The world is looking bleak. From the nuclear bluster of North Korea, China's relentless power creep in Asia and Russia's covert invasion of Ukraine, the international situation is as dire as at any time during the Cold War.

So is the world's self-proclaimed "policeman", the United States, up to the challenge?

A new in-depth report from strategic think-tank Rand Corporation thinks not.

A man watches a TV screen showing what the North Korean government calls the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea. Photo / AP
A man watches a TV screen showing what the North Korean government calls the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea. Photo / AP

"Starkly, assessments in this report will show that US forces could, under plausible assumptions, lose the next war they are called upon to fight," it concludes.

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Titled US Military Capabilities and Forces for a Dangerous World, the new report examines future conflict scenarios ranging from Islamic State to Iran, as well as a hypothetical two-front war against both China and Russia.

It identifies growing capability gaps at many levels.

Not least among them is maintaining the confidence of its traditional allies.

"This nation's approach to safeguarding and advancing its security and wellbeing internationally centres on maintaining strong ties of influence and partnership with its treaty allies," the report reads.

"The United States' unique ability to project large-scale military power into the Eurasian periphery in the defence of common interests provides the foundation for these relationships. It follows that if adversaries perceive US military capabilities as inadequate to the task of deterring and defeating coercion or aggression, the viability of this nation's entire national security strategy and, indeed, the rules-based liberal order that it has promoted for more than 70 years, will be called into question."

DIVIDED ATTENTION

The Rand report says complacency, and out-of date priorities, are at the heart of US military troubles.

Instead of building more enormous aircraft carriers, and super-stealthy submarines and aircraft — it should be focusing on making those it has perform better, the report states.

This includes building up stocks of advanced cruise missiles, making communications more jam resistant and significantly building up the defences of US military bases.

"US forces today are larger than necessary to fight a single major war, are failing to keep pace with the modernising forces of great power adversaries, are poorly postured to meet key challenges in Europe and East Asia," the report reads.

US Marine soldiers from 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, Battalion landing team deployed from Okinawa, Japan. Photo / Getty Images
US Marine soldiers from 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, Battalion landing team deployed from Okinawa, Japan. Photo / Getty Images

As has been demonstrated by a string of US Navy disasters in the Pacific, the report adds US armed forces are "insufficiently trained and ready to get the most operational utility from many of its active component units".

"In short, providing the military power called for by the United States' ambitious national security strategy, which has never been easy, has recently become considerably more challenging," the report reads.

"The coincidence of this new reality with a period of constrained defence budgets has led to a situation in which it is now far from clear that our military forces are adequate for the tasks being placed before them."

And as the US struggles to salvage victory in Afghanistan — a quagmire in which it has been trapped now for 20 years, Chinese and Russian capabilities have surged.

Projected combat scenarios in Europe and Asia both present grim outcomes, the report finds.

North Korea presents a problem the US has few "satisfactory answers" to, the report finds. Its looming ballistic missile threat is one which cannot easily be countered. And the prospect of any land-war on the Korean Peninsula risks drawing in China.

"North Korea's acquisition of nuclear weapons means that it has the potential to cause immense damage to South Korea, Japan, and perhaps one day to the United States," the report says.

Military personnel gather at Kim Il Sung Square on Friday Dec. 1, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo / AP
Military personnel gather at Kim Il Sung Square on Friday Dec. 1, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo / AP

"North Korea's weakness makes it difficult to deter them from using their nuclear weapons with the threat of retaliation alone. So we're driven to try to get capabilities to actually prevent them from using the weapons — and that's just technically very hard to do."

China's increasing military strength and confidence also impose new challenges.

"China's military leaders have articulated the objective of gaining sea control over the First Island Chain that encompasses all of its East Asian neighbours, including the littoral states of the South China Sea (SCS). Simultaneously, the Chinese are developing and fielding an array of air, naval, and missile forces to put at risk US and allied military capabilities out as far as the Second Island Chain, which includes the home islands of Japan, the US territory of Guam and the Mariana Islands, and the rest of the Philippine archipelago," the report reads.

H-6K bombers fly in formation during a military parade at Zhurihe military training base to mark the 90th birthday of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA). Photo / Getty Images
H-6K bombers fly in formation during a military parade at Zhurihe military training base to mark the 90th birthday of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA). Photo / Getty Images

China has successfully built up a force designed specifically to counter US capabilities. Modern aircraft and missile systems pose a real threat to any US aircraft carrier task force deployed to protect Taiwan or international interests in the South China Sea.

"China's pursuit of military capabilities suited to countering US power projection operations has been greatly facilitated by the proliferation of many of the sorts of technologies and systems that have given US forces such dominance over those of its regional adversaries in the post–Cold War era: systems for real-time reconnaissance, data transmission and processing, precision guidance, robotics, propulsion, and even stealth technology.

"As China has mastered these capabilities, it has been able to pose growing challenges to the ability of US forces to project power into its region. And this, in turn, has raised questions about the credibility of US security guarantees there."

Russia's bold moves against Ukraine shows President Vladimir Putin is prepared to be confrontational.

But a conflict may not be a traditional clash of main battle forces.

Rand argues one strong scenario involves "a campaign that employs less than a direct attack by armoured forces—one that employs campaign of coercion, intimidation, and subversion to achieve its ends."

But, in a shooting fight, increasingly thin Nato defences are likely to be outmatched. Rand argues the once overwhelming US Air Force would now struggle against modern Russian missile systems, leaving the way open for Russian heavy armour to go where it will.

"Russia's use of covert subversion and, especially, overt military aggression to alter the political and territorial status quo in Europe has dramatically changed the security situation facing the alliance," the study says.

"In short, we concluded that, as currently postured, Nato cannot defend the Baltic States against a determined, short-warning Russian attack. Until rectified, the capability shortfalls that account for this vulnerability mean that the Baltic States live under the threat of a swift, low-cost coup de main by Russian conventional forces.

Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers strike Islamic State targets in Syria. Photo / AP
Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers strike Islamic State targets in Syria. Photo / AP

"Russia's armed forces seem to have emphasised improvements in the manning, training, and readiness of conventional land and air forces, and investments in surface-to-air defences, a new generation of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), artillery, precision strike systems, and nuclear forces."

The report argues much greater priority needs to be placed on modernising existing equipment and positioning them in such a way as to deter — and defeat — any aggression by China, Russia and North Korea. Development spending needs to be in areas where US forces' traditional leads have been whittled away, the report states — areas such as detecting and destroying mobile missile forces, eliminating the threat of air defence systems, improving the protection of forward military bases and provide redundancy for key space-based capabilities.