'Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.'
– The Red Queen, in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.
This paper conducts an empirical analysis of trends in interstate military competition. It gauges the perceptions and intentions, capabilities, and conflict activities of leading military powers in the international system for the period 2008-2018. Its principal conclusion is that interstate military competition is intensifying, and can be expected to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. In official defense and security documents, the security environment is increasingly characterized in competitive terms while non-allied states are cast in a more antagonistic light. The use of military threats has increased, especially by the major powers. While military expenditure has not seen dramatic increases at the global level, leading states have started allocating more funding to their armed forces, following significant increases in the defense budgets of Russia and China. At the same time, the modernization of armed forces enjoys greater priority across the board. China and Russia have set course on a dedicated path to military modernization for over a decade now. The US similarly continues to be strongly committed to military modernization. In addition to the incremental renewal of their armed forces, all three powers pursue disruptive innovation too, in recognition of the potentially game-changing impact of AI on the future military balance of power. Leading European states, with the exception of the UK, are reversing direction and are gradually raising their procurement and military R&D budgets. Finally, internationalized intrastate conflict has increased dramatically, quintupling over the past decade. This carries considerable risk of escalation from indirect to direct state-on-state conflict. The key implications for the Netherlands of increasing military competition reside in the risks to the territorial and economic security of the Netherlands and its allies, and the erosion of international law.
Interstate military competition has been intensifying in recent years in various geographical theatres around the world. In Europe, NATO members are scrambling to meet Russia’s military resurgence, its disruptive multi-domain coercion campaigns, and its robust anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities which stretch all the way from Kola to Kaliningrad and on to Crimea. In response, NATO members are bolstering the readiness of their armed forces while seeking to restore the credibility of their defensive as well as their deterrent capabilities. The MENA region features a violent conflagration of historical proportions in which both global and regional powers collide and compete in Syria. The rise of China has tilted the military balance of power in the Western Pacific, undermining the existing US-dominated hierarchy in that region. Interstate rivalries, including North Korea–South Korea in East Asia, and India–Pakistan in South Asia, continue to spark insecurity and fuel vicious cycles of armament, both within and outside of these rivalries. In Latin America, the socio-political turmoil in Venezuela has generated sizable refugee flows to Colombia and Brazil, but also to Curaçao, sparking tensions that have resulted in military build-ups alongside borders. Against this background, the defense strategy of today’s leading military power explicitly asserts that “inter-state strategic competition” is “the primary concern in US national security.” The sentiment underlying this observation is shared by many professional analysts, who to varying degrees assert that “for several years now, geopolitical competition between the major powers has been intensifying,” or proclaim that “the era of great power rivalries has returned.”
The various signs of brewing interstate military competition are troubling, to say the least. The darkest scenario is that in which military competition culminates in large-scale military confrontation between the leading states, upending a three-quarters-of-a-century-long stretch without a war between great powers. But even if the major powers succeed in steering clear from such a cataclysm, the implications of increased military competition are considerable. Military competition carries substantial financial and economic costs. It has been estimated that the US spent $5.48 trillion on the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. Military competition also hurts global trade. It creates uncertainty in global markets and contributes to the fragmentation of the global economy. For fear of vulnerability to foreign intrusion, states nationalize control over vital national infrastructures and impose restrictions on the import and export of technologies critical to national security. This fear thus prompts protectionism and sovereignism across the world. In an uncertain world, governments become more sensitive to securing the supply of critical materials, further fueling a zero-sum dynamic. Meanwhile, increased uncertainty leads multinational corporations (MNCs) to geographically diversify their horizontally integrated supply chain networks. Military competition thus poses a direct threat to flow security. Because the Netherlands is increasingly intertwined with the rest of the world, interstate military competition will significantly affect Dutch security and prosperity. This study examines trends in interstate military competition over the last ten years and assesses the risks to Dutch national security.
States build up military capabilities in order to protect vital national security interests. Military capabilities enable states to defend against adversaries (acting alone or in the context of an alliance), deter them from harming their interests, compel them to do their will, and attack them to impose their will. Because of the logic associated with the security dilemma — initially also known as the “spiral model” — the build-up of military capabilities by one state typically provokes a response in other states, leading them to also start building up military capabilities and strengthening ties with allies. This introduces an element of escalation in the form of upward pressure that is a natural feature of human competition. The type of response naturally depends on the perception of the threat posed by the opposing state. States’ threat perceptions are thus informed by how they interpret other states’ behavior. This includes official expressions of intent by the opponent’s leadership, capability development, and actual conflict activity.
In gauging trends in interstate military competition, this paper first examines official perceptions of the security environment and competitive verbal behavior in the military arena through a selection of leading states in the international system. This selection includes the US, China, and Russia, as well as France, Germany, and the UK as the three foremost European military powers. It proceeds with an assessment of the actual build-up of military capabilities of these states through a concise assessment of their defense expenditures, military procurement, and military R&D activities. It then turns to an analysis of de facto engagement in military activities where these capabilities are deployed. The subsequent sections analyze these components in order to assess interstate military competition in the current international system. The paper concludes with a preliminary appraisal of the potential implications for Dutch national security.
A number of leading states identify increasing interstate military competition as an important threat to national and international security. An analysis of the defense strategy documents of the US, China, Russia, the UK, France, and Germany published over the last decade reveals a clear shift in the security perception and priority of these states. The security environment is perceived to have significantly deteriorated. States that were previously described as peers or partners are now cast in more antagonistic terms. Competition rather than cooperation is a recurring theme. This trend is clearly present across the board, with the exception of Russia, whose perceptions were already decidedly more negative in the first decade of this century.
The US defense strategy documents of 2008 and 2015 put significantly more emphasis on cooperation than on competition. The 2008 defense strategy identified both China and Russia as “important partners for the future,” expressing the wish “to build collaborative and cooperative relationships with them.” In 2015, even after a clear increase in Chinese military activities in the South China Sea, and following after Russia’s Annexation of Crimea, the defense strategy of that year still declared commitment “to invest in a substantial military-to-military relationship with China” and willingness “to engage Russia in areas of common interest.” By 2018, the tone and content had changed dramatically. The declassified version of the 2018 US defense strategy singles out inter-state strategic competition and identifies “long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia” to be “the principal priorities for the Department.”
Similarly, in China’s defense documents, the phrase “preparation for military struggle” is barely mentioned in 2008 and 2010, but appears repeatedly in the most recent strategy. The 2015 defense strategy explicitly states that “international competition for the redistribution of power, rights and interests is tending to intensify.” Moreover, in its latest iteration, China also explicitly addresses regional competition with the US, mentioning that “the US carries on its ‘rebalancing’ strategy and enhances its military presence and its military alliances in this region.”
Russia, in turn, perceives a competitive and hostile security environment, with NATO encroachment on Russia’s sphere of influence cited as an important risk. In its most recent strategy it identifies the fact that “world development at the present stage is characterized by increasing global competition” as a military threat. As in the previous iteration, Russia singles out the positioning of “military infrastructure of NATO member countries closer to the borders of the Russian Federation” as a cause for concern.
Within the UK’s defense strategies, we see a similar shift in priorities. The 2010 document still emphasizes terrorism, whereas the one from 2015 mentions “increasing competition between states.” Germany, too, sees the return of interstate competition as an important security challenge and speaks of a “renaissance of traditional power politics.” In the context of deteriorating East–West relations, it explicitly mentions Russia as “rejecting a close partnership with the West and placing emphasis on strategic rivalry.” This stands in stark contrast with its observations in the 2011 strategy document, which named terrorism and civil war as far more important security threats. This is similar to France, which in the 2013 document still identifies the fragility of states as a breeding ground of terrorism as a key risk, but in the foreword to the 2017 defense strategy observes that “on the international stage, the threat of a major conflict is once again a possibility,” while “the emergence of intensified military competition between major powers is causing a shift in warfare.” Overall, the analysis of the officially codified views of these states clearly shows worsening security perceptions and intentions to prepare for increasing interstate military competition.
It is not just the perception of leading states that has changed. Over the last few years, the number of threats issued by the political leaders of key state actors has increased. The use of competitive and even aggressive language in the military domain has become more common, with political leaders even hinting at the use of nuclear weapons. In November of 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that he had been ready to put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert during the Crimea Crisis of 2014, leading to a strong rebuke from then US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter demanding that Russia cease “nuclear saber rattling.” At the 2017 UN General Assembly, President Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea in an exchange of threats with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. China also frequently engages in hostile rhetoric with India over the contested Doklam area, and in April of 2018, the UK and France, alongside the US, threatened to use airstrikes against the Syrian regime in response to the massacre in Duma. These examples do not occur in isolation. Rather, they are part of a broader trend in which key international actors increasingly deploy threatening language in the military domain. To measure this trend, we used the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT). From more than 100,000 news sources, this dataset records events that occur across the globe, and classifies these into one of its 310 categories. We consider the number of instances of negative military rhetorical assertiveness, for example when a state threatens to use weapons against another state. Overall, there was a 10.3 percent increase in the number of instances of negative rhetorical assertiveness between January 2015 and September 2018. Most of this increase is visible after July 2017 (see Figure 1).
Russia is the actor responsible for the largest number of acts of negative military rhetorical assertiveness. If we take the average of each selected leading state since January 2015, Russia uses as much negative military assertive rhetoric as the US, France, Germany, and China combined. As can be seen in the trend lines, Russia’s negative rhetorical military assertiveness has been steadily increasing—as has that of the US. The negative rhetorical military assertiveness of France, Germany, China, and the UK has been relatively stable. These trends are in line with our previous findings.
Overall, this concise overview warrants the conclusion that leading states perceive military competition to be heating up. At the same time, the use of verbal threats in the military domain by political and military leaders has also become increasingly common.
The deterioration of perceptions of the security environment is starting to be matched by efforts on the parts of leading states to increase their military capabilities. China and Russia have been engaging in extensive military build-up and modernization programs over the period under consideration. The US continues to be the top spender, allocating more of its budget to the military than the next seven states combined. European states, which had been falling behind, have recently started to invest more in the build-up and modernization of their military capabilities.
Figure 3 shows that between 2008 and 2018 global military spending increased by $160 billion, to $1.72 trillion in total. This 10.4 percent increase is largely the result of absolute GDP growth, however, rather than additional defense outlays. China is responsible for the lion’s share of this increase: the country doubled its military spending over the past decade, from $120 to $240 billion. According to official data, Russia’s military spending increased between 2008 and 2016 by 71 percent. After a twenty percent decrease in 2017, Russia’s official 2018 defense budget is $66 billion. Experts have noted, however, that a significant proportion of Russian military spending is hidden in a variety of sections of the budget. When this is taken into account, there is actually a slight increase in military spending in recent years. US defense spending declined in 2010 and 2014 by about 8 percent, only to slightly increase again from 2017 onwards, with the 2018 budget ultimately totaling $609 billion. This pattern is set to continue in 2019, as an additional $40 billion has been allocated. As for European states, after decades of shrinking defense budgets, overall defense expenditures increased by 9.5 percent between 2014 and 2018. France increased its military spending between 2014 and 2018 by 8.9 percent, to $57.8 billion, and in similar fashion, Germany increased its military spending over the same period by 14.5 percent to $44.3 billion. Similar to the US, this increase in spending is likely to be continued in the near future. France is looking to increase its military budget for 2019 by $2 billion, whereas the German budget will increase by $4 billion. For the UK, however, spending between 2014 and 2018 decreased, from $48.8 billion to $47.2 billion. Overall, military spending has not dramatically increased across the board, but Figure 4 shows that—with the exception of the UK—leading states have started increasing defense budgets again.
Another important indicator of interstate military competition is the extent to which states invest in the procurement of new weapon systems and platforms, as well as allocate funds to research and development (R&D) of next generation military technologies. A review of the military procurement and military R&D budgets of leading military states shows that, after a period of relative stagnation, these budgets are increasing again.
The US is forging ahead with the renewal and modernization of the US Armed Forces in line with the goal of the 2014 Third Offset Strategy “to identify and invest in innovative ways to sustain and advance America’s military dominance for the 21st century.” This intention becomes clear in the recently approved 2019 budget, which allocates funding for acquiring additional aircrafts (F-35 and P-8A), ships (DDG-51 and T-AO), space systems (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles and Space Based Infrared System), and ground vehicles (Joint Light Tactical Vehicles). The US is also improving and upgrading its nuclear arsenal. In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, it states that it “will pursue select supplements to the replacement program to enhance the flexibility and responsiveness of US nuclear forces.” Cyber continues to be a core component of R&D efforts financed by the Pentagon. Overall, in the military budget request for 2019, military technology R&D received the second largest increase in funding, from $12.2 billion to $13.7 billion. A significant sum will be dedicated to the development of “hypersonic weapons, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, directed energy (i.e., lasers), and electronic warfare.” To further ensure that the US military will be able to leverage rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI), the Pentagon set up the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), which it intends to provide with a $1.7 billion budget over the next five years. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), meanwhile, will be spending more on advanced technology development and less on basic and applied research. The military budget for 2019 sustains US investments in modernizing its nuclear and space systems.
On the other side of the Atlantic, European NATO members follow the US—albeit far behind. In the wake of the financial crises, many European governments reduced their military budgets, which severely affected the military readiness of leading states such as France, Germany, and the UK. In recent years, this trend has been reversed. Figure 5 shows that between 2013 and 2017, European NATO members raised the average percentage of their military budgets dedicated to equipment procurement and R&D by more than fifty percent, to a total average of 17.8 percent. In France, a recent law sets out a budget of €295 billion over the next seven years that allows for the acquisition of more than 1,700 armored vehicles, five frigates, four nuclear-powered attack submarines, nine off-shore patrol vessels, twelve in-flight refueling tankers, 28 Rafale fighter jets, and 55 upgraded Mirage 2000 fighters. If everything goes to plan, France will hit NATO’s defense spending target of two percent of GDP by 2025. Furthermore, the French government has proposed to spend €100 million annually on developing AI for military applications.
Cuts in military spending in previous years also affected the German armed forces. The annual report by the German Parliamentary Commission painted a disturbing picture of shortcomings in personnel, material, and infrastructure. Under Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, however, confidential plans have been introduced to increase the German defense budget by forty percent, to € 60 billion per year between 2019 and 2023. The Capability Profile of the Bundeswehr reportedly calls for “the formation of three divisions with eight fully equipped brigades and four air force units” in addition to eleven frigates—contributing to NATO’s 4 x 30 ambition (thirty land battalions, thirty air fighter squadrons, and thirty ships, all ready to be deployed within thirty days). Germany does not intend to develop or procure “autonomous [weaponized] systems” according to Lieutenant General Ludwig Leinhos, who heads the new Cyber and Information Space Command.
The UK parts ways with the European trend of increasing defense outlays. In recent years, its percentage of the military budget spent on procurement and R&D floated around 22 percent, which is significantly higher than the average European NATO member. The UK has committed to large-scale investments in the renewal of the UK’s nuclear trident, with a new fleet of nuclear submarines under construction, and has procured two new aircraft carriers. The UK’s Combat Air Strategy of 2018 outlines plans to acquire 138 F-35s to succeed its fourth-generation stealth fighter. 48 F-35s are planned to go into service before 2025. Still, doubts have been raised about the strength of the UK’s armed forces and the degree to which military modernization is visible across the different services. A report issued by the House of Commons noted, for instance, “serious deficiencies in the quantities of armour, armoured vehicles and artillery available to the British Army.” Moreover, it has been estimated that the likely gap in funding for the modernization efforts outlined in the Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2015 will amount to around £1–2 billion a year by 2020-21. Secretary of Defense Gavin Williamson has announced the Modernising Defence Programme (MDP), but at the time of writing this paper no plans had been finalized yet. Meanwhile, in the summer of 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May asserted that the UK will remain a “leading defence nation” but refrained from avowing its future status as a “tier one” military power.
The EU is also stepping up its role in defense R&D. In 2017, it launched the European Defence Fund (EDF) to supplement and amplify national investments in defense R&D. Between 2021 and 2027, €13 billion will be spent on R&D and the acquisition of new weapon technologies for EU Member States. Five percent of this amount will be dedicated to disruptive technologies aimed at securing the EU’s position as a technological leader. In addition, €6.5 billion has been allocated to improve strategic transport infrastructures and enhance military mobility. The EU is also seeking to strengthen military ties between Member States through the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).
In the absence of reliable official data for China and Russia’s R&D budgets, we relied on expert analysis to assess the nature of military modernization in these two states. Following the poor performance of Russia’s armed forces in the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia’s leadership implemented several large scale reform and modernization programs. After several failed attempts, this finally gathered steam when President Putin allocated a total of $700 billion to its new armament program for 2020, with the goal to modernize seventy percent of Russia’s armed forces by 2020. By the end of 2017, 59 percent of Russia’s weapon systems had been modernized. Despite the economic downturn, military modernization appears to continue across the armed services. In a meeting with his top military brass in May of 2018, Putin announced that the armed forces would receive 160 new aircrafts, 500 new armored vehicles and artillery systems, and ten warships. Russia’s military modernization is expected to continue judging from Russia’s state armament program for 2027. Meanwhile, Russia also has also continued to upgrade its nuclear arsenal: in 2010, it spent $5.6 billion, a sum that increased to $9.7 billion in 2016. In addition to this, President Putin revealed in March 2018 that Russia has developed a new class of long-range missiles. In the summer of 2018, Russia held its largest ever military exercise since the Cold War, displaying recent acquisitions as well as older weaponry. Russia is also investing in military R&D: between 2011 and 2020, it allocated approximately $30 billion to R&D under the aegis of the Russian Foundation for Advanced Research (RFAR)—although thus far only about a quarter of that money seems to have been spent. RFAR was explicitly created in order “to close the gap in advanced research between Russia and the West.” Russia is also seeking to catch up in the development of autonomous systems. The Russian Military-Industrial Commission set the ambitious target of making thirty percent of military equipment robotic by 2025. In general, Russia’s approach to AI has been characterized as putting emphasis on the robotics and autonomous systems. President Putin has also called for “autonomous robotic complexes” in order to steer developments in this place.
Similar to Russia, China has been engaging in a large scale modernization effort of its armed forces. Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared that by 2035, China’s armed forces should be fully modernized and, according to observers, can operate far from its shores. As part of that modernization effort, plans to reduce the number of serving personnel in the People Liberation Army (PLA) by 300,000 troops were announced in 2015. The intention is to turn the PLA into an agile, 21st-century fighting force. Concretely, this translates into the incorporation of information and computer technologies by the Chinese armed forces . It is estimated that China will spend roughly $60 billion on procurement and defense R&D in 2018. As part of this process, China has significantly expanded its ability to develop indigenous weapons systems to reduce its dependence on foreign assistance. A case in point is the fifth generation J-20 fighter jet, which it declared to be operational in 2018. China’s naval modernization efforts include a wide array of platform and weapon acquisition programs, which allow it to transition from a “brown water” to a “blue water” navy power. China has been actively expanding its nuclear and cyber capabilities in line with the goals outlined in its 2015 defense white paper, which are “to expedite the development of a cyber force, and enhance its capabilities” as well as “strengthen its capabilities for strategic deterrence and nuclear counterattack.” China has boosted its nuclear deterrence with the recent addition of road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), improved nuclear powered ballistic-missile submarines, and a new generation of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). China is also investing heavily in autonomous systems and in AI applications that can be used for military purposes. In order to achieve this, China has established the “Intelligent Unmanned Systems and Systems of Systems Science and Technology Domain Expert Group.” It has also set up Military-Civil Fusion Development Commission, in order to facilitate the military uptake of civilian AI R&D conducted by companies such as Baidu and universities like Tsinghua.
The analysis shows that when it comes to military modernization, interstate military competition seems to be gaining momentum. Russia and China have been pursuing a path of military modernization through the persistent implementation of large-scale programs. The US has recently reinvigorated its already strong commitment to modernization and innovation, in light of the potential disruptive effects associated with AI. Leading European states, meanwhile, have been reversing course and are, albeit incrementally, stepping up their efforts in this domain too.
Cyberspace is becoming increasingly important in interstate military competition. In the past few years, states have executed an assortment of cyber-attacks against vital military and civilian infrastructure of other states both for “subversion, espionage, and sabotage” purposes. Over the past decade, Chinese hackers have repeatedly stolen data concerning critical military technologies from the US, including one case of sensitive information related to a naval warfare program from a US Navy contractor. The US has sabotaged the Iranian nuclear program by inserting a piece of malware called Stuxnet in Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities back in 2010, which allegedly destroyed over 1000 nuclear centrifuges. Russia showed its extensive cyber capabilities to the world when it launched a cyber-attack on Ukraine’s power grid and cut off electricity for a quarter of a million Ukrainian citizens two days before Christmas 2015. There are various attempts to survey the frequency of state-on-state cyber-attacks. The Cyber Incident and Dispute dataset for instance contains 111 cyber incidents which took place in the context of dyadic rivalries between 2001 and 2011. The Cyber Operations Tracker of the Council of Foreign Relations, surveying a larger set of cases, documents 319 state-sponsored cyber operations that were carried out against other states between 2005 and 2018. States, however, are not transparent about when and where cyber-attacks occur.Read more...
Despite the absence of great power war since 1953, and the relatively lower salience of interstate war, states continue to clash militarily, both directly and indirectly. Traditional interstate wars featured only infrequently over the last decade, numbering between zero and two per year worldwide. These numbers have included the longstanding conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, with the battle of Tsorona, and the rivalry between India and Pakistan, which features intermittent border skirmishes that result in dozens of deaths on both sides each year. Meanwhile, violent crises that did not escalate into full-blown war were slightly more numerous, although these too remained in the single digits over the last decade. The Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research identified seven violent crises in its most recent survey: Armenia–Azerbaijan, China–Vietnam (and some other countries, including the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia) , Dominican Republic–Haiti, Sudan–South Sudan, Syria–Israel, Syria–US, and US–Mexico.
Although the number of direct military confrontations has remained relatively stable, indirect military confrontation has become more frequent. States have been actively intervening in a growing number of intrastate conflicts. Instead of engaging with their adversaries directly, they provide financial, material, and military support to different parties in internationalized intrastate conflict. Based on calculations using data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme, it was concluded that the number of internationalized intrastate conflicts quintupled between 2007 and 2017. When compared to internal conflicts and interstate conflicts, internationalized intrastate conflicts constituted eleven percent of all conflicts in 2007, but 39 percent of all conflicts in 2017. Figure 6 shows the increase of internationalized intrastate conflicts over time.
From Ukraine to Afghanistan and from Syria to Yemen, a growing number of contemporary conflict theaters feature multiple conflict actors supported by external states. One analyst even asserts that “it is hardly an exaggeration […] that all of today’s major wars are in essence proxy wars.” In such conflicts, leading states can be competing directly in the military domain for multiple reasons. They are seeking to consolidate their position and confirm or establish their sphere of influence over other nation-states to protect an assortment of geopolitical—military–strategic, security, economic—interests. Using the Syrian conflict as an example, the support that Russia and Iran give to the Assad regime can be attributed to a combination of these interests. Russia cultivates a patron–client relationship and is expanding its naval facility in Tartus. Meanwhile, Iran props up an ally in the Sunni–Shiite schism dividing the region, as it creates a foothold close to Israeli borders at the same time. At the same time, Israel supports various Syrian rebel groups in order to keep Iran-affiliated groups away from its border, seeking to prevent a similar situation it faces with Hezbollah at the border with Lebanon. Foreign intervention also allows states to reaffirm their commitment to regional client states and to promote other foreign policy objectives. Such considerations are likely to figure in the US grand strategy towards the Middle East, geared at isolating Iran, and at strengthening partnerships with Israel and with the oil-producing and major weapon systems importing states in the region. Such conflict theatres provide an excellent opportunity to test as well as to show third parties the performance of new weapon systems in live battle. The performance of Russia’s A2AD systems in the Syrian theatre engendered interest from a range of states to acquire advanced surface to air missile systems from Russia. Russia, for example, has also been accused of using Ukraine as a “test lab for cyberwar” to signal its cyber warfare capabilities to the outside world. It has been quite convincingly argued that Russia’s cyber capabilities successfully deterred the Obama administration from responding to Russia’s meddling in the US elections. The danger of escalation in these theatres is clear and present, despite concerted attempts to deescalate these conflicts through hotlines. Russian aircrafts have been downed, deliberately or accidentally, more than once in the Levant (by Turkey in November 2015 and by Syria in September 2018). In February of 2018, Russian mercenaries operating in Syria were killed in a US airstrike. Also outside of hot conflict situations, the risk of escalation is present. Close encounters between US and Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea are a regular occurrence, as China seeks to establish sovereignty over the territories it claims in the South China Sea.
Overall, this concise review of the present military activity shows that direct state-on-state conflict, traditionally referred to as interstate war, remains relatively infrequent, but that internationalized intrastate conflict is increasing, which leads to indirect contact between states. Thus far this has not escalated into full-blown war, but the risk of friction leading to armed confrontation is real.
This paper has examined trends in interstate military competition over the past decade by gauging the perceptions and intentions, capabilities, and activities of leading powers in the system. The principal conclusion that emerges from our analysis is that interstate military competition is increasing and can be expected to continue doing so over the next few years. Leading states characterize the security environment in competitive terms and have cast non-allied states in a more antagonistic light in their official defense documents. The use of threatening language in the military domain has also increased, especially among the major powers. Military expenditure has not seen as dramatic an increase. However, with the exception of the UK, leading states have started allocating more funding to their armed forces, following significant increases in the defense budgets of Russia and China. At the same time, the modernization of armed forces enjoys greater priority across the board. China and Russia have set course on a dedicated path to military modernization for over a decade now, while the US similarly continues to be strongly committed to military modernization. In addition to incremental renewal of their armed forces, all three powers pursue disruptive innovation too, recognizing the potentially game-changing impact that AI may have on the future military power balance. Leading European states have shifted direction, and are gradually raising their military R&D outlays. Finally, our examination of activity reveals a large increase in the number of internationalized intrastate conflicts, which carries considerable risk of escalation from indirect to direct state-on-state conflict (see Figure 7).
The key implications for the Netherlands lie in the risks posed by interstate military competition to the territorial and economic security of the Netherlands and its allies, and the violation of international law.
First, increased military interstate competition poses a continuing threat to the territorial sovereignty of NATO allies, especially on Europe’s eastern borders, which is relevant in the context of Article 5 which binds NATO members to collective defense. The probability of a Russian attack has certainly diminished since NATO has stepped up its enhanced forward presence along Europe’s eastern borders, but it remains within the realm of the possible. The impact of a violation of a NATO ally’s territorial sovereignty would be considerable, while its second-order effects—a direct military confrontation with Russia—could potentially be catastrophic.
Second, increasing military competition is likely to prompt states to implement further protectionist measures for national security purposes. The probability of this is very likely—simply because of the fact that this is already happening. US President Donald Trump, for instance, signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in August 2018. The NDAA banned the US government or anyone that wants to work with the US government from using components from Huawei, ZTE, and a number of other Chinese communications companies. Similarly, in September 2017, Trump, acting on a recommendation from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, prevented the Chinese take-over of Lattice Semiconductor, because it was involved in the production of essential components for military technology. The renewal of US sanctions against Iran following the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018 is another direct consequence of interstate military competition. The impact on Dutch economic interests of such protective measures is minor to moderate. Dutch corporations are penalized if they do business with states such as Iran, in that they no longer receive access to the US market. What is more, financial service institutions are no longer allowed to cater to these corporations, presenting these firms with a twofold setback. At the moment of writing it is not yet clear whether the European special purpose vehicle (SPV) to shield European firms trading with Iran from US sanctions will work. Overall, the precise costs of these protectionist tendencies require further study, but they are certainly not to be underestimated and are likely to grow should military competition increase.
Third, in the context of a competitive security environment, the Netherlands will likely see itself forced to spend more on defense and security, which will result in smaller budgets allocated to other policy areas. This is sometimes referred to as ‘the guns versus butter’ dilemma. The probability of this is very high, although the economic impact is likely to be relatively minor also due to potential trickle-down effects of defense spending.
Fourth and finally, in the context of internationalized intrastate conflict, international law is challenged and violated. States participating in internationalized intrastate conflict do not always do so on the request of the receiving state or with a United Nations Security Council mandate. Meanwhile, governments that seek to hold on to power make use of war tactics that are in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions. This manifests itself in various ways, amongst others through the frequent targeting of non-combatants, including children, and the use of weapons that have been outlawed by international regimes, such as chemical weapons and cluster munitions. The probability of this happening is very high— because it is already been part and parcel of state behavior in contemporary conflict hotspots—and the impact is considerable.
In conclusion, interstate military competition has been heating up over the past few years. Regrettably, there are few signs of this trend reversing in the near future. Prudent policy makers will therefore have to prepare for a period of interstate military competition.