Event China is ‘not frightened to fight a war with the US’, according to the Guardian today. The comments  – in a state-run Chinese newspaper – came twenty-four hours after the US deployed a warship into a contested region of the South China Sea.

The territorial contest is interesting in light of a panel that I attended on New Wars, New Technology at the Battle of Ideas earlier this month. The session was blurbed as being about drones, but – for me – the most interesting idea was the prospect of war between the US and China or Russia. A so-called Great Power Conflict.

Five years ago the idea of the US fighting China wasn’t taken seriously, according to Professor Christopher Coker, author of Future War.  We believed that nuclear weapons made Great Power Conflict impossible. Now people believe that it’s possible to fight a large-scale war without hitting the nuke button – at least in the early days. In the technothriller Ghost Fleet, for example, World War III rages for 55 days without going nuclear.

During those 55 days, a key battlefield would be in cyberspace. In a recent Pentagon wargame, according to Coker, US military systems were infected by many Chinese viruses that they had to launch their aircraft manually.

The US might also have railguns, an electrically-powered weapon that can fire metal slugs at seven times the speed of sound with a range of 100 miles, and without needing explosives. Such a weapon could transform warfare with its deadliness, range and cost to manufacture.

According to Justin Bronk, a Military Science research analyst from RUSI, the technology is fully understood, but – at the moment – we don’t have the material science to build the rail and barrel. He estimates they might be in combat testing within ten years.

But what if a future war did go nuclear? According to Bronk, creating a nuclear-free world isn’t an option. And here he referred to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and his opposition to Britain’s nuclear deterrent. An advanced superpower could rearm in three to four years – even if they killed their nuclear scientists and eliminated their knowledge of weapons – and they’d have an incentive to blow up their enemy’s universities. The world would not be a safer place.

The rest of the session was about smaller wars and the ethics of drone warfare. According to Coker, 76 countries in the world today are planning to get drone technology. Worldwide defense spending on aerial drones is predicted to rise to $14 billion by 2024.

Yet drones don’t need to be big or expensive. A terrorist can buy a drone off the shelf for $400, according to Coker. And – in eastern Ukraine – troops fighting Russian separatists have been equipped with 3D-printed plastic surveillance drones.

High-tech armed drones, according to Chris Woods, author of Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars, have revolutionised warfare. They provide real-time analysis of the battlefield. They also allow politicians to create a fantasy where drone airstrikes only kill bad guys, never civilians, and war is consequence-free.

Today’s drones are remotely piloted by – as Coker put it – ‘cubicle warriors’. And there’s been controversy in the US over whether they should receive medals for valor and to what degree they can experience mental health problems – like soldiers on the battlefield.

Remotely-piloted drones, explained Bronk, rely on a satellite datalink that is vulnerable to disruption, especially when their radar X-section goes up as the bomb bay doors open. Future armed drones, such as the X-47, can fly and land themselves, and decide when to strike.

In a great power war, China would give them autonomy and – ethical issues or not – the US would be forced to lose… or follow suit.