Following the death of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani in an American drone strike, conflict between Iran and the United States seems a possibility. This article will focus not on the killing’s implications for Iraqi politics, its morality, or its legality; much ink has already been spilled on these topics (and this Foreign Policy article sums up most of my thoughts). Rather, I wish to note that an escalation of hostilities against Iran could be seriously harmful to the long-term capability of the American military and may lead to China claiming technological primacy in key domains.
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States poured billions of dollars into systems necessary for conducting low-intensity warfare against insurgents, including mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs), Predator and Reaper UAVs, and a wealth of counter-IED devices. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of additional personnel were recruited to meet increased manning requirements, and benefits are still being paid to the scores of veterans injured in the line of duty. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) has cost the DoD approximately $1.5 trillion since 2001. Non-DoD entities, such as the VA, have undoubtedly spent tens of billions (if not hundreds) on war-related expenses as well. Needless to say, the War on Terror has stretched the federal budget and sucked funds away from critical modernization efforts. From 2001 to the late 2010s, American innovation in the high-end realm largely stagnated, and only recently have new programs (LRASM, AIM-260, etc.) begun to push the envelope once again.
While America was fighting insurgencies, China augmented its high-end capabilities at an astonishing speed. When the 21st century dawned, China’s military was an obsolete, bloated force consisting mainly of lackluster Cold War-era systems. Nowadays, China boasts the world’s second-largest high-end warship fleet, a massive anti-ship cruise missile arsenal, the world’s only operational anti-ship ballistic missile system, a large arsenal of precision conventional and nuclear ballistic missiles, two stealth aircraft types, and a sophisticated network of over-the-horizon radars and space-based sensing assets. While some sectors of the PLA’s industrial base, such as carriers and nuclear submarines, still lag the United States, others threaten to reach parity in the not-so-distant future. Thanks to China’s continued economic growth, strong domestic engineering base, and freedom from war-related expenses, the PLA’s military technologies will only continue to improve at a rapid pace.
Since the US began with a large technological edge, China’s leaps have not yet proven fatal to America’s qualitative advantage. However, a protracted conflict with Iran, even if limited to low-intensity operations, could severely erode America’s technological lead by diverting another decade or two of funding and leadership attention from critical modernization initiatives. The balance of military power in Asia and Europe over the next century will be decided by hypersonics, artificial intelligence, space and counter-space capability, networks, and other emerging technologies. No matter how dangerous Iran’s advances may seem, analysts must not lose sight of the broader strategic picture and the opportunity costs posed by seemingly endless conflict in the Middle East.