By Taylor Marvin
Prospect Journal recently had the pleasure of sitting with Richard A. Bitzinger, a Senior Fellow at the Military Transformations Program at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies. The interview followed a brief presentation by Mr. Bitzinger at UCSD’s Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies entitled “Long Term Defense Planning in Asia and its Impacts on the Regional Military Dynamic.” Mr. Bitzinger, an expert on East Asian defense issues, stressed one key point throughout his presentation — while military spending is static or falling throughout the world, many East Asian countries are expanding their defense budgets. Unprecedented economic growth of in East Asia has allowed previously impoverished nations to acquire new, advanced weapons systems, potentially shifting the power dynamic in a region historically militarily dominated by the United States military.
These new weapons systems have greatly increased the military capabilities of East Asian nations; increased power projection, stand-off strike capabilities, and the gradual introduction of stealth and advanced communication technologies have all made the region’s military forces much more lethal than they were a decade ago. Asia Pacific nations are becoming increasingly expeditionary in their power projection capabilities, with military funding choices showing a broad trend towards a preference for naval and air forces over land armies. However, despite this dramatic increase in the amount of funding Asia Pacific nations are able to devote to their militaries, there are questions about how effectively these new hardware acquisitions will translate into increases in actual military capabilities. The quantities of advanced military hardware East Asian nations are acquiring may not be numerically sufficient to have tangible operational impacts and regional militaries have shown a greater affinity for hardware purchases over improvements in training and doctrine, which often have a greater bigger impact on actual practical military capabilities. With these questions in mind, Prospect sat down with Mr. Bitzinger to discuss the wider significance of these regional trends.
PROSPECT: Where do you see the overarching trends in military power in the Pacific headed, and specifically what has changed in the last decade? Why are things so dynamic now, when they had been so static for a good part of the last century?
RICHARD BITZINGER: In a word, China. All these other countries like Japan and Korea had their trajectories of increasing economic capabilities and technological advances, but China’s emergence as an economic, and increasingly as a cultural and political power, has just been so dramatic, particularly in the last fifteen years — it’s not just a 600 pound, it’s an 800 pound gorilla — that it has just simply changed the whole regional dynamic. People have to be more attentive to China, and they have to pay more attention to what is going on as a result of the fact that the Chinese have put so many resources into their defense in the last ten years. The point I tell people is that the Chinese defense budget has basically gone up 500 percent in the last 13 years or so, and that they have greatly increased the quality and the quantity of their weapons systems, and changed how they want to use them. Now a lot of that is still aspirational, but the fact is: it’s there, and that’s obviously affecting the rest of the region.
PROSPECT: How do you think that these developments in the western Pacific should affect American military spending? As you said, America is a Pacific nation, and should changes in defense spending on the other side of this ocean affect our choices, in terms of our own military procurement?
RICHARD BITZINGER: Well, I think that to a certain extent they should, and that they have. US defense spending is not going to be affected as much by what goes on in the Asia/the Pacific , whether we like it or not, as it is going to be effected by domestic issues [specifically] the budget deficit. That is what is going to drive defense issues for the next couple of years. On the positive side, I think the United States militarily and operationally sees its future more in Asia than it does in Europe or elsewhere. Though we’ve been preoccupied by Iraq and Afghanistan for the last decade I think these conflicts are going to wind down, as is inevitable, but both will be more and more replaced by new concerns about China and other things that are happening in the Asia Pacific . Therefore, I don’t think the US focus, specifically the U.S. military’s focus, is going to shift away from a preoccupation with the Asian continent.
PROSPECT: So, building off that, one of the main lessons people drew from the last large naval conflict, the Falklands War, was just how vulnerable naval assets are in the modern age. Do you see naval assets remaining an important part of the military equation in a time when advanced anti-ship missiles are widely proliferated?
RICHARD BITZINGER: Well, naval forces are vulnerable, yes, as much as ground forces and air forces are vulnerable. But every military force has some type of Achilles’ heel. On the other hand, that has to be weighed against their effectiveness, and in the case of the Falklands War ships were vulnerable, but if both forces didn’t have those ships in the first place they would have never have been able to prosecute the war at all. To a certain extent, it’s managing risk and accepting risk, and then trying to find mitigating ways to deal with that. Yes, surface ships are exposed to anti-ship ballistic missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles, but they also have defenses against those: they have their own missile systems, they have close-in weapons systems, and while that doesn’t eliminate the risk at least it tries to mitigate it.
PROSPECT: Traditional US allies in the region, especially Japan and South Korea, are seeing much lower growth rates and aging populations compared to emerging nations in the area. Do you see these countries remaining major players in the western Pacific in terms of the balance of power?
RICHARD BITZINGER:Well, I think this affects Japan more than Korea. Japan’s problem is not only all the domestic issues that you raised but they also have a self-imposed limit on their defense spending, which makes maintaining a position of power difficult. Additionally, their emphasis on preserving their indigenous arms industry makes the weapons they are procuring much more expensive. So Japan is kind of hit by a triple whammy in this regard, between domestic demographics, defense spending, and defense acquisition restrictions. I think that that is going to make it harder and harder for them to remain active and effective in the Pacific. I don’t think that it is going to necessarily undermine Japan, because I’ll give them credit that they seem to want to put the money into the maritime forces first and the air force second, with ground forces starting to have to take cuts, which perhaps is not a bad thing considering there is no great threat to the Japanese mainland. Korea perhaps faces less of a problem because they don’t face the same restrictions on their defense spending and procurement, and plus they just simply have the ambition to become a player. They still see themselves as an emerging nation, as opposed to an emergent nation, like Japan, and so they have more to prove and I think they have a tendency to put more wherewithal into this. The big problem then is how reliable of an ally are they going to be – are they going to be as interested in doing the things the United States wants to do, or are they going to have their own agenda?
PROSPECT: You talked a good amount about aircraft procurement specifically. Do you see the Russian T-50 program or Chinese J-20 program going anywhere important in the next 20 years?
RICHARD BITZINGER: The problem with the Russian T-50 is that the Russians are looking to the Indians to provide the money, and the Indians are looking to the Russians to provide the technology, and there’s no assurance that either group is going to come through. I think that program is destined for a very long and painful R&D cycle, if it ever emerges from it at all. The J-20 is also a mixed; it always reminds me of the old story about the dog walking on its hind legs — you’re amazed that it does it at all and not that it does it badly. The J-20 in certain areas looks very modern, but there are’s a lot of unknowns in terms of how stealthy it really is, what kind of propulsion it is going to have, what kind of radar and other avionics it’s going to have, and particularly what kind of systems integration infrastructure, that is its data fusion and its command and control. These are all unknowns and are all areas to where right now we know that for the Chinese,[the unknowns] detract and lessen the potential capability of the J-20 rather than add to it. Overall I’m still of the opinion that what we’ve seen is perhaps more of a proof of concept or a technology demonstrator than an actual fighter jet that’s going to be deployed in great numbers. They may build a handful of them, and try to use them in the maritime strike role, but it’s not exactly the best aircraft or best design for that. In a sense it falls between two stools: it’s too big for a fighter jet and it’s too small for a bomber.
Photo by US Navy.