Why are U.S., Russia still top global powers in 21st century?

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst   |   Jan. 19, 2009 at 4:28 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- The United States is in an economic recession and more deeply in debt than at any time in its history. Russia, which needs oil export prices of $90 a barrel to break even in the world, faces a future in which global oil prices have plunged to $34 a barrel. Yet the United States remains the dominant military power in the world, and Russia still reigns unchallenged in the No. 2 spot. What's their secret?

Certainly both nations remain unrivaled in their thermonuclear arsenals and in the land- and sea-based strategic nuclear arsenals to launch and deliver those fearful missiles. But the continuing U.S. and Russian global military superiority that was really established in 1943 at the height of World War II remains the most important factor in global politics 65 years later. That is because the conventional military forces of both nations and the domestic industrial complexes supplying them remain unchallenged around the world.

The major European nations led by Germany, and Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia, all have established outstanding advanced commercial industrial complexes since 1950. But they have only been able to do so, and to acquire dominant segments in the global marketplace, especially in their industrial exports to America, precisely because the U.S. conventional military as well as nuclear umbrella have allowed them to invest in profitable commercial programs rather than costly military ones.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union -- and Russia as the prime Soviet successor state -- have continued to invest big in their military-industrial sectors as well.

First the Europeans and now the Chinese as well are finding that it takes a lot longer to develop major defense industrial programs than they expected. As we have noted in previous UPI columns, the European A400M military air transport program is now billions of euros and years behind schedule, forcing some of the companies that had expected to rely upon it to seek to buy already available U.S. air transports instead to bridge the gap until the long-troubled A400M is finally ready.

Uncertainties about whether the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co.'s KC-45 air tanker would face similar delays could militate against it when the U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense reassess the KC-45 against its all-American rival the Boeing KC-767 for the second time.

Similarly, China continues to eagerly seek to buy the proven old Ilyushin Il-76 jet air transport from Russia and, if it cannot do so, is looking at the Ukrainian-built Antonov An-70 instead. The Ukrainian Antonov family of enormous military air transports or air lifters was, of course, like the Russian air transports, descended from the longstanding air transport programs of the Soviet era.

It takes decades to build a successful military industrial complex. The huge U.S. air and ground forces industrial manufacturing complexes that apparently sprang into existence overnight during World War II had been, in fact, globally dominant for generations in the civilian sphere before they achieved sufficient maturity and sophistication to transfer their expertise to the military-industrial sector. Russia had been crash-industrializing for decades before the great crisis of World War II exploded upon it.

The U.S. and Russian global supremacy in designing, producing and exporting weapons systems will not, of course, last forever, because nothing in history lasts forever. They could remain dominant for decades or be eclipsed because of defeat in war, nuclear attack, economic crisis or other factors far sooner than that. For the future appears wrapped in even more uncertainty these days than it usually is.

However, as the first decade of the 21st century draws to its close, the United States and Russia remain the global military industrial powers to beat. A generation ago, there were many in both countries and across Europe who doubted this would still be the case. But it is. And there are important lessons to be learned from that.

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