China is the pacing challenge for the U.S. military, and, in the past several decades and across multiple administrations, the economic security and governance differences between the United States and China have come into sharper focus, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks said today.
Hicks spoke virtually to the National War College’s Class of 2021 about the decisions and actions the Defense Department is taking to continue to sustain its technological innovation edge over military competitors.
“Beijing has demonstrated increased military confidence and a willingness to take risks, and it has adopted a more coercive and aggressive approach to the Indo-Pacific region,” Hicks said. China and its actions constitute a threat to regional peace and stability and to the rules-based international order on which U.S. security and prosperity and that of U.S. allies depend, she added.
President Joe Biden recently released his Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which highlights China as increasing its assertiveness, Hicks said, adding that the interim guidance notes that Beijing is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.
The United States must be able to compete for the future of our way of life across all those dimensions, she said.
“For the U.S. military, that will often mean serving as a supporting player to diplomatic, economic and other soft power tools. But it will also require the U.S. to demonstrate the will and capability to credibly deter PRC [China’s] aggression,” the deputy secretary said.
We must invest ourselves — not only financially, but also culturally — in major change if we are to exploit our advantages and close critical gaps to deter determined adversaries, she said.
The deputy secretary said she is confident the United States is poised to do so for a number of reasons:
First, in his message to the force, Austin made clear DOD is committed to both innovation and modernization. DOD will have a commitment to rapid experimentation, which provides the needed space to test and refine innovative operational concepts.
“On the path to disruption, learning happens partly through failure, but we will seek always to act with the trust of American taxpayers in mind and at reasonable risk,” Hicks said, adding that simply developing concepts and testing theories will not be enough.
DOD also will be committed to bridging the so-called valley of death, ensuring we actually feel needed capabilities in the force. Making room for new capabilities will require difficult choices, she noted.
“Where the nation’s security needs are no longer being met, DOD will work closely with Congress to phase out systems and approaches optimized for an earlier era,” she said, adding DOD also will be attentive to making adjustments in the incentives that drive how it invests, selects talent and innovates.
Second, Hicks said she is confident DOD can deter adversaries effectively because of the Biden administration’s commitment to strengthening what is perhaps the United States’ greatest asymmetric advantage: its alliances and partnerships.
“The ability of the United States to pursue common economic and security goals with other nations is the cornerstone of our success, which is why rivals are attempting actively to undermine trust in us,” she said.
Hicks emphasized that, particularly for the U.S. military, our defense relationships and the networks between and among them strengthen interoperability; generate common norms and respect for responsible international behavior across domains; and deepen the agility of our collective global posture.
Third, she said she and the secretary know that meeting the greatest challenges and advancing DOD’s priorities will require sustained senior-level attention to the levers that create lasting institutional change.
“Fundamental to our approach is the promotion of healthy civil military relations, which includes civilian control of U.S. defense and national security policy,” she said.
Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike recognize DOD must prioritize China as the pacing challenge for the United States, Hicks said.
DOD should be confident that it will continue to receive the support required to sustain its edge, she said. As the department begins the congressionally-mandated process of reviewing and revising its defense strategy, it must seek to ensure that it has the necessary resources, and that its military concepts and capabilities can deter and — if needed — win against the most-challenging rivals.
“We must not only succeed in the competition of ideas, but in the steadfastness of our execution,” Hicks said.