has been careful to play down the significance of the ex-Varyag’s launch, stating that “there should be no excessive worries or paranoid feelings on China’s pursuit of an aircraft carrier, as it will not pose a threat to other countries.” This reassurance is partially to avoid antagonizing China’s neighbors, but is also likely to avoid the expectation in China that the ex-Varyag will immediately become an operational carrier. Similar, other ongoing Chinese weapons development programs seem to indicate that the Chinese military leadership does not see the ex-Varyag as a combat asset, and judges the introduction of truly operation carriers to be decades off. The J-20 program, China’s efforts to develop a modern 5th generation stealth fighter aircraft, is a good example of this. As I’ve argued before, the design of the J-20 — specifically, the differences between it and American and European advanced fighter designs — seems to indicate that it was designed for a different mission than Western designs. While the US F-22 was designed purely for the air superiority mission — to destroy enemy fighter aircraft — and the F-35 as a versatile multirole fighter designed to serve in the Air Force, Navy, and Marines the J-20’s large size, likely high internal fuel volume and selective stealthing seem to indicate that it is at least partially optimized for the long-range maritime strike mission, capable of attacking hostile ships beyond China’s ‘first island chain’. The fact that the Chinese military bureaucracy is investing in a prototype of what is potentially a long-range land-based maritime strike aircraft — a role that the US hasn’t pursued for decades — seems to indicate that they view an operational carrier as far off, because an operational aircraft carrier would at least partially negate the land-based maritime strike mission. Of course, this is almost entirely speculation. There are numerous other possible explanations for the J-20’s unconventional design: doubts of the survivability of carriers in a full-scale conflict, inter-division rivalries in the PLA, desire for multiple assets for the sea access denial mission, or a misreading of the J-20s intended mission. However, the fact that China is willing to invest in an expensive program that seems at least partially optimized for the land-based anti-shipping role seems to suggest that the Chinese military leadership is not yet willing to put very many eggs in the carrier basket.

All these factors — the ex-Varyag’s roots in the Admiral Kuznetsov-class, the long history of Soviet carrier development, and the enormous difficulties of building the necessary technical skill and experience for successful carrier operations — suggest that an operational Chinese carrier is at least a decade off, possibly much longer. The start of the ex-Varyag’s sea trials is a major step for the Chinese Navy. But it’s a first step.


Lee, Robin J. “A Brief Look at Russian Aircraft Carrier Development.
Goebel, Greg. “Soviet Jet VTOL: Yak-36, Yak-38, & Yak-41.” “Kirov Class Guided Missile Cruiser.”

The US Space Program Isn’t Close To Over

By Taylor Marvin

Juno lifts off. Photo by NASA.

Juno lifts off. Photo by NASA.

The end of the Space Shuttle program has sparked a crisis of confidence in the American space program. CNN reports that 50% 0f Americans think that the end of the Shuttle program is bad for the United States. At the Huffington Post, Bob Burnett morns the end of the Shuttle program as the “decline of the American spirit.” In the Washington Times, Mark J. Albrecht is echoes this pessimism. Specifically, he traces this decline back to the fall of the Soviet Union:

“Yet our space program has been in a slow and steady decline since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

Well, of course. The entire motivation of the US space program was the Cold War competition with Russia. Arguing that the manned space program is funded by the federal bureaucracy’s devotion to scientific research is disillusion — the US government did not devote 2.2% of federal spending to the Apollo program for the love of exploration. Similarly, President Nixon funded the original development of the Space Shuttle program in an attempt to restore American prestige after the debacle of Vietnam, and President Reagan pushed for aggressive launch schedules during the 1980s to stimulate domestic national pride after the Carter malaise. Just as US defense spending declined in the aftermath of the disintegration of the USSR, so did NASA’s budget. Albrecht sees this a Democratic conspiracy to destroy the American lead in space exploration. It isn’t: rather it’s the simple reality that space program funding is a low federal priority unless it can be framed in terms of national security.

Burnett and Albrecht are also wrong to argue that the American space program has been in decline since 1990. Yes, NASA funding levels have fallen, and the US Congress has been unable to fund the completion a manned replacement for the shuttle. But this doesn’t mean that the US space program is declining! Despite the despair over the end of the shuttle program, the US continues to innovate in space, as dramatically illustrated by last week’s launch of NASA’s advanced Juno spacecraft, bound for Jupiter.

Despite this pessimism, NASA has made huge strides in the last two decades: both in manned flight, like the construction of the enormously ambitious International Space Station, and unmanned exploration. The debate over the relative merits of manned and unmanned exploration is a complicated issue, but even dedicated partisans of manned spaceflight like Burnett and Albrecht should admit that the United States has fielded an impressive list of unmanned spacecraft in the last two decades:

  • The Hubble Space Telescope, which has made enormous contributions to human understanding of the universe and brought images of deep space into the American public consciousness. Among other achievements, Hubble has helped estimate the age of the universe, provide evidence that the universe’s rate of expansion is increasing, and has resulted in over 9,000 scientific papers.
  • The Ulysses solar probe, which utilized an orbit outside of the ecliptic plane to observe the Sun from high solar latitudes, unlike the low latitudes Earth-based observatories or near-Earth spacecraft. Ulysses has contributed valuable scientific information about the solar magnetic field and volume of deep space dust entering the solar system.
  • The NEAR Shoemaker probe, which orbited and intensively studies the asteroid Eros. At the end of its mission, NEAR became the first spacecraft to make a controlled landing on an asteroid.
  • The Mars Global Surveyor, which broke the United States’ ten-year absence from Mars. The spacecraft exceeded its original mission requirements, mapped the Martian surface in detail, and pioneered the use of aerobraking in extraterrestrial atmospheres.
  • The Mars Pathfinder Mission, which was the first successful Martian lander since the 1970s, and the first use of a rover on Mars. The mission was extremely successful, captured the public imagination, and demonstrated many innovative technologies used in later Mars missions.
  • The Mars Exploration Rover program, which landed two advanced rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, on Mars. Both rovers functioned over 25 times longer than their designed lifetimes, and Opportunity is still actively exploring today, 8 years after it was launched. The Mars Exploration Rovers have contributed extensively to human knowledge of Mars’ geology and climate, and Opportunity has traveled over 30 km over the surface of Mars over the course of its mission.

    The view from the Opportunity landing site. Both Mars Exploration Rover missions have returned large amounts of unprecidented images from the Red Planet.

    The view from the Opportunity landing site. Both Mars Exploration Rover missions have returned large amounts of unprecedented images from the Red Planet.

  • The Cassini-Huygens Saturn probe is an ambitious spacecraft that traveled to Saturn, the second largest planet in the solar system. The Cassini probe is an advanced orbiter that has spent the last seven years — again, much longer than its designed lifespan — observing Saturn, its moons, and its unique and poorly understood ring system. The Huygens component of the mission is a unique lander that landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in 2005. Titan is entirely unique in the solar system — it is larger than the planet Mercury, and unlike all other terrestrial objects in the solar system besides the Earth and Venus has a thick atmosphere. This atmosphere necessitated the Huygens lander: because of its thick clouds, the surface of Titan is completely hidden from Earth. The Huygens probe successfully landed on Titan and returned images showing large lakes of liquid hydrocarbons on the surface, some larger than the largest lakes on Earth. This discovery is especially significant because Titan, the only other body in the solar system knows to sustain liquid bodies on its surface, is thought to be similar to the environment of the early Earth and is thought one of the most likely candidates to house extraterrestrial microbial life in the solar system.

    Titan, shrouded in its mysterious atmosphere, imaged by Cassini.

    Titan, shrouded in its mysterious atmosphere, imaged by Cassini.

  • The Deep Space 1 probe, which performed a difficult flyby of a comet and served as a testbed for several innovative technologies, included advanced solar panels and an ion drive system instead of conventional chemical rocket propulsion. Because of the success of the Deep Space 1 mission, highly efficient ion drives are now being considered for other, more expensive, spacecraft.
  • The MESSENGER probe, which is the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun. The spacecraft employed an innovative trajectory to decelerate around Mercury, and has contributed to our understanding of Mercury’s surface features and geological structure.
  • The Stardust probe, which studied an asteroid and returned samples from a comet to Earth for further study. The Stardust mission was also the first spacecraft to return cosmic dust to Earth, which provides clues about the chemical makeup of the early universe.
  • The 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which is currently examining the Martian surface for evidence of liquid water and volcanic activity. Mars Odyssey is still operational, and has served above the Red Planet for over nine years, making valuable contributions to human understanding of the Martian geology and climate.
  • The Deep Impact probe, which studies the interior composition of comets by releasing an impactor to smash into comet 9P/Temple, allowing Deep Impact to study the resulting crater. After completing its primary mission, Deep Impact has assisted in the study of planets outside our solar system.
  • The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, another advanced Martian orbiter designed for a long-term mission to survey the Martian climate and surface conditions, as well as serve as a relay for other current and future Mars missions. Notably, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has returned more scientific data to Earth than all previous US interplanetary missions combined.
  • The New Horizons deep space probe, which will be the first spacecraft to visit Pluto when it arrives there in 2015, after a 9 year flight. After exploring Pluto New Horizons will continue on past the solar system, studying the Kuiper belt — a vast region of icy bodies believed to extend far outside the solar system — before exiting the solar system and heading into deep space.
  • The Phoenix lander, a stationary Martian lander that successfully completed numerous experiments and observations on the Martian surface. Phoenix substantially improved our understanding of Mars geological history, and demonstrated the presence of sub-surface water ice outside of the Martian poles.
  • Finally, Juno, which will extensively study Jupiter’s composition, magnetic field, and moons once it arrives at the giant planet in 2016.

This is an extremely impressive list, and Americans (and the rest of the world) should be proud of NASA’s ability to launch missions that consistently exceed their original requirements and return a huge amount of valuable scientific data. Unlike the manned space program, the US derives little international prestige from its unmanned exploration programs — indeed, most Americans probably cannot name one unmanned NASA mission. This makes the American record in unmanned exploration programs even more impressive, and it is a record the public should be proud of.

Despite it’s thirty years of service, the ultimate value of the Shuttle program is debatable. The Space Shuttle never came close to achieving the frequent launch schedule its designers intended, and it is unclear how much scientific value it returned despite the estimated $170 billion cost of the entire program. Additionally, the airplane-like Shuttle orbiter is increasingly seen as something of a technological dead end — the Constellation program intended to succeed the Shuttle (before its repeated downsizing by the Obama administration) returns to the venerable expendable capsule designed used by 1960s era Apollo and modern Russian Soyuz spacecraft. However, despite the uncertain legacy of the Shuttle commentators are wrong to dismiss the accomplishments of NASA’s unmanned exploration efforts. It is difficult to say when America will return to manned space flight on a domestic launch vehicle. However, NASA’s ongoing unmanned exploration efforts show that the US has a bright future in space.

Update: The Atlantic has a great gallery of ongoing NASA missions.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Olaus Magnus, Carta Marina, 1539.

Olaus Magnus, Carta Marina (selection), 1539.

The best links of the week:

The activist rating agencies and their poor public sector predictions.

Global concern over US debt ceiling disagreement.

The future of economic growth.

The Republican foreign policy postion has collapsed.

The Palestinians’ imaginary state.

How the Navy’s warship of the future ran aground.

Rory Gallagher – Walk On Hot Coals Live.

Only Soulless Hacks Get Elected President

By Taylor Marvin

Jonathan Chait has a good catch flagging a Miami Herald interview where Tim Pawlenty massively walks away from his previous acceptance of climate change. Chait is not impressed:

“He is such a soulless hack. But this is the state of the Republican Party now. No doubt Pawlenty tells himself he must pretend not to believe in climate science or else the nomination may go to somebody who genuinely disbelieves climate science.”

This isn’t the state of the Republican Party, it’s a necessary result of primary elections in a partisan political environment. Candidates have to position themselves so they appeal to partisan primary voters, and then make themselves acceptable in the general election. Serving these two masters requires some degree of lying — there’s no way around it. This dynamic is stronger in the Republican Party because of the Republicans’ more ideologically unified and better organized primary base, but it is still present in Democratic elections as well: I doubt most informed observers actually believed Barack Obama’s harsh stance on free trade in the run-up to the 2008 Democratic Primary. I doubt that Pawlenty and Romney, both governors from moderate states with fairly progressive records, actually believe climate change isn’t happening, or that Romney is actually convinced of the necessity of appointing “a presidential commission to investigate harassment of traditional marriage supporters.” But this kind of posturing is a necessity of the system and being elected president requires some degree of soulless hackery. Separating out the hacks from the candidates who actually believe in extremist positions is the problem.

US Military Spending in a Post-Hegemonic World

By Taylor Marvin

Via Information Dissemination, Senator Jim Webb has harsh words about the failings of US military policy in East Asia:

“Our situation in East Asia with respect to China and China’s expansionist military activities has deteriorated. We are approaching a Munich moment with China and it’s not being discussed.”

This rhetoric is a bit overblown, but Webb’s argument that the US has devoted to far to many resources in regions of marginal strategic importance over the last decade is correct. East Asia is the central hub of world population and increasingly global economic activity, and a US military biased towards land warfare is of limited practical value in this strategic center. Senator Webb is right to advocate a US priority shift towards the naval and air assets more relevant to the core security challenges of the coming decades. However, Senator Webb’s thesis — that the US military must aggressively shift its priorities to counter potential Chinese military ambitions — ignores the core constraint of US strategy in the western Pacific. China’s projected economic growth means that before 2050 China will have the economic capabilities to surpass US defense spending. US long-term strategy should acknowledge this limitation.

From Wikipedia, here are the world’s top five military spenders:

The US far outspends its closer competitors both in total terms and in percentage of GDP. This spending isn’t for nothing — despite the arguably misplaced priorities of a decade of low-intensity land warfare, US military capabilities greatly exceed all potential rivals. However, there are questions about the sustainability of US military dominance. For this spending and capabilities gap to be sustainably maintained the US must maintain a wide lead in economic output over its rivals. This GDP gap is vanishing:

GDP based on PPP. Source: IMF.

Barring unforeseen catastrophe, sometime in the next two decades Chinese GDP will surpass America’s. This doesn’t imply that the PRC military budget will rise higher than the Pentagon’s — though estimates of China’s military spending vary, because US military spending as a percentage of GDP is roughly twice China’s America will still outspend China by a large margin even at equivalent national incomes. However, there is no reason to believe that the Chinese economy will stop growing when it achieves parity with the US. China’s population is four times as large as America’s, and if China is able to overcome significant internal economic and social issues it could eventually achieve a GDP twice that of the US this century:

Population by country. Source: World Bank.

China’s huge population advantage means that there is significant reasons to believe that the Chinese economy will be much larger than the US’s by mid-century. At some point this implies that China will have the capability to raise its defense spending above America’s. This does not mean that China will chose to do so, but America does need to realize that a time is coming when rivals have the ability to outspend the US, and if American military hegemony is preserved it is because political rivals have made the conscious choice not to challenge US spending levels.

Of course, just because the Chinese have the economic capacity to outspend the United States does not mean that they will choose to do so. Fielding a military capable of expeditionary power projection is enormously expensive:

Image sourceL Wikipedia.

Military expenditures by country, 2010. Image source: Wikipedia. Capability requirements are not exact.

Besides the United States, no nation on Earth even remotely approaches global expeditionary capability. Similarly, even relatively high spenders like China, France and the UK only marginally approach local expeditionary capability, a limitation France and the UK’s difficulty sustaining the Libyan air campaign has dramatically demonstrated. China clearly has an incentive to pursue true local expeditionary capability. Credibly threatening Taiwanese independence likely requires a more developed missile force and oversea troop transport capability than China currently possesses, and recent dramatic increases in other East Asian nations’ military spending make increased Chinese spending a prerequisite for for its local hegemonic ambitions. However, attaining true global expeditionary capabilities — necessary to rival the military capabilities of the US — would require a much larger investment, and its accompanying huge opportunity costs. It’s not clear that the Chinese leadership has any real desire to bear these costs. Recent investments in multiple aircraft carriers and modern naval fighter aircraft (the J-15) could support the assertion that they do, but it is important to remember that a functioning naval air capability is just as much a requirement for establishing military dominance in the western Pacific as it is for global power projection. It is possible that future generations of Chinese leaders will judge the massive investments necessary for an attempt at global military hegemony in the US model to be an enormous waste of resources. Just because a future, larger Chinese economy creates the opportunity for much higher levels of Chinese military capabilities does not mean that China will chose to pursue them.

The prospect of a world where China is able to field a larger total defense budget than the US is largely absent from US political discourse. This is unfortunate. A world where Chinese military spending surpasses the US is extremely dangerous. This danger does not come from the direct threat of a more capable Chinese military — while increased PLA capabilities will likely result in decreased US influence in Asia and increased pressure on US democratic allies in the region, it is unlikely that even a dramatically more capable Chinese military will ever be able to directly threaten the US. The real danger from an eastward shift in global military spending is that it will encourage future US politicians to attempt to outspend the Chinese. This is an exercise in futility. If Chinese GDP is significantly larger than America’s — a likely prospect in the relatively near future — US policymakers will only be able to preserve the US position as the world’s highest defense spender by raising military spending as a percentage of GDP. This is dangerous. American military spending as a percentage of total economic output is already abnormally high, and a large future increase in the US defense budget would likely require raising taxes, gutting the rest of the federal government, or increasing the US debt. All of these options would likely threaten the future security of the United States to a greater degree than increased Chinese military capabilities, and should be avoided. Unfortunately, the United States has been the global military hegemony for long enough that most Americans, and especially American politicians, can’t imagine a world where the US military does not dominate any potential conventional rival. Relinquishing the position of sole superpower will be traumatic, and the incentive to attempt to maintain American military hegemony at the expense of other government programs will be strong.

Of course, this scenario is relatively distant: the Chinese economy remains smaller the the US, and at 2.2% (official) percent of GDP Chinese military spending will have to significantly rise to equal the US 4.7% level, despite pending US defense cuts.Similarly, even if Chinese military spending does begin to approach Americans levels the US military will likely remain vastly more experience and integrated than the PLA, and maintain a technological lead for decades. But if Chinese growth patterns continue this reality will become more likely. Americans should begin psychologically preparing for it.

Update: On the subject of US military spending, someone at The Atlantic does not know the difference between an F-22 and an F-35:

Check out the actual article; it’s well written and informative. Author Joshua Foust produces consistently excellent writing.