The Military Balance, provided by the IISS (International Institute for Strategic Studies), is considered an authoritative assessment of global military capabilities and defence economics. The recently released 2015 edition offers a deep insight on complex geopolitical changes that have lately affected international relationships. 

The most important fact underlined by the report is the rise of + 1.7% of real global defense expenditure in 2014 after three years of reductions. However, this increase was not homogeneous and was concentrated in some areas where single states have decided to strengthen their military power. Three zones, in particular, could have an outstanding weight in future geopolitical scenarios: Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific area. 

1/Analyzing The Military Balance 2015: Between Russia and Ukraine

The Ukrainian crisis has worn out the relationships between Europe and Russia: some observers even compare the current situation to Cold War dynamics. The ceasefire decided in the past few weeks led only to a frostbite of the conflict and not to its definitive resolution. 

Donbass clashes have showed the willingness of Vladimir Putin to pursue a power politics that remembers the Soviet era. The Military Balance 2015 examines the Russian military strategy and claims that the Kremlin is preparing his army for both current conflicts and prospective clashes with NATO. Defense budget has risen up by 10% in the last three years, and even by 33% in 2014. Investments are mainly targeted to a quick modernization of military equipment. Air forces have an important role in this plan, as showed by the test of the Sukhoi T-50 fifth generation fighter aircraft and the designs of a new long-range bomber. Russia aims also at an improvement of its rapid-reaction forces – corresponding to NATO’s spearhead force – and wants to develop further its nuclear weapons. 

In particular, along the Ukrainian border, Moscow has placed approximately 80,000 soldiers (a tenth of its whole army), with almost 500 ground vehicles and numerous artilleries. These units, which Kiev daily accuses of trespassing in Ukrainian territory, are ready to support the filo-Russian separatists of Donetsk and Lugansk.  

Ukraine Crisis Photo credit: theglobalpanorama / Foter / CC BY-SA

Ukraine Crisis
Photo credit: theglobalpanorama / Foter / CC BY-SA

Several times President Poroshenko’s army, composed by almost 129,000 men and a thousand military vehicles,  had serious troubles in such a complex and fragmented scenario. Both sides employed not only conventional military tactics, but they also adopted behaviors that highlighted the increasingly bitter nature of combat. These warfare techniques included widespread use of shellfire and artillery rockets, in spite of the presence of numerous civilian centers in the area. In addition, the phenomenon of militias and volunteer battalions poses serious ruling to any disarmament, demobilization and reintegration wished by Minsk’s agreements. To sum up, the situation remains fluid and evolving, and outcomes are highly unpredictable.  

 2/Analysing The Military Balance 2015: the Middle East

Another strategic hub analyzed by IISS is the Middle East area, currently in the spotlight for rising threats from the Islamic State. The strengthening of the Islamic Jihad, and the rise of native European Jihad, worries Western governments that want to guarantee national security and fight the problem at the root. 

The Military Balance 2015 explores the hybrid nature of IS – part-insurgency, part-light infantry, part-terrorist group – and its military and propagandistic actions. From a military point of view, the air bombings promoted by the US have helped to stop the progress of the self-proclaimed Caliphate. However, they could not grant the victory of local allies such as the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Iraqi army and the Free Syrian Army.  “Coalition air operations may lead to tactical victories against ISIS” – states the Military Balance Report – “but they cannot inflict strategic defeat on the group”.  Obama is trying to avoid a direct military intervention but the situation needs a more resolute approachDaesh will be definitively defeated only by supporting military operations with a serious blockade of IS anonymous lenders. Also their mediatic propaganda, through which the Caliphate is radicalizing and gaining followers in Europe, must be adequately opposed.  

ISIS Flag Photo credit: theglobalpanorama / Foter / CC BY-SA

Photo credit: theglobalpanorama / Foter / CC BY-SA

Tensions and insecurity in the area pushed many States to a huge rearmament (+10% / year since 2012). Actually, many governments fear that the US, having no strategical interests in zones such as Syria or Lybia, could leave them alone against terrorism. The highest increase in defence expenditure was noticed in the Gulf, with the most substantial rises in Oman (+115% / year) and Saudi Arabia (+300% in ten years). In particular, the Riyad monarchy invested in its military forces almost 81 billion dollars, in order to maintain its internal power and oppose, as the leader of Sunni States, the Shiite Iran.  

Egypt has similar military ambitions. President Al-Sisi’s State owns one of the greatest armies in the area, especially thanks to American military supplies. The Cairo has a very modern aviation, used in Lybia against the Islamists, and more than 4,000 tanks ready to break into Cyrenaica. 

3/ Analyzing The Military Balance 2015: the Pacific Area  

Ukraine and the Middle East are now locations of the so-called “low intensity wars”. However, another strategical conflict is developing silently in the Pacific area. As underlined by The Military Balance Report 2015, “In contrast with the continuing decline of defense expenditure in Europe, overall defense spending has increased in Asia […] growing to more than US $340bn in 2014”. China outpaces its neighbors’ efforts with the 38% of total ($132 bn). On the contrary, Japan’s share of regional military outlays fell by 6% but this year Tokyo reached its new record in defense investments ($42 bn). The country’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is currently preparing the country to future clashes with China; and his plan includes a modification of article 9 of Japanese Constitution, which rejects war as a mean to resolve disputes. 

The rearmament in the Pacific is strictly tied to the strengthening of naval power. Beijing is developing new carriers and destroyers and has tripled the number of weapons on its ships. Tokyo continues to boost its military capabilities through the acquisition of F-35s, tilt-rotor aircraft and, above all, advanced Soryu-class submarines. In fact, many countries in the area are preparing themselves to a submarine war. For example, Australia is renovating its fleet with Soryu submarines and the past year it increased its defense budget by 6.1%. Vietnam is still receiving from Russia his Jilo-class boats, while India, South Korea, Indonesia and Singapore are also upgrading their submarine forces.  

Pacific tensions, such as the strife between China and Japan for Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and commercial routes, are carefully monitored by the US.

First Meeting Between China and Japan on Senkaku Islands Photo credit: dayblakelydonaldson / Foter / CC BY

First Meeting Between China and Japan on Senkaku Islands
Photo credit: dayblakelydonaldson / Foter / CC BY

Washington did not believe the pacifist statements of Chinese spokesman to Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying. Indeed, China rearmament could lead to a strategic clash with the US, which could change power relations in the world. Therefore, America moved his attention from the Middle to the Far East, as clearly demonstrated by the retreats from Iraq and Afghanistan and the non-intervention strategy adopted in the Mesopotamian field. This trend is confirmed by The Military Balance, which records a fall in the US share in global military outlay (-9% from 2010 to 2014) and above all in the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO).  

But America will not give up her military hegemony maintained up to now. The budget for financial year 2016, presented by Barack Obama to the Congress, balances out OCO reductions with more investments in weapon modernization. Overall, there will be an increase of budget by 4%.  

Despite the cuts, Washington still remains the biggest global military investor with its $581 billions. The American Defense budget currently outnumbers the Chinese one by four times, and Washington will try to avoid a reduction of this gap.  

An Overall View of The Military Balance 2015  
Sea Hawk helicopters maneuver over the South China Sea. Photo credits: Official U.S. Navy Imagery / Foter / CC BY

Sea Hawk helicopters maneuver over the South China Sea.
Photo credits: Official U.S. Navy Imagery / Foter / CC BY

Military Balance 2015 offers a wide outline of military trends and provides keys to read the development of international relationships. The new core of geopolitics is shifting to the Pacific: the US is contrasting Chinese hegemonic ambitions, while other regional powers, such as Japan, are strengthening themselves in anticipation of the clash. On the other side, the European Union is currently endangered at its eastern and southern borders (Ukraine and Lybia). EU governments, then, have to find a unified strategy to become a political and military decisive player within the international sphere, in order to be considered an autonomous entity from the NATO alliance.

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