9. Defense & military capability

Updated: 23 March 2015



One cannot rule on the points of bayonets. But it is also true that any great country or region needs military strength to project its power to the outside world and protect itself. The projection of military strength has always been an instrument of international conflict resolution - and the 21st century will not change this. If friendly negotiation or economic pressure cannot solve an international conflict, the threat (and sometimes the implementation) of military action often can. We might not like the idea of war, particularly not the threat of nuclear war, but it would be naive to assume that the human species would, all of a sudden, decide to solve all its conflicts on the negotiation table. A country or region can only expect to be taken serious in international conflicts, if it has a political and military strategy and the capacity to implement it. Also, a domestic security apparatus is necessary for any great nation to prevent outside interference or destabilization.
Military strategy and capability will most likely change in coming decades. The 21st century will probably be an era of asymmetric warfare: terrorist attacks, electronic espionage, subtle sabotage, and advanced methods of propaganda will proliferate. Globalization has penetrated all spheres of human life - from the economy to science, from culture to public health. The number of international contacts at all levels has multiplied. Among millions of international tourists and business travelers, among trillions of international phone calls and Internet contacts, and among petabytes of information and data exchanged worldwide, it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify those that are hostile and intended to disrupt the various sectors of a society. Economic loss due to theft of technological know-how, detected and undetected sabotage (hacking), disinformation campaigns, or the coordination of terrorist attacks has reached new possibilities with globalization. If a country or region lacks effective means to cope with these new international threats it has no chance to prosper and enjoy domestic peace. Military strength and the capacity to ensure domestic security requires (at the very least) two elements, on which we have focused our analysis:


Whatever economic, military, or political ambition the leaders of a country or region might have, they will not get very far without a clear vision and a strategy to achieve it. Do leading politicians in China, Europe, and the United States of America have a consistent vision of their country's or region's role in the world of the 21st century? Do they have a clear strategy on how to achieve this goals? Does the strategy include military options? These are the questions that have to be answered for getting an idea, which country or region might have the best chance to convince or coerce other nations of its plans.

Viable military strategy in the 21st century will require an explicit international perspective. Isolationist ideas are doomed, because threats to national security will operate through global connections - through international trade, global communications networks, international flows of migrants, tourists and business travelers, and through global flows of capital. It might be more important for a country or region to protect distant international waterways from pirate attacks than to waste enormous resources on homeland security. Threats to national security can hide everywhere in the world because enemies can deploy attacks quickly over very long distances. One single message over the Internet can activate sleeper cells of terrorists or single individuals, who might have migrated years ago to the target country, to deploy coordinated attacks. It is essential to have a strategy of how to deal with such distant and dispersed global threats.

Threat scenarios also must take into account highly diverse and unconventional methods of de-stabilization and attack. While the Russian Federation recently used tanks, fighter plains, heavy weapons, special forces and "local" insurgences to conquer the Crimean, they also used massive propaganda, disinformation and subversive measures to manipulate public opinion (and politicians) in both Russia and in Western countries, particularly in Europe and the United States. It is naive to believe that the Internet (and an international press) would make it more difficult to manipulate public opinion. To the contrary! Political and military propaganda and disinformation have reached new heights in the Internet age. Governments all over the world censor the Internet, manipulate information flows, and disperse propaganda.


There is, of course, great disagreement about the most appropriate political and military strategies for the 21st century among the leaders (and everyone else) in China, Europe and the United States of America. For our discussion it is therefore important to also introduce some of the data about military strength and security capability. They give a better indication which region or country actually has the muscles to support its political ambitions and rhetoric.

Three types of capabilities are of utmost relevance:

The ability to fight different types of threats in different locations simultaneously. A leading nation or region must be able to defend a conventional attack on its boarder, while at the same time fighting a terrorist conspiracy emanating from a remote place on the other side of the globe.

The technical ability to use and monitor and decrypt international communications channels (Internet, cellular networks, and other signals); in particular the know-how of advanced encryption and decryption technology.

The ability to protect one's own communication channels and transportation routes - including the capability to uncover and prevent subversive measures from adversaries. If military command and control networks are exposed to the enemy, the best strategy is useless.

Links to comparative analyses (in preparation)

In these analyses we will compare China, Europe, and the USA and ask, which of them has the clearest defense strategy and the greatest military capability. These will be our criteria to asses each country's or region's comparative advantage in defense:




Further reading & data sources

International Institute for Strategic Studies, Military Balance 2015, Further Assessments. Washington

International Institute for Strategic Studies, Military Balance 2015, Press release. Washington

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI): Military Expenditure Database. Stockholm


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Creative Commons License "China-Europe-USA - Defense & Military Capability" by Gerhard K. Heilig is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Published: 2004; Revised: 2015