“Right now, what I would say from an information space and a cyber domain, [China and Russia] are certainly peer competitors,” U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck told the annual Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence on March 9.
“But the true threat, I think the military threat right now is Russia…because they have the kinetic capability, the nuclear capability, the power projection capability in their bombers, their submarines as well.
“So that keeps us totally employed each and every day, just tracking them.”
The forum is sponsored by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank. Experts from around the world assemble to discuss a range of related issues. China, Russia and Ukraine were regularly mentioned during the two days of speeches, panel discussions and fireside chats.
VanHerck, who’s logged more than 3,200 hours on aircraft such as the F-35A fighter and B-2A and B-1B bombers, suggested Russia’s woeful performance since it invaded Ukraine 13 months ago detracts from its true capabilities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed his “special operation” would last three days when he sent some 150,000 troops toward Kyiv on Feb. 24, 2022.
Since then, Ukrainian forces claim more than 629,000 Russian casualties, including some 157,000 killed. As of March 10, 2023, their daily update claimed they had destroyed 3,448 Russian tanks, 6,742 armoured combat vehicles, 2,475 artillery pieces, 18 ships and boats, and almost 600 helicopters and other aircraft.
“There’s discussion about Russia potentially being the paper tiger from what we’ve seen in Ukraine and the problems that they’ve had,” cautioned VanHerck. “But I would highlight that they’ve been just as active, if not more active, globally in the air domain, the surface domain, and the maritime realm—and the subsurface domain—projecting power around the globe.”
The latter evidently alludes to the fact there are more than 10,000 underground military facilities worldwide and, while underground warfare was a key component of 20th century wars in Europe, Vietnam and the Middle East, it’s considered likely to take on an even more critical role in future conflicts.
Indeed, subterranean warfare has underscored several Ukrainian military successes as they use tunnel networks to provide sanctuary for civilians and deny Russian forces control of major cities.
“Such networks allow small units to move undetected by aerial sensors and emerge in unexpected locations to launch surprise attacks and then essentially disappear,” Paul J. Springer, a professor of comparative military studies at Air University, wrote for The Conversation in April 2022.
“For an invader who does not possess a thorough map of the subterranean passages, this can present a nightmare scenario, leading to massive personnel losses, plummeting morale and an inability to finish the conquest of their urban objective.”
“But now is the time to take action, not wait until China has the same capabilities.”
At sea, Russian submarines capable of carrying 40 nuclear-armed cruise missiles have expanded their operations into the Pacific. China will compound the threat as it develops its technology, said VenHerck.
“I would like to say that China is eight to 10 years behind Russia from a kinetic standpoint,” said the Norad boss. “But now is the time to take action, not wait until China has the same capabilities.
“We’re going to have a persistent, proximate threat from two peer competitors off both coasts and that will take away our decision space from our senior leaders, and we have to be aware of that.”
Balloons aside, his immediate concern with China has more to do with the threat that its cyber warriors pose to command-and-control capabilities, to critical infrastructure and to culture through social media.
Canada’s defence chief, General Wayne Eyre, said the rules-based international order is the source of our peace and prosperity, and “rarely has it been threatened the way that it’s being threatened now.”
“We know now, that we have enemies, that won’t stand down against anything, to hurt our values, even our way of life, enemies that will aspire to a world where democracy, liberty and civil liberties ruled under the weight of tyranny,” he said.
“China continues to act assertively and aggressively to expand its regional and global influence,” he continued. “It has demonstrated a willingness to use diplomatic, military and economic coercion to bully nations around the world.
“Russia…has demonstrated that it’ll go to any lengths—brutal, unforgiving lengths—to undermine sovereignty, democracy and liberal values.“The fact that Russia’s military ambitions in Ukraine have so far failed is tribute to the unconquerable spirit of the Ukrainian people and the solidarity of their allies and friends, including us here in Canada.”
Canada has committed more than $1 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since the Russian invasion. Combined with direct financial, humanitarian and other assistance to the wartorn country, total Canadian aid exceeds $5 billion.