Covid-19 could give China and Russia a strategic edge over the U.S., according to a U.S. Army study.
The reason? Authoritarian nations can devote resources to weapons rather than pandemic relief.
"It is likely that the effects of the pandemic, particularly in the medium-to-long term, will fall relatively evenly among the United States and its two primary adversaries, China and Russia," the Army concluded. However, while we expect that the overall effects will be balanced, it is highly likely that Chinese and Russian public sector technology investment and defense spending—including military modernization— will suffer less, in relative terms, than they will in the United States or among its Western allies."
"China's and Russia's centralization of authority and their focus on security over individual liberty enable these adversaries to maintain their current priorities without having to be responsive to their respective publics by diverting resources to a general recovery," the Army said.
The study, titled "The Operational Environment (2021-2030): Great Power Competition, Crisis, and Conflict ," examines four potential futures that the U.S. military must confront. While the impact of Covid-19 features prominently in these scenarios, so do Chinese and Russian advances in military technology as well as new tactics designed to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities.
The four post-Covid futures ranged from maintaining the status quo in military power, to Covid-19 favoring China and Russia either slightly or strongly, to a future where the pandemic strongly favors the U.S.
The mostly likely outcome is that the Covid-19 will favor China and Russia somewhat, but not to the point of drastically changing the strategic balance. "We assess this world is the most likely outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic," the Army said. "It represents a departure from the assessed OE [operating environment] and assumes that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are not as severe or system altering as initially feared. However, the United States and its Western allies are less able to handle the stresses and shocks imposed by the pandemic when compared to the centralized systems of China and Russia, whose pace of military modernization quickens over the next 10 years in relation to the United States."
This thinking echoes the "guns or butter" arguments of the World War II and Cold War eras, as to whether authoritarian regimes – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – enjoy an advantage over democracies in that they prioritize military spending over consumer needs. Some may question whether emphasizing the military actually weakened the Soviet Union in its competition with the United States.
It also remains to be seen whether the Covid-19 pandemic will threaten authoritarian regimes whose legitimacy rests upon maintaining an appearance of competency and control. Russia, for example, may have suffered far more coronavirus deaths than the Putin government has admitted, while there are questions about whether China's Sinovac vaccine is as effective as Western vaccines .
While the U.S. has spent the last 20 years focused on fighting low-tech insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has neglected capabilities needed to fight high-tech major powers. The Pentagon fears that China and Russia have gained superiority in areas such as long-range artillery and battlefield missiles, electronic warfare, air defense and hypersonic missiles. "For the first time since arguably the Second World War, the U.S. Army faces adversaries with more capable equipment than it fields," the U.S. Army study warns.
At the same time, China and Russia are transforming their armed forces from Cold War mass armies that relied on quantity, to better-trained and more flexible Western-style units. China is applying Artificial Intelligence to improve battlefield efficiency, while Russia has developed asymmetric warfare techniques to disable an adversary without firing a shot, including "political subversion to undermine and weaken a targeted government and its institutions; economic warfare; and, prominently, information-psychological operations to pressure, disorient, and manipulate a target population," the study said.
In the U.S. Army's most likely scenario, Covid-19 will only accentuate this process as China and Russia improve their armed forces while the U.S. falls behind, even as America confronts climate change that will inhibit military operations and stretch forces to cover new theaters, such as the melting ice fields of the Arctic.
The U.S. may be sorely tested as "adversaries—especially China—start to outpace the United States more quickly than originally anticipated," the Army study said. "Adversaries could develop true overmatch as early as 2023 in some key areas, particularly if anticipated U.S. capabilities are delayed or cancelled. Additionally, our adversaries will recognize these relative, and likely fleeting, advantages causing them to become bolder…"
While the Army study offers plausible scenarios for the future, it also makes a lot of assumptions. It assumes that China and Russia will scent alleged American weakness, and are willing to risk exploiting that weakness. It also assumes that China and Russia won't be mired in their own problems, including an overheated and shaky Chinese real estate market and a perennially troubled Russian economy . And, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic may yet produce more surprises.
Ultimately, the real question is whether democracy or authoritarianism will prove more resilient in the long run.
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