West’s military advantage is being eroded, survey warns

The west’s decades-long advantage in military technology is being eroded as defence spending in the rest of the world, notably Asia, soars, an authoritative survey has warned.

The latest annual Military Balance by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) shows advances in weapons-related technology, once the preserve of the west – including cruise missiles, unmanned drones and electronic warfare – are becoming increasingly accessible to more and more countries.

The number of countries known to operate UAVs has doubled over the past five years, and China has exported them to Iraq and Nigeria.

“Western military technological superiority, a core assumption of the past two decades, is eroding”, John Chipman, IISS director general, told a London press conference. “Slowing this emerging trend or reversing it will be a key preoccupation of western strategists in the coming decade.”

Britain is trying to stay ahead of the curve by developing the Zephyr high-altitude “pseudo-satellite” – a solar-powered surveillance drone operating at the edge of space – while the US is developing “swarming UAVs” (unmanned aerial vehicles) combining cheap structures with sophisticated electronics, the survey notes.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, is looking to the private sector flor help, setting up a “Defence Information Unit-Experimental” to help it “everage best lessons frtom Silicon Valley on issues like big data, analytics autonomy and robotics, notes the IISS survey.,

These technologies arer seen as having uses “across the full spectrum of conflict, able as much…to trawl social-media posts by a terrorist group…or produce systems to better enable concepts like prompt global strike”.

Prompt global strike, or PGS, would deliver a precision-guided conventional weapon anywhere in the world within an hour. It has been condemned by Russia and criticised by some independent analysts because of the potential danger of mistaking the missile as a nuclear weapon.

According to the survey:

  • The rise in Russia’s defence budget last year accounted for about 20% of the total worldwide increase in military spending, though it followed years of neglect and from a relatively low base.
  • Asia now spends nearly $100bn (£69bn) more on defence than Nato’s European members.
  • The number of army battalions in the biggest Nato countries and in US forces in Europe has fallen from 649 to 185 over the past 15 years.
  • Since 1991, the number of British combat aircraft has fallen from 475 to 194, and the number of French warplanes from 579 to 271.

It calls for better cooperation between Nato and the EU. “For many of the issues that preoccupy Nato’s East – such as hybrid threats from Russia – the EU possessesmany of the capabilites that Nato does not, including a wide range of development, security, and justice, tools,” it says.

The survey adds that “Isis, and the groups around the world that have pledged allegiance to it, cannot be eradicated solely by military means.” Tackling these groups, it says, “will require multinational attention and the concerted and long-term application of policies and tools blending political, military, security, information, and development capacities, and agreement on ends as well as means”. The track record on such cooperation, it notes, is mixed at best.

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