Sometimes, the biggest stories in the world go unreported. Some of them we miss because they concern people or things whose significance lies in the future; at other times, it is because the nature of the change is so broad, slow and incremental that the nature of the shift just escapes notice, in terms of front-page news. So here's the news: the next world war is on its way.
That is the only conclusion one can draw from the US defence budget, which has begun a rapid escalation. America may be enjoying its longest period of peace for decades, but you'd never know it from the way the Pentagon is planning to start spending. The target, apparently, is China, the new global enemy for the 21st century.
For most of a decade, the US armed forces and the defence industry have been short of an enemy. Arms spending plunged at the end of the Cold War, for very good reasons. There was no longer any prospect whatsoever of fighting the massive, multi-front conflict so vividly portrayed in, for instance, General Sir John Hackett's The Third World War. Defence spending has not been much of an issue in America since then, until the last year or so. Suddenly, it has come front and centre again.
In part, the reason is political. George W Bush, the Republican candidate for president, has argued that the Clinton administration and, by extension, his opponent, Al Gore let defence rot. That is nonsense, and some of his advisors have even admitted it.
In any case, Washington's spending plans leave no doubt as to its intentions. The rate of increase of US defence procurement, the purchase of equipment, declined almost every year from the end of the Reagan defence build-up until 1999, as the possibility of global conflict withered away. This year, it increased by 12 per cent, the first time it has hit double digits since 1984. It is heading for $62bn next year, from $45bn in 1998, and reputable think tanks believe it may be closer to $80bn. This is a serious increase, the harbinger of a conflict.
In part, the reason is the usual suspect: the defence industry, which wants and needs a new burst of activity to keep its balance sheets healthy. To some degree, Cold War kit needs replacing. But that doesn't explain everything. After all, given that the Cold War is over, some of that kit shouldn't need replacing at all.
There is a more profound reason for the new militarism. The US is thinking itself into a new global conflict. This time, it is not in Europe; it is in the Pacific, and it was spelled out in part in a document called Asia 2025, written by (among others) my namesake, a Pentagon military thinker regarded with religious awe by his Washington acolytes.
Asia 2025 never explicitly addresses the identity of the threat; China is simply called a possible future "peer competitor". The other post-Cold War "threats" to America terrorism, civil conflict and Bosnia-type peace- enforcement missions all pointed in the direction of a smaller set of US forces able to deploy rapidly anywhere. But the China threat a nuclear power, two billion people the other side of the world is satisfyingly Soviet-shaped and justifies a very different type of military build-up. The forces can argue for more heavy airlift, more sealift, more attack submarines, aircraft carriers and long-range bombers, not less, as the end of the Cold War might indicate.
The strategy is laid down in Joint Vision 2020, the Pentagon's new blueprint issued earlier this summer. The keystone is something called Full Spectrum Dominance. That means "the ability of US forces, operating alone or with allies, to defeat any adversary and control any situation across the range of military operations", according to the Pentagon. JV2020 "calls for the US to work to shape the international security environment in ways favourable to American interests, be willing and able to respond to the full spectrum of crises as needed, and prepare now for an uncertain future". This is Pentagon-speak for: be afraid, be very afraid.
Of all of the projects spawned by the new "menace", the really big one is the National Missile Defence (NMD). This is a system for tracking incoming missiles and then shooting them down with ground-based rockets. America says it is aimed at North Korea and Iran; it isn't, or at least not only at them. It is aimed at China, and maintaining US dominance in the Pacific. It will cost anywhere between $15bn and $60bn; you don't spend that kind of cash for one or two North Korean missiles.
By any standards, these are serious developments. America is preparing for a massive increase in its armoury; it is shifting its gaze towards Asia and away from Europe; and it is preparing for a new global division, on a par with the Cold War. But it is doing so slowly, gradually, in private rather than in public.
There are three issues which Britain will have to deal with as a result of this new shift in American thinking. In the first place, the long-heralded US delinkage from Europe is now inevitable; indeed, it is already happening. The US has already shifted attack submarines to the Pacific from the Atlantic; a similar movement in troops is probably coming after the next election.
"Most US military assets are in Europe, where there are no foreseeable conflicts threatening vital US interests," reported Asia 2025, bluntly. "The threats are in Asia."
Secondly, as the Americans withdraw, more European security tasks will have to be carried out by the Europeans. As the US spends more cash but also shifts its forces the pressure on European nations to spend more will increase proportionately. And you can bet your life that the British defence establishment will be at the head of the queue for more resources, so just watch the defence budget.
All of that is some way down the road but probably only a couple of years. More immediately, there is NMD, which is the first manifestation of the new conflict that we will see on our own soil. The Americans want to put two of the systems required for NMD in Britain, at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill. So far, Britain has been publicly ambivalent about the project, refusing to condemn it but making clear it isn't that happy. It has tended to treat it as a kind of American eccentricity, something that doesn't really concern us.
But NMD does matter, as a symptom of the new American militarism, of its Pacific ambitions, and as the harbinger of a potentially serious increase in global tensions. The consequences of NMD have already been spelt out in a classified US intelligence report, which paints a damning picture of the consequences if America goes ahead. There would be a tenfold increase in the Chinese nuclear stockpile, more Russian warheads, increased proliferation in India and Pakistan in short, a rippling arms race from the Atlantic to the Pacific, endangering security everywhere.
Britain is a significant player in global security and it is, in theory, committed to arms control. NMD is dangerous and the Government knows it: it should say so, before Washington decides to move us all blindly, unaware, back to the point of nuclear confrontation from which we thought we had escaped when the Berlin Wall fell.
© 2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.