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Feb. 27, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

Pentagon: China threat increasing
The Pentagon’s top civilian and military leaders said Wednesday that China has emerged as the most important defense and military challenge faced by the United States.

The Defense Department’s “highest priority remains China, as its government continues to use — and misuse — its diplomatic, economic and military strength to attempt to alter the landscape of power and reshape the world in its favor, often at the expense of others,” said Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

The Chinese Communist Party has emerged as a strategic threat to the international order and is seeking regional hegemony and global influence, said Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined Mr. Esper in congressional testimony. Mr. Esper and Gen. Milley testified before the House Armed Services Committee on the Pentagon’s fiscal 2021 budget request of $705.4 billion.

Mr. Esper said China is continuing to invest heavily in military modernization and expansion in areas such as space, cyberspace, electronic warfare, undersea warfare, fighter aircraft, bombers, long-range missiles and other “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) systems. The buildup is part Beijing’s leadership plans to become the preeminent global military power by 2049.

“What is most troubling is that China is pursuing these objectives by any means necessary, including forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, cyberespionage and commercial acquisitions,” Mr. Esper said. “Once Beijing obtains and develops these technologies, it leverages them to intimidate or coerce smaller states, while simultaneously narrowing the United States’ competitive advantage.”

Additionally, Beijing is continuing to militarize reclaimed islands in the South China Sea in ways that threaten freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in the region.

“Through its Belt and Road Initiative, China is expanding its political and economic ties across Asia, Europe, South America and Africa, with the less-publicized objective of expanding the People’s Liberation Army’s influence and reach,” Mr. Esper said.

In blunt comments, Gen. Milley warned that China, in addition to seeking to undermine a free and open Indo-Pacific region, is subverting the U.S.-led global alliance structure around the world “by ignoring international norms, standards and laws.”

“The Chinese Communist Party exports authoritarian practices around the world to undermine U.S. interests,” Gen. Milley said in his prepared statement. “They assert control of disputed spaces in the Indo-Pacific region through a campaign of low-level coercion and use of ‘gray zone’ tactics below the threshold of armed conflict.”

The four-star general noted with particular concern China’s growing military presence in the South China Sea, a presence that includes dual-use military-civilian infrastructure on the Spratly Islands that are claimed by China, the Philippines and several other states. The increase in military facilities in the Spratlys is “an attempt to control access, project power and undermine U.S. influence in the area,” Gen. Milley said.

In April 2018, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that China had deployed advanced anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles on disputed islands in the South China Sea despite a 2015 promise by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to militarize the islands.

On the overall Chinese military buildup, Gen. Milley said major investments in nuclear, space, cyberspace and electronic warfare, combined with growing air and maritime forces, indicate that “China strives for regional hegemony and to increase its influence on a global scale in the near term.”

“China and Russia have invested in capabilities designed to nullify our strengths and exploit perceived weaknesses — specifically targeting our ability to project power and operate freely around the world,” he noted.

The commander of the Pentagon’s European Command this week endorsed the Trump administration’s plan to deploy a sea-launched cruise missile with a low-yield nuclear warhead.

The Pentagon announced Feb. 4 for the first time that the W-76-2 nuclear warhead is now deployed on a submarine-launched ballistic missile. A small number of the low-yield missiles were recommended under the posture review.

The command “fully supports recommendations in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review to deploy the W76-2 low-yield ballistic missile and to pursue development of a modern, sea-launched nuclear cruise missile,” said Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, Eucom commander. “These actions would address a perceived deterrence gap, raise the Russian threshold for nuclear use, and disabuse the Russian Federation of the misconception there is any path to victory through nuclear escalation.”

The statement this month said the newly configured submarine missile was prompted by Russia. The missile is needed “to address the conclusion that potential adversaries, like Russia, believe that employment of low-yield nuclear weapons will give them an advantage over the United States and its allies and partners.”

“This supplemental capability strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon; supports our commitment to extended deterrence; and demonstrates to potential adversaries that there is no advantage to limited nuclear employment because the United States can credibly and decisively respond to any threat scenario,” the statement said.

Gen. Wolters warned that Russia’s large nuclear arsenal remains a long-term existential threat to the United States.

“Russia’s vast non-strategic nuclear weapons stockpile and apparent misperception they could gain advantage in crisis or conflict through its use [are] concerning,” he said.

Among the four-star general’s concerns are the Russian invasions of two neighboring states, violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the development of weapons like the Skyfall nuclear cruise missile.

A Skyfall accident last year killed seven Russian scientists and undermined strategic stability, he said.

“Russia employs a below-the-threshold-of-armed-conflict strategy via proxies and intermediary forces in an attempt to weaken, divide and intimidate our allies and partners, using a range of covert, difficult-to-attribute and malign actions,” Gen. Wolter said.

A new element is Moscow’s partnership of convenience with China that aims to close off the free and open international order, he noted.

“By probing U.S., allied and partner response thresholds, Russian leadership plays a dangerous game fraught with the risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation,” Gen. Wolters warned.

Modernized Russian military forces are more flexible and rapidly deployable, giving Moscow the capability of taking the military initiative in competition and conflict.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in prepared House Armed Services Committee testimony, provided new clues to the military services’ development of ultra-high-speed hypersonic missiles and weapons.

Hypersonic weapons travel more than five times the speed of sound and are capable of maneuvering. China and Russia have developed hypersonic missiles with the announced purpose of defeating U.S. missile defenses.

Current U.S. missile defenses are designed primarily to counter enemy missiles with predictable, nonmaneuvering trajectories.

Mr. Esper said the current defense budget request is the Pentagon’s most significant boost in spending for advanced arms technologies, including hypersonics.

“This request supports promising long-range conventional and advanced rapid-response strike capability development in each military department, including the Army’s long-range hypersonic weapon, the Navy’s conventional prompt strike and the Air Force’s advanced rapid response weapon,” Mr. Esper said.

“Hypersonic weapons provide an offensive capability against time-sensitive and high-value targets,” he added. “They challenge adversary sensors and interceptors, and complement existing cruise and ballistic missile capabilities.”

Lockheed Martin in August was awarded a $347 million contract to develop an Army hypersonic missile that will be a long-range maneuvering glider capable of traveling at speeds greater than Mach 5, or around 3,800 miles per hour. The goal is to provide a ground-launched missile system to U.S. forces by 2023.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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