The world is in a new three-way cold war. China, Russia and the US are all developing anti-satellite weapons, hypersonic missiles and quantum computers – and China may have pulled ahead. The consequences of any strategic shift will be momentous, says Victor Hill.
Peace on earth, war in space
In the second week of November, Russia tested an anti-satellite weapon in space as part of its Nudol programme. Without warning, a rocket was launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Arkhangelsk Oblast in Russia’s European Arctic. It travelled 300 miles into space, where it obliterated an obsolescent, Soviet-era spy satellite called Kosmos 1408. The resulting explosion created a cloud of debris which alarmed the seven astronauts residing in the International Space Station (ISS).
This was the fourth time that a satellite has been destroyed by a ground-launched rocket. It showed beyond doubt that Russia can shoot down satellites in low-earth orbit (that’s up to 2,000 kilometres up) if it so desires. There are an estimated 3,000 satellites in orbit around the earth. This means that in the event of conflict, both Russia and China could take out communications satellites and GPS capabilities, as well as spy satellites that relay essential information to their adversaries. Just to put that into context, the new generation of F-35 Lighting II fighter jets, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, are completely dependent on space-based GPS systems, without which they cannot fly.
The Russians frequently jam GPS data when NATO conducts operations in and around the Baltic Sea. They even jammed signals used by RAF Typhoons while on operations against Islamic State in Syria a few years ago. And during the evacuation of Kabul in August this year Airbus A400M transport aircraft reported unexplained failures in their navigation and communications systems.
Similarly, the Iranians have repeatedly jammed the GPS systems used by ships in and around the Straits of Hormuz, the strategically vital entrance to the Gulf. They used such technology to bring down an American stealth drone in 2011. Iran has been pursuing a clandestine nuclear-weapons programme for many years. (By the way, the latest round of talks in Vienna to resurrect President Obama’s Iran deal look as if they are going nowhere).
Beijing also has anti-satellite weapons. In August, China tested a hypersonic missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload. It flew in low-earth orbit and circled the globe before hitting its target. It is now reported that this rocket has the capability to fire sub-missiles while in flight, though I have not seen confirmation of that.
Hypersonic missiles fly at five-seven times the speed of sound (1,235 kilometres per hour). Once launched into near space they can deploy a glide vehicle which re-enters the atmosphere. Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic rockets can manoeuvre at low altitude in order to evade air defences, thus making them more difficult to intercept. Russia’s Avangard hypersonic glide missile can reportedly travel at speeds of up to Mach 20 (about 15,000 miles per hour).
Robert Wood, the US disarmament ambassador said that Washington was “very concerned” by the Chinese test. The problem is that hypersonic missiles might be used to launch a nuclear attack without warning, thus making a ’first-strike’ strategy more likely.
Meanwhile, India’s Strategic Forces Command has tested its Agni-5 missile which reportedly has a range of more than 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles) – and which could therefore penetrate almost any part of China. This comes at a moment when tensions are increasing between the two nations, as China builds up forces along the Line of Actual Control between Chinese-controlled Tibet and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The launch was carried out at night from the Indian state of Odisha. The 55-foot missile was thought to have fallen into the Bay of Bengal.
India’s strategic stance is ambivalent. On the one hand it is now a member of ’the Quad’ – the strategic alliance of India, the US, Australia and Japan designed to counter China. On the other hand, India is a major buyer of Russian armaments, and recently ordered Moscow’s S-400 missile-defence system, despite the threat of US sanctions against the $5.4bn deal. Just last week, Vladimir Putin was in New Delhi where he was received rapturously by Narendra Modi.
The US Space Command, established by President Trump in 2019, is tasked to deal with precisely this kind of threat. And last year the French renamed their air force L’Armée de l’Air et de L’Espace. The US has just announced an investment of $60bn into hypersonics (and presumably anti-hypersonics). Defence giants Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman have all been awarded major contracts as part of this endeavour.
The UK now has its own UK Space Command, a division of the RAF, established on 1 April 2021. Further, the British Army’s new 77th Brigade is a combined unit of regulars and reservists specifically aimed at waging war in cyberspace.
Under the leadership of General Sir Nick Carter (Chief of the General Staff, 2014-18 and Chief of the Defence Staff, 2018-21) the entire UK military operates under the integrated operating concept, whereby all branches of the military work together to develop new technologies deemed vital in future warfare. In a valedictory interview last month, Sir Nick expressed the view that Russia’s repeated involvement in provocative acts – the latest being the entirely manufactured migrant crisis on the Poland-Belarus border – could lead to a disastrous mistake resulting in conflict.
In the recent global mission of the Royal Navy’s latest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, it visited 40 countries. This mission exemplifies how the British military is learning to adapt to the changing nature of warfare through the integration of new technologies. The fact that the aircraft-carrier strike group was ‘buzzed’ in the Black Sea showed that the Russians were watching closely. And during her foray in the South China Sea, HMS Queen Elizabeth was constantly tracked by the Chinese military.
What’s more, the Sky Sabre missiles that the Ministry of Defence has brought into service can destroy a tennis ball travelling at the speed of sound. This system replaces the long-established Rapier system and is needed to counter the threat from modern, Russian stealth fighters such as the Sukhoi Su-57 which has a range of 2,200 miles. Sky Sabre launchers can control 24 missiles simultaneously in flight, each with a different target. Sky Sabre is manufactured by MBDA UK).
In his first public outing since becoming chief of MI6 ’C’ (who is also known as Richard Moore) conceded that Moscow posed “a full spectrum of threats”, but emphasised that China was his agency’s “single greatest priority”. Of particular concern to the British counter-intelligence agency is China’s strategy of luring developing countries into “debt and data traps”. China’s tightening grip on certain Commonwealth countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nigeria is an increasing cause for concern.
The race is on − not just in hypersonics and anti-satellite warfare but also in quantum computing.
In December last year, scientists at the Hefei National Laboratory in eastern China announced that their quantum computer was able to solve a problem in three minutes that would have taken the fastest conventional supercomputer 2.5 billion years. And in recent months, Chinese computer scientists have unveiled several breakthroughs.
In November the Hefei laboratory was added to the US Commerce Department’s “entity list” of organisations that US companies and research laboratories are prevented from dealing with. The White House suggested that the Hefei institution had attempted to acquire US technology “in support of military applications”.
Quantum computers were first postulated in the 1980s. Now, computer scientists think that a viable quantum computer will be in service by the end of this decade. It could be used for advanced scientific purposes such as generating long-range weather forecasts or modelling how cancerous tumours develop. But, for the military, an immediate application will be to decode encrypted communications.
Last month, the consultants Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH) published a report which predicted that China might have advanced decryption capabilities by 2030. Even though China cannot read such data yet, BAH thinks that the Chinese may start to steal large volumes of encrypted data now – for example in the field of weapons design − in the expectation that they will be able to decode the data later. Therefore, US intelligence agencies are already thinking about the design of encryption systems which even quantum computers would not be able to undo.
PQShield, an Oxford University spin-off, is working on this. It has developed two of so far seven algorithms that that the US National Institute of Standards and Technology considers as standard for quantum encryption. The AUKUS pact between Australia, the US and the UK announced in September, included an agreement to share quantum technology.
In the UK government there is now a recognition that the Huawei debacle must not be repeated, and that all future networks must be protected against potential Chinese penetration. Legislation that will come into force next month will require security reviews of all companies engaged in quantum computing, if foreign investors seek to obtain a stake of more than 25 percent.
China extends its reach
US intelligence warned recently that China is aiming to establish its first permanent military base on the Atlantic Ocean. China is negotiating with the government of Equatorial Guinea − a small, poverty-stricken country of some 1.5 million inhabitants, sandwiched between Cameroon and Gabon − to inaugurate a naval base at the port of Bata. Chinese commercial vessels already use Bata, the only deep-water port in the region. This could potentially be a naval base where Chinese warships could repair and rearm – a prospect that could challenge America’s unrivalled naval supremacy in the Atlantic.
In the week that the Biden administration closed the doors to most African nations in response to the Omicron scare (which I discussed last week), the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, was in Senegal for the eighth triannual meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) − a significant event that was barely reported in western media. FOCAC’s 53 members have already voted China’s way on motions at the UN concerning Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
Mr Wang promised to donate 600 million doses of China’s anti-Covid Sinovac vaccine, to be topped up with 400 million doses to be produced by joint ventures in Africa – just as the G-7 western countries are being criticised for insufficient help with vaccines in Africa (China has already donated twice as many vaccine doses as the US).
In recent weeks it has become apparent that Russia has been massing infantry units and artillery at strategic locations along its border with Ukraine. Estimates of the number of Russian troops deployed range from 70,000 to 175,000. The fear is that a Russian invasion is imminent.
Ukraine has Turkish combat drones as well as American Javelin anti-tank missiles and a formidable army, which is much better trained now than when Russia seized Crimea in February 2014. However, it is unlikely that Ukrainian forces could prevail against Russian might. In the worst-case scenario, there could be a bloodbath, though I do not believe that Russia wants that.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, though it is termed a partner, so would not get automatic NATO support if Russia invaded – and that is the point of the prospective conflict. Russia regards keeping Ukraine out of the NATO defence alliance as a cornerstone of its security policy. NATO is, by its very nature, an alliance against Russia.
Since the Baltic states and the former communist countries of eastern Europe joined NATO in the 1990s, Russia has been paranoid about encirclement and Washington’s ability to deploy ballistic missiles just 500 kilometres from Moscow. This is not unjustified. The Americans deployed ballistic systems in Romania some years ago which potentially threaten Russian naval forces in the Black Sea.
In my view, it is very unlikely that Russian tanks will cross the border into Ukraine any time soon. That would be hugely risky and unpopular – not least within Russia itself, where many people have relatives in Ukraine. Mr Putin’s characteristic tactic is to ratchet up the tension on his political adversaries until they make concessions. In his 21 years in power, Mr Putin has been consistently provocative; but he has never overreached.
The threat of sanctions, floated by President Biden this week, will also give Mr Putin pause for thought. If Russian banks were excluded from the SWIFT international payments system, trade between Russia and most of the rest of the world (excluding China) would grind to a halt. That would hurt Russia more than us.
True, Russia might turn off the taps on its gas supplies to Europe in what promises to be a cold winter. But, again, that would cause a haemorrhage of cash in an economy with a lacklustre growth record, extreme social inequality and widespread shortages, given its lack of a manufacturing base. And Germany, now under new management, might reconsider Angela Merkel’s energy policies which made Germany dependent on Russian gas.
Back in 2008, NATO rashly promised eventual membership to both Ukraine and Georgia – without saying when or how. Russia responded by invading Georgia, just as the world’s attention was diverted by the opening of the Beijing Olympics. Russian forces quickly seized the ethnically non-Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia, then ruled by President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was never seen without the banners of the EU and NATO behind him, was abandoned by the West.
China may be planning an invasion too – one its leadership talks up constantly, as I discussed recently. Could China and Russia have done a deal, whereby if the latter invades Ukraine, the former invades Taiwan? What, after all, could NATO do in that scenario?
The 1903 novel of this name by British writer Erskine Childers anticipated that, in the years leading up to World War I, Wilhelmine Germany would become an increasing threat and eventually an enemy.
For China-watchers in recent years, there have been two views. One has been that China naturally wants to reshape the existing international order to its own advantage – an essentially defensive policy. For example, China’s proposals to favour state control of the flow of information to every network-connected device are under active consideration at the UN; and China is trying to modify international laws relating to space, the seas and the Arctic.
But there is also the view that Beijing under President Xi wants to radically transform the international order to bring China to its very centre, and thus that Xi’s China is essentially aggressive. That resonates when one reflects that the original Chinese name for the country is ’Middle Kingdom’ – meaning the most powerful state at the centre of the world.
If China were to succeed in this objective it would dominate international institutions (it already controls the WHO) and the US, still a great power, would play second fiddle. Africa would send most of its resources to China, and Asia would be submissive to Beijing’s will. America would retreat from the Indo-Pacific – China is already the leading trading partner of all the ASEAN nations. The concepts of democracy, the rule of law and freedom of expression would be demoted. Indeed, western values might wither altogether, not least within their own ‘citadels’.
Those who relish the thought of China dislodging America as the global hegemon must be smiling right now. At the end of his first year in office, a tired President Biden has unleashed havoc in Afghanistan which will reverberate through central Asia and beyond for years; he has given Russia much of what it asked for – not least his blessing for Nord Stream 2; and he has drawn back from a meaningful enquiry into how the coronavirus pandemic started.
That said, I’ll reveal early next year why China may not have everything its own way. In fact, its economy is much weaker than its growth figures belie − people are stockpiling food this winter, inflation is probably higher than reported and power outages are widespread.
It seems as if China is assuming the role of Wilhelmine Germany today, with Russia playing the role of Austria-Hungary. If that view becomes entrenched, the expectation of eventual war could become self-fulfilling, as it did in the years before August 1914. And one unexpected spark (such as a political assassination one July morning in a sleepy provincial town) could light a cruel flame.
Listed companies cited in this article which merit further investigation:
- Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT)
- Airbus (EPA:AIR)
- Raytheon Technologies Corporation (NUSE:RTX)
- Northrup Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC)