In the run-up to the Great Financial Crisis, the Western world was at the zenith of the unipolar moment. American strength and dominance was taken for granted, and the countries that today have become the US’s bitter rivals – Russia and China – were still imagined to be on the path to becoming assimilated into the Western economic and political order.
As a result, Western defence planners envisioned only two ways in which the West would have to fight in the years ahead. Firstly, the West saw itself engaging in short, sharp and stunningly high-tech interventions against “rogue states” such as North Korea, Libya and Iran. Secondly, the West would be engaged in “peacekeeping missions”; fighting various counter-insurgency battles in the more benighted corners of the world, all in the service of eventually bringing the rest of humanity into the liberal democracy and market economy model that was hailed as the last word in human political and social development. In the age after the end of history, this was how war was meant to be fought.
These dreams are now obsolete. Worse yet, in 2023 they appear to have been downright foolish, even suicidal for the collective West. The conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated that industrial warfare is back; in truth, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it never went away. Russia was derided as an economy the size of Belgium and the Netherlands at the onset of the war, and experts around the West were certain that such a relatively small economy could not endure a drawn-out conflict. The Russians would run out of missiles, and then they would run out of shells, and then eventually they’d run out of bullets and hand grenades and shovels as well.
More than 500 days after the invasion of Ukraine, the truth has turned out to be the opposite. GDP in unadjusted dollar terms matters for nothing when it comes to making war, because artillery shells are made out of steel, not paper money. Thus, having the steel industry and factories but no money counts for quite a lot, while having money but no steel industry and no artillery factories counts for little. The recent news that the US would send cluster bombs to Ukraine – a controversial weapon type that has been banned by most Nato countries – was telling. Not so much in moral terms, but for what it told us about the United States: the world’s largest economy was nearly out of conventional ammunition to send to Europe. And this after raiding deep into its own stocks, while scrounging up ammo from every allied nation on the planet.
In 2017 the reaction in Washington to Donald Trump’s comments on China – saying that it was the big competitor, that it was eating America’s lunch, that it was the real threat – was generally one of disbelief, even of mockery. A mere six years later, discussing an upcoming war with China is a bipartisan pastime. Increasingly, to hear American politicians talk, that war is inevitable; the timescales aren’t exactly long either. One term bandied about in DC these days is the “Davidson window”; a term named after Admiral Philip Davidson, former commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command, who put the most likely date for a conflict over Taiwan at 2027.
War fever consumes Washington these days. Consider a conversation hosted in March by the US Center for Strategic and International Studies, which featured the Republican representative Mike Waltz from Florida, and the Democrat representative Jason Crow from Colorado, both of whom are on the House Armed Services Committee. During the discussion, both Waltz and Crow acted as if a war with China were a foregone conclusion. Waltz said that the US was in “a race against time”. Crow went much, much farther: he openly advocated for the US lifting its self-imposed limits on how many members of the US military in uniform are allowed to be in Taiwan at any one time. Sure, this might be provocative to the Chinese, Crow conceded, but he said “the cat is out of the bag” on Taiwan and “we have both chosen sides”. In the West we have gone from a world where a great-power conflict was unimaginable, to one where there is growing bipartisan agreement in the US congress that trying to avoid a great-power war is a foolish waste of time, because the war is inevitable.
[See also: Will Ukraine run out of ammunition?]
So is great power conflict, even a Third World War, as likely as some in Washington think? The answer is no, but this is less good news than it may appear. The Second World War was the ultimate industrial war, and so it pitted the entire productive might of the world’s greatest powers against each other. No new washing machines or car models were released during the height of America’s participation: industrial capacity went completely into the effort to destroy the Axis powers. Jukebox and typewriter factories produced M1 carbines in endless quantities; car manufacturers became tank manufacturers overnight. None of that is possible for Western countries any more.
Take the example of Britain. The country lost more than fifteen thousand tanks during the Second World War. Today, Britain has less than two hundred fifty of its main battle tanks, and about a third of those no longer work. Because the UK no longer has any capacity to build new tanks (the last tank factory closed in the 2010s), a larger and larger share of the UKs remaining tanks now exist only to be “cannibalised”: taken apart for spare parts to put into the fewer and fewer tanks that still run. Between 2010 and 2014 the Ministry of Defence “disposed” of 43 Challenger 2 tanks, which make up the bulk of British armoured forces, by putting them “beyond any economic repair”, a freedom of information request by the Times discovered.
Could Britain participate in the great-power conflict being envisioned in Washington? Sure, as long as it’s fought very close to the British Isles, and everyone involved makes a gentleman’s agreement that the war can’t last longer than two weeks. Past that point, British ammunition stocks will run out, and there are no longer any jukebox and typewriter factories to convert to military production, nor the trained personnel needed to work the plants. It is about as unrealistic for the UK to return to the way it fought the Second World War as it would be to return to the tactics and weaponry used at the Battle of Agincourt. The issue isn’t that Britain has somehow forgotten longbow “technology” (though in some ways it probably has), but that the British economy does not produce tens of thousands of (largely Welsh) yeomen who have mastered longbow archery since childhood.
Having thought that industrial warfare was dead, the West has been slow to wake up to the full scope of what its self-imposed deindustrialisation really implies. In its own internal briefings, the Pentagon now estimates that Chinese shipbuilding capacity is 200 times greater than US capacity, and there is no way to close that gap. As a point of comparison, the gulf between Japan and the US in the Second World War was a “mere” ten to twenty times in favour of the US, which was – quite correctly – deemed to be a fundamentally insurmountable power imbalance. To think that this simply implies that the US would go into a conflict with China at a disadvantage, but that it could still fight and win in the same manner and using the same tools as it fought and won in previous industrial conflicts, is to fail to grasp just how much the world has changed.
Once you deindustrialise, you can no longer engage in warfare that involves using – and then losing – tens and tens of thousands of tanks, aeroplanes and armoured cars, and using hundreds of millions of artillery shells. That doesn’t mean that warfare becomes impossible: there have been many wars, large and small, fought in central Africa within living memory. But industrial warfare? No, that belongs to nations with large industrial bases. And for the West to rebuild those to the level that they were in, say, 1960, hardly promises to be a quick affair. It took more than a generation to deindustrialise, and it will probably take just as long to undo it, if it can even be undone.
All warfare belongs to a time and a place. Just as tomorrow promises us no Welsh longbowmen bravely putting down the flower of the French nobility, the time of the US building thousands of liberty ships and tens of thousands of planes to throw into the Pacific has gone. The Third World War is not coming. The fact that it can no longer materialise in the world we are now living in will, in the fullness of time, come to be seen for what it is: as both a great and needed blessing, and a truly terrible disaster.
[See also: Russia and the new language of war]