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China a Rising Threat to National Security, Say DOD Leaders

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China is building up its military in ways that threaten U.S. and allied interests in the Western Pacific and in the South China Sea in particular, the deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment said today.

For example, its DF21 and DF26 missiles are capable of targeting ships in the area and land targets, including Guam, a major resupply location for U.S. forces, Alan R. Shaffer said.

Shaffer spoke at the McAleese and Associates-sponsored Defense Programs Conference here, along with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller and Undersecretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy.

China is also building advanced, fifth-generation fighter aircraft and have expanded their navy to around 300 ships, including an aircraft carrier, Shaffer said.

Battle for Digital Supremacy

Much of China’s military and industrial technology was developed through intellectual property theft, he said, noting that there’s a strong resemblance of their J-20 fighter’s canopy and landing gear to the F-35 Lightning II.

The U.S. is in a fierce battle with China for digital supremacy, he said, referring to artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantitative computing.

AI has to do with powerful systems that can rapidly crunch a large amount of data, search for patterns, abnormalities and targets, and learn on its own through machine learning algorithms that are programmed into the software.

The power of AI, Shaffer said, is that it quickly delivers warfighting options to commanders that are easily understood. Winning in combat is no longer about “the size of the biceps, it’s about the speed of decision-making,” he said.

For example, an AI-enabled platform could also allow a commander to find and terminate targets faster, Shaffer said.

One area of concern with developing AI in this country is that there are companies who don’t want to work with the Defense Department and would rather sell to China. “That’s a problem,” he said.

China is going forward with a plan to dominate the world in AI in the 2025 to 2030 time frame, Shaffer noted. “They have the people and resources to do that.”

5G Network Warning

China wants to control the world’s 5G network, Shaffer said. A 5G network would allow a rapid transmission of huge amounts of communications data.

The problem with using Chinese 5G equipment is that the Chinese could use it to collect data and feed it to their intelligence apparatus, he said. Most Americans probably are unaware of that threat, Shaffer said, and yet it is a national security risk for the U.S and its allies and partners.

Other areas the U.S. and China are in competition is in the space and cyber domains, he said.

Dealing With Threats

McCarthy noted other threats from China, such as hypersonics and unmanned aerial systems.

The Army eliminated or reduced many programs that did not focus on these threats, resulting in six modernization priorities: long-range precision fires, next-generation combat vehicles, a future vertical-lift aircraft, protecting the network, air and missile defense and soldier lethality.

It also changed the way it trains. Three years ago, he said, “if you visited Fort Irwin, you’d think you were in a village in Afghanistan.”

Fort Irwin, California, is the location of the National Training Center, the Army’s premier training site that can host brigade-sized units. Mock villages were built there to resemble those found in Iraq and Afghanistan, the focus of counterinsurgency warfare over the preceding years. But today, McCarthy said, NTC rotations include maneuver force-on-force training, which simulate what it would be like to fight a peer competitor such as China or Russia, he said.

Going Back to the Future

Neller said that over the past 18 years, Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan have not had to deal with an enemy with aircraft, a maneuver force and cyber and space capability.

Over that time, he said, deployed Marines were well fed, didn’t worry that their heat or electromagnetic signal would enable them to be targeted and had little worry of being targeted by long-range precision fires.

That would change in a peer fight against the Chinese or Russians, Neller said.

As such, the Marine Corps, like the Army, has changed the way it trains in its premier training site at 29 Palms, California, he said.

Region of Strategic Importance

Richardson noted that fully a third of the world’s trade passes through the South China Sea, an area where there are numerous islands contested by nations in the region. China has occupied a number of those islands and built military installations on them.

The Navy is there to ensure trade keeps flowing through the area unimpeded, he said. It’s not just important for the U.S. economy, it’s important for the world economy.

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