Many forms of coronavirus exist among both humans and animals, but this new strain has caused alarm. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention graphic via the Military Health System.
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Editorial: Competition and COVID-19

April 1, 2020

This is the era of great power competition, and the means of competition are growing increasingly clear and diverse. 

We are building a Space Force because competition and risk is growing in space. The Air Force sent a B-52 bomber to Africa in February, not to drop bombs, but to demonstrate U.S. military power and strength and communicate American resolve and commitment. The message was for allies and enemies in Africa—and for China, which is competing for those allies’ allegiance. So, it is no accident when President Donald Trump calls the coronavirus that cased the COVID-19 pandemic “the Chinese Virus.” This, too, is competition.

It works both ways. 

The virus originated in China’s Hubei province, and was initially called, even by the Chinese, the Wuhan virus, after the city where it began. Now, fearful of a potential international backlash and eager to leverage its wealth, China is offering aid in the form of masks, medical advice, and other equipment to eager recipients around the globe. This is the kind of generous aid for which the U.S. has long been known. Indeed, during many past crises, the U.S. was the only nation large and rich enough to provide significant emergency relief.

No more. 

China’s global charm offensive is competition of another sort. Like its claim that it never “engaged in any form of cyber theft” (see “Verbatim,” p. 5), China’s declarations in mid-March that it had registered no new confirmed cases of the coronavirus are what President Trump might call “fake news” and former Vice President Joe Biden would dub “malarkey.” When China amended that claim a few days later, saying the only new cases it registered were individuals arriving in China from someplace else, China was competing. Its message: China had overcome the crisis, while Western nations were shutting down under pressure. 

Was China lying? Not necessarily. China may well have stopped testing its citizens at home; doing so is only useful in tracking the spread of the disease, and once it has spread, further testing is essentially pointless. Without a cure, only symptoms can be treated, and treatments are the same whether one tests positive or not. 

Projecting to the world that China is the good Samaritan, acting as a kindly neighbor to its brother nations, is not altruism. It is competition. Unburdened by the ugly business of democracy and debate, China was able to present omniscient competence to a world undergoing unprecedented economic upheaval. This was opportunism, not altruism. 

This is the era of great power competition, and the means of competition are growing increasingly clear and diverse.

Over the past few years, as Pentagon leaders embraced the concept of great power competition, many failed to grasp the full context of that message. Now, it should be clearer. This competition is not just a 21st century arms race. It’s a full-on rivalry, the likes of which we have not seen since the Cold War. Then, the Space Race and the Olympics were tests of national competence, used to demonstrate the merits of competing systems. It was messy democracy and capitalism versus centralized, single-party authority. It was long-haired American amateurs against grim-faced Russian professionals, each playing for national pride. In their different responses to the pandemic, each nation—indeed, each state—is likewise competing, showing its people and its neighbors how leaders believe the crisis should be handled. Is our country getting it right? Is there a better way ahead? 

Competition for superiority applies to every aspect of every system, including diplomacy, commerce, and emergency response. 

Meanwhile, the business of government goes on. Even as Congress and the administration shift their focus to the crisis before them, the legislative sausage-making—that is, the budget process—continues. Here, we can see a different kind of intense competition, as the military services grapple for relevance and funding at the end of an era of plenty. 

Budgets will be flat at best for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in the aftermath of the pandemic-fueled financial crisis, that may be overly optimistic. At the same time, each of the military services is busy reinventing itself with an eye toward being capable of waging war with China a decade from now. The Air Force is giving up near-term capacity in tanker, fighter, and close-air-support aircraft to develop future capabilities, including hypersonic missiles and a combat-cloud-like connectivity that will enable everyone in the battlespace to exchange targeting, location, and other data in real time. If successful, it will revolutionize warfare by presenting enemies with an overwhelming, complex, and perpetually changing threat picture. 

Similarly, each of the services is trying to invent a new future in which its branch of the military is central to a future contest with China. The Army is imagining long-range artillery with a range of 1,000 miles or more—taking aim at target sets traditionally left to the Air Force or Navy. The Navy is rethinking its aircraft carrier battle groups for an age when maneuverable hypersonic weapons could turn those 4.5 acres of floating, sovereign U.S. territory into big, slow targets­—or worse,  vast, mass graves at the bottom of the sea. The Marine Corps’ plan is to cut back battalions, helicopters, and jump-jets—and dispense with tanks—in favor of new, unmanned aircraft and long-range cruise missile batteries it can deploy from high-speed landing craft. 

Logic must prevail. Not every service will be relevant to every fight. Investment must be prioritized to fund capabilities and strategies that will best deliver the needed effects. America will never fight a land war in China; it could not possibly win. China’s strategy is designed to threaten its neighbors and to keep the United States at a distance. Russia’s strategy is similar—it, too, intimidates neighbors and is developing long-range strike capabilities intended to hold U.S. military assets at risk. Both are likewise highly skilled in cyber warfare, recognizing those skills as critical to threatening Western democracies and their powerful modern economies. 

More than any other, two U.S. military services are critical to neutralizing such long-range threats and, if necessary, to defeating them. Unique in all the world, the capabilities wrought by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force are unmatched today. The imperative for the Pentagon and Congress is to ensure that fact remains true in 2030 and beyond.