What would a war between powers now look like and what is the advantage of Russia and China against the West

Russian forces are gathering on the border with Ukraine, Moscow is demanding that NATO move away from its borders, and China is increasingly shouting its right to retake Taiwan, even by force if necessary.

Ethiopia is in civil war, the separatist conflict in Ukraine has claimed more than 14,000 lives since 2014, the insurgency in Syria continues to simmer and the self-described Islamic State sweeps parts of Africa.

Butwhat the future of wars looks like among the great powers? And is the West prepared for the challenges to come?

First of all, “the wars of the future” are here. Many aspects of the major conflicts between the West and, say, for example, Russia or China, have already been developed, rehearsed and deployed.

On November 16, Russia conducted a missile test in space, destroying one of its own satellites. During the boreal summer, China conducted tests with its advanced hypersonic missiles, capable of traveling at many times the speed of sound.

Offensive cyber attacks, whether disruptive or predatory, have become daily occurrences.

Charts showing how China's hypersonic missiles operate

Catch up

Michele Flournoy was the Pentagon’s director of strategy policy under two US presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He believes that the West’s attention to the Middle East in the last two decades allowed that his adversaries they would put very up to date in military terms.

“We have really reached a strategic inflection point where we – the US, the UK and our allies – are emerging from 20 years of being focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we look up to give each other Realize that now we are in a very serious competition of great power, ”he says.

He is, of course, referring to Russia and China, countries described respectively in the British government’s integrated analysis as “The acute threat” and the “strategic rival”from the west long-term, respectively.

“As we focused on the broader Middle East,” he says, “these countries studied the way the West makes war. And they began to invest massively in a whole range of new technologies. “

U.S. Air Force personnel conduct cyber operations at Warfield Air Force Base National Guard, Maryland, 2017
US Air Force
U.S. Air Force personnel conduct cyber operations at Warfield Air Force Base National Guard, Maryland, 2017

Much of that investment has been directed toward cyber activity, disruptive attacks aimed at undermining the fabric of society in the West, influencing elections, stealing sensitive data. This happens well below the threshold of war and many of those actions can be denied.

But what if the current tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine, for example, or between the US and China over Taiwan, turn hostile? What would they look like?

“I think this would now develop in an environment highly dependent on the flow of information,” he says. Meia nouwens, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) specializing in how China uses data to gain military advantage.

“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has created a new agency called Strategic Support Force which focuses on space, electronic warfare and cyber capabilities ”.

What does that mean in practice? Well, almost the first thing that would happen in any hostile action would be massive cyber attacks from both parties. There would be attempts to “blind” the other by destroying their communications, including satellites, or even cutting vital undersea cables that transmit data. “

I asked Franz-Stefan Gady, Future Wars Specialist at the IISS, what would this mean for the ordinary person? Would our phones suddenly stop working, would gasoline run out at stations, would food distribution go into chaos?

“Yes, in all probability,” he answers. “Because the great powers are investing massively not only in cybernetic offensive capabilities but also in electronic warfare capabilities that can jam satellites and knock down communications. So It will not only be the armies but the societies in general that will be the main objective in the conflicts of the future.“.

A Falcon rocket from SpaceX with United States Air Force satellites lifts off from Kennedy Space Center in 2019
Getty Images
A Falcon rocket from the SpaceX company with United States Air Force satellites lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in 2019.

Decision making

The greatest military danger here is the unplanned flare. If your satellites aren’t communicating and your strategists sitting in their underground command bunkers can’t be sure what’s going on, they will find it extremely difficult to gauge a reaction.

Meia Nouwens believes that this leaves them with the option of responding in a “minimalist” or “maximalist” way, which carries the risk of escalating tensions.

One factor likely to play a major role in the wars of the future will be artificial intelligence (AI). This could tremendously speed up decision-making and response times from commanders, allowing them to process information more quickly.

Here, the US has a quantitative advantage over potential adversaries, and Michele Flournoy argues that it could compensate in areas where the West is outmatched by the enormous size of China’s People’s Liberation Army.

“One of the ways to regain ground and complicate the opponent’s defense or attack plans is by joining humans with machines,” he says. “So if you have a platform operated by one person who can control 100 platforms without staff, that’s where you start to regain that quantitative balance.”

But there is one area where the West is lagging dangerously behind Russia and China. Are the hypersonic missiles, Super powerful projectiles that can fly anywhere between five and 27 times the speed of sound and carry conventional or nuclear warheads.

Russia has already announced successful tests with its hypersonic Zircon cruise missile, proclaiming that it can destroy defenses anywhere in the world.

Dong Feng 17 missiles equipped with a hypersonic glider vehicle, Beijing, 2019
Getty Images
Dong Feng 17 missiles equipped with a hypersonic glider vehicle, Beijing, 2019.

China’s Dong Feng 17 missile, unveiled for the first time in 2019, charges a hypersonic glider vehicle (HPV) that can maneuver through the atmosphere with an almost unpredictable trajectory, which makes it very difficult to intercept.

In contrast, recent tests of the US systems have not been successful. The inclusion of these weapons in China’s arsenal is making Washington think twice about entering a war to defend Taiwan, should China decide to invade the territory.

The US Air Force testing its AGM-183A hypersonic missile, in California, 2020
US Air Force
The US Air Force tested its AGM-183A hypersonic missile, in California, 2020, to no avail.

However, right now, starting in 2022, Russia’s forces are accumulating on the border with Ukraine, certainly with electronic and cyber warfare capabilities included in its conventional equipment consisting mainly of tanks, armored vehicles and troops, the same resources that it would be deploying. if Moscow decided to invade the Baltic countries, for example.

Meanwhile, the UK has made the decision to cut back its conventional forces in exchange for investing in new technology. Franz-Stefan Gady, the war specialist of the future, believes that will undoubtedly pay off in about 20 years, but before that there will be a worrying gap.

“I think we are going to go through a very dangerous period in the next five to ten years, when a lot of the cuts are happening. At the same time, many of these emerging technological capabilities will not be mature enough to have a true operational impact, “he believes.

Grim outlook?

And in those next five to ten years we could see some of the most dangerous challenges to the security of the West. So is the outlook bleak?

Not necessarily, according to Michele Flournoy, who spent years at the center of US defense policies, thinks that the solution lies in two things: consultation and close collaboration with partners and investment in precise locations.

“If we can work together and really invest in the right technologies, the precise concepts, and develop them at great speed and size, we should be able to prevent a great power war,” he says.

“We should be able to achieve our goals and make the Indo-Pacific region, for example, remain free, open and prosperous in the future.”

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