China and Russia's military arsenals are terrifying in scale - but how would they perform in combat?

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Roland Oliphant
·7 min read
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Chinese soldiers ride atop tanks as they drive in a parade - Getty
Chinese soldiers ride atop tanks as they drive in a parade - Getty

Peel away the euphemisms, and Britain’s Integrated Review of defence and security policy identified two global adversaries: Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Both countries have invested heavily in their own military modernisation over the past few decades. But they have different priorities, and present radically different challenges.

China has more than doubled its official defence budget over the last decade to 1.355 trillion yuan (£152 billion) for 2021. And analysts estimate it spends far more on defence than it reports publicly.

In 2017, President Xi Jinping announced a goal for the People’s Liberation Army to become “world class” with the ability to “fight and win” global wars by 2049.

And China has wasted no time boosting its arsenal and capabilities.

Besides direct military spending, it has invested heavily in both state-owned and private sector defence companies to acquire new technologies - ringing some alarm bells in the UK and US about the wisdom of partnering with Chinese institutions.

Defence spending
Defence spending

The results speak for themselves. China’s Navy is already the largest in the world with approx 350 ships and submarines, including over 130 major surface combatants.

It is expected to have five aircraft carriers afloat by 2030 and is rapidly expanding its fleet of destroyers.

It has developed long-range precision cruise and ballistic missiles, early warning radars and air defence systems to allow it to dominate airspace far into the Pacific.

And it recently unveiled hypersonic weapons designed to take on US carrier groups.

All of this has sets alarm bells ringing not only in Western capitals, but in Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, all of which have reason to fear China’s huge new maritime power.

J-15 fighter jets are seen on the flight deck of China's sole aircraft carrier - AFP
J-15 fighter jets are seen on the flight deck of China's sole aircraft carrier - AFP

Last week, twenty Chinese aircraft entered Taiwan's airspace in the largest incursion to date.

But the People’s Liberation Army is not necessarily invincible.

The military faces major personnel challenges, struggling to recruit, train and retain a professional soldiers and facing down a morale problem fuelled by perceived corruption.

And it has not fought a war in more than 40 years.

How the PLA would actually perform in combat is the “million-dollar question,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert in Chinese security policy at Stanford University and think tank American Enterprise Institute.

“No officer in the US military considers that orders might not be carried out ... if you tell your troops to charge a hill, they charge a hill,” she added.

“In China, that’s a huge uncertainty, whether the troops would actually run toward the bullets, instead of away.”

Even “Xi Jinping doesn’t know, and this is the thing that imposes the most caution on Chinese leadership, the uncertainty of how the Chinese military is actually going to perform.”

Military size: UK v China v Russia
Military size: UK v China v Russia

Mr Xi has tried to tackle the morale issue with frequent calls for soldiers to be “combat-ready”, exhortations for loyalty to the party, and an anti-corruption drive that has also been used to installed officers loyal to him in key positions.

But experts say Western countries should be thinking about much more than how many ships and tanks China can field.

China is no longer ‘hiding and biding’ – a Deng Xiaoping doctrine that the country should hide its capabilities while dealing with the outside world.

Instead, it is projecting power around the world with an increasingly assertive economic, political and diplomatic stance.

There are growing concerns over China’s cyber warfare capabilities, as well as its ambitions in space.

Its behaviour in the South China Sea, where it has incrementally built on rocks and reefs to exercise its claims of sovereignty in what the UN considers international waters, has raised worries about its plans in the Arctic.

China's aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailing during a drill at sea - AFP
China's aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailing during a drill at sea - AFP

And many analysts believe the $1 trillion Belt and Road initiative, China’s flagship international infrastructure investment programme, could translate to global military leverage in future.

Russia lacks China’s enormous economic clout. But it too has been diligently investing in its military capabilities since the early 2000s.

This year, two-thirds of the Russian military budget, which at £44.1 billion is slightly lower than that of the UK, will be spent on purchasing and modernising military gear.

Russian’s defence chief, in his annual report for the upper house of parliament a year ago, boasted that Russia has doubled its military capabilities in the past eight years in the face of a growing threat from NATO.

And while Britain is cutting its armoured force to just 148 tanks as it bets heavily on cyber and automation, Russia has not neglected conventional firepower.

A servicemen of the tank troops is seen during a rehearsal for a military parade in St. Petersburg, Russia - NurPhoto
A servicemen of the tank troops is seen during a rehearsal for a military parade in St. Petersburg, Russia - NurPhoto

“Russians believe that tanks win wars, and now they’re ready for a big tank battle against Ukraine or in other places, and they have been training and demonstrating their capability to swiftly mobilise hundred thousands of men and large amounts of equipment,” Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst, told the Telegraph.

Russia now boasts the world’s largest tank fleet, with over 15,000 tanks in its armoury.

With 900,000 troops, the world’s fourth largest number of active military personnel, it would have an overwhelming numerical advantage in an all-European war.

Nato is estimated to have no more than 10,000 troops near the Russian border.

Russia is also growing its military footprint abroad.

Besides expanding air and naval bases in Syria, it is believed to have deployed deniable mercenaries to conflict zones including Libya and the Central African Republic.

A pro-Russian fighter from Chechnya stands near a damaged Ukrainian armoured vehicle  - Getty
A pro-Russian fighter from Chechnya stands near a damaged Ukrainian armoured vehicle - Getty

And at the end of last year, it announced a deal with Sudan to establish Russia’s first naval base in the Indian Ocean.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, this is all justified by one big threat.

The year before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the military conflict in eastern Ukraine, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, head of the Russian General Staff, made a speech in 2013 to warn the Kremlin that the US and Western nations were waging covert warfare around the world by inciting protests and supporting regime change.

President Vladimir Putin eagerly bought the idea of the malign West fighting a hybrid war against Russia.

The tidal wave of propaganda, subversion, cyber attacks and conventional military aggression that hit Ukraine the following year was part of Russia’s response to that perceived threat.

It also underpins an investment in strategic weapons. Among the most anticipated additions to Russia’s arsenal this year are the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles and the Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Avangard, hailed by Mr Putin as a unique weapon, is believed to be able to fly 27 times faster than the speed of sound, allowing it to bypass missile defence.

President of Russia and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Vladimir Putin makes a speech in Red Square during a Victory Day military parade - Getty
President of Russia and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Vladimir Putin makes a speech in Red Square during a Victory Day military parade - Getty

Unlike China’s, Russia’s army is battle hardened.

Wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine and Syria have provided soldiers and commanders valuable experience in fighting against both conventional peer adversaries and insurgents.

Russia’s new enthusiasm for military adventurism has not been without its setbacks.

A clash between Russian Wagner mercenaries - not technically under Russian army command - and American forces in Syria in 2018 ended in disaster.

And Russian-made Pantsir air defence systems suffered badly at the hands of Turkish drones in Libya last year.

But advertising a heightened capacity for risk and violence may be a reward in itself.

In 2018, President Putin stunned the world by interrupting his run-of-the-mill state of the nation address for a video presentation showing how far Russian nuclear missiles can travel.

One of the computer-generated videos showed nukes hitting South Florida - a deliberate attempt to grab the attention of the West, according to Mr Felgenhauer.

“He believes that by demonstrating that we have those terrible weapons [Moscow will] persuade the West to make political concessions, and that they will understand that fighting Russia is not an option,” he said.