It has invested heavily in new aircraft, new tanks — and new technology such as stealth and hypersonic missiles.
The United States has responded in kind.
It’s just sunk $A990 billion into its latest military budget. Much of that money is being spent on countering the threat that China has caught up — if not overtaken — the US military in key new technological areas.
Key among them is the deadly development of hypervelocity glider weapons: aerodynamic warheads that are boosted into orbit by ballistic missiles before falling back to Earth, under guidance, at incredible speeds.
The US has recognised there is a growing gap in capabilities between itself and China and Russia in such weaponry, as well as more traditional supersonic long range guided missiles.
And that’s a cause of concern.
Potentially, China and Russia can destroy one of the United States’ nuclear-powered super carriers before it can even get within range of launching its combat aircraft against a target.
So the new US military budget aims to buy as many new missiles of its own as possible.
“We are going to go fast and leverage the best technology available to get hypersonic capability to the warfighter as soon as possible,” air force secretary Heather Wilson said in a statement.
Last week, China said it successfully tested its Xingkong-2 (Starry Sky-2) hypersonic vehicle, reputedly capable of travelling at more than six times the speed of sound. It rides the shockwaves generated by piercing the air at such incredible speeds. Such speed, combined with range measured in the thousands of kilometres and the ability to take evasive manoeuvres, makes them immensely difficult for existing defensive systems to intercept.
This is especially true for the US Navy’s enormous aircraft carriers.
But military analysts say China is likely to take another three to five years to fully weaponiise the technology.
Meanwhile, its existing arsenal of supersonic missiles is enough cause for concern. After travelling some 400km, these boost themselves into supersonic speeds during the final approach on a target.
While US aircraft carrier combat jets outrange this, it’s not by much. The new F-35C stealth fighter’s combat radius of 1000km will require the ship to move uncomfortably close to hostile shorelines.
The best the West has to counter such weaponry with at sea is the Harpoon missile, which has a range of about 125km and is slower than the speed of sound. Tomahawk cruise missiles, which can fly some 1600km, are no longer capable of targeting shipping as they could during the Cold War.
Now, the Pentagon is sinking cash into arms supplier Raytheon to get that ability back. It’s been tasked with delivering 32 examples of upgraded Tomahawks before 2021.
IN THE AIR
The US air force is also in on the missile action.
It’s ordering more of its own hypersonic weapons to counter Russia’s and China’s growing arsenals.
Arms supplier Lockheed Martin has been contracted to play ‘catch-up’ and design an Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), on a budget. It has been limited to just $480 million for design and development work, according to the Pentagon.
But this is Lockheed Martin’s second hypersonic missile development contract. It follows another awarded earlier this year.
A Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) is also in the works. This $A1.3 billion contract is due to produce results by 2021.
“The ARRW effort is ‘pushing the art-of-the-possible’ by leveraging the technical base established by the air force/DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] partnership,” a US air force statement says. “The HCSW effort is using mature technologies that have not been integrated for an air-launched delivery system.”
Meanwhile, the US Strategic Command and the Missile Defense Agency is trying to figure out how to defend against the growing hypersonic threat.
Even though Trump said the bill “is the most significant investment in our military and our war-fighters in modern history,” Obama’s first three defence budgets were larger, when adjusted for inflation, according to Todd Harrison at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“If you can’t see it, you can’t shoot it,” Missile Defense Agency director General Samuel Greaves said. “We have globally deployed sensors today, but — just look at the globe — there are gaps. What we are looking towards is to move the sensor architecture to space and use that advantage of space, in co-ordination with our ground assets, to remove the gaps.”
Which ties in with President Trump’s other new defence project — a new arm of the military dubbed ‘Space Force’.
BEIJING STRIKES BACK
China’s not happy.
Beijing overnight blasted the US military spending bill that, in addition to the new missiles, calls for development of plans to help self-ruled Taiwan improve its defences.
The Taiwan provision in the 2019 military budget authorisation “is full of cold war thinking” and “interferes in China’s internal affairs,” said a Ministry of Defence statement.
Beijing claims Taiwan, which split with the mainland in 1949, as part of its territory and has threatened to invade. Washington has no official relations with the island’s democratically elected government but is obliged by U.S. law to see that it has the means necessary to defend itself.
A separate Foreign Ministry statement called on Washington to “avoid damaging Chinese-US relations and co-operation in important areas.” It gave no details but the two governments are working together on efforts to persuade North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to give up nuclear weapons development.
The criticism adds to a series of US-Chinese conflicts over tariffs, Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea and other irritants that have soured relations between governments of the world’s two biggest economies.
American politicians said the legislation signed Monday by President Donald Trump responds to concern about Beijing’s growing military strength and confrontational stance toward its neighbours.
The measure also expands the jurisdiction of a US government security panel to screen foreign investments. That was proposed in response to concern Chinese corporate acquisitions might help Beijing obtain sensitive technologies and information.
The legislation’s Taiwan provision “damages mutual trust” and “ruins the atmosphere” for military co-operation, said the Defence Ministry statement. Taiwan is “the most important and sensitive core issue in Chinese-U. S. relations,” it said. “We firmly oppose any official exchanges and military contacts between any country and Taiwan.”
Beijing has stepped up efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally. It has ordered airlines, retailers and publishers to refer to the island as part of China on websites and in books and maps. It is lobbying the few countries that still recognise Taipei as a sovereign government to switch ties to Beijing.