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As Adam recently reminded us to beware bad quantitative measures, it’s important to remember that bad qualitative ones are similarly subversive. To stay on the subject of Sino-American rivalry, note David Axe’s post comparing the J-20’s progress to American frustration with its 5th generation fighter programs. While the reader’s first temptation is to fear for American superiority because China appears to be developing new aircraft faster than America, jet-for-jet comparisons and procurement process envy only tell part of the story. Even when Axe notes that China’s stealth programs have their own problems, I think comparing weapons systems that China isn’t likely to field equivalents to in large numbers leads debate down the wrong track.
States with the best hardware or most technically-impressive defense establishments don’t automatically win. Niall Ferguson, in his Pity of War, pointed out that the Central Powers were more fiscally efficient in inflicting casualties. In World War II, the Allied powers were often technically inferior side. Certainly the German R&D programs had some notable advantages over U.S. equivalents in some fields. The Germans led the way in sophisticated tanks, aircraft, small arms, and rocket and jet technology. But ultimately, logistical and geographic advantages bought the Allied coalitions time that initially technically or tactically superior foes could ill afford to waste.
Similarly, while China’s development of 5th generation fighter technology is certainly concerning, it’s not the prime concern in theater. The more concerning issue is that China might be able to muster a large number of platforms and personnel that are good enough to deny a more limited number of qualitatively superior American and allied equivalents. John Stillion and Scott Perdue made this point, most explicitly on a tactical scale, in “Air Combat Past, Present and Future,” noting sortie generation – with scant mention of J-20s, and even with soft-balled estimates of Chinese A2/AD measures against American local infrastructure – could deliver devastating results as American airmen struggled to overcome distance and inferior numbers.
If America suffers a disappointing result in a conventional war in the near future, it will likely not be because the victor fielded, pound-for-pound, better equipment. It would more likely be that the enemy is able to “get there first and with the most,” and maintain that longer than the U.S. is politically willing to muster additional resources from either geographic redistribution or internal economic extraction. None of this to say that technological superiority or fast R&D don’t necessarily matter, but only to note they only matter to the extent they can leverage advantages or mitigate disadvantages in the broader geographical and logistical framework that allows the arms to be brought to bear.