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Service Chiefs Discuss Role of Partnerships in Meeting Defense Demands

Partnerships with allies and across the services are key to maintaining the United States' edge amid an increasingly challenging national security backdrop, the military's top officers said.

That message echoed as a central theme as the Joint Chiefs of the six armed forces branches came together yesterday for a panel discussion on U.S. defense priorities and military readiness hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Service members are seated on the ramp of a military aircraft while in flight.
Balikatan
Airmen with the Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations Squadron observe an MC-130J Commando II during a formation flight, after conducting a forward area refueling point operation as part of Exercise Balikatan 24 at San Vicente Airport, Palawan, Philippines, May 2, 2024.
Photo By: n/a
VIRIN: 240502-M-KJ570-1107

The leaders described a rapidly changing security landscape characterized by a range of challenges throughout the Indo-Pacific, Middle East and Europe.  

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Eric M. Smith said these challenges are becoming progressively linked as China, the United States pacing challenge, and Russia, which defense officials have identified as an "acute threat," attempt to challenge international rules-based order.  

He said the U.S. military must stand ready to deter and, if necessary, defeat would-be aggressors on multiple, simultaneous fronts.  

"Russia is an opportunistic aggressor," Smith said. "And so, if war breaks out with China, you can be sure that Russia will follow. And if war breaks out with Russia, you can be sure that China will follow.  

"They're both opportunistic feeders and opportunistic aggressors," he said. "And they'll look for the seams in our armor — the chinks in armor — and they'll work to exploit those."

Smith said the Marine Corps accounts for these overlapping threats in shaping force for the future, while posturing primarily to counter the pacing challenge posed by China.

"For us, the force design is designed against the peer competitor of China," he said. "They are the pacing threat by the National Defense Strategy, so [the] force design is aimed at deterring China, and we still believe that that will include all the lesser included offenses such as Russia and [North Korea]."

A soldier stands on top of a tank.
Saber Strike
U.S. Soldiers with Fox Troop, 2nd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, conduct Combat Arms Training during Saber Strike 24 exercise at Bemowo Piskie Training Area, Poland, April 15, 2024.

He said his service's focus on modernized weapon systems and the ability to fight from longer ranges is useful for deterring and defeating aggression in any theater.  

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David W. Allvin echoed Smith in highlighting the strategic deterrence challenge posed by Russia's longstanding nuclear capability coupled with China's rapid buildup of its nuclear arsenal.  

He said maintaining a safe, effective and reliable nuclear triad remains critical for deterrence.  

"I think what is going to be interesting for the nation, for the national security apparatus, is to really get a grip on what it really means to have strategic deterrence in a tri-polar type world," as China's nuclear capability approaches parity with the U.S.  

He said deterring strategic threats in a tri-polar world is "fundamentally different" from deterrence in the past.  

"That's a national conversation," he said. "But from the military side, we just have to make sure that our capabilities are suited to the task." 

In recognizing the uptick in challenges, the service chiefs noted the key role partnerships will play in ensuring the U.S. maintains its military advantage.  

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti said the United States' partnerships with allies in the Indo-Pacific, in particular, are a key to managing competition with China.

"I think the thing that really distinguishes us from any of our potential adversaries is that we do have allies and partners all over the world," she said. "And nowhere is that more important than in the Indo-Pacific."

U.S. and foreign navy ships sail in open waters.
In Formation
U.S. Navy and Japanese Self-Defense Force ships sail in formation in the Pacific Ocean, Nov. 6, 2023
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Joshua Sapien
VIRIN: 231106-N-TL932-1077


She said allies continue to welcome U.S. leadership in the Indo-Pacific. Partners throughout the region, she said, are driven to partner with the U.S. as all of the military services work to bolster interoperability throughout the region.  

"I think as we leverage our relationships that we already have, and we continue to build new ones in the Indo-Pacific, we will continue to develop the capabilities to deter China or any other adversary in the Indo-Pacific or around the world," Franchetti said.  

U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan said partnerships were also key to deterring threats in the Arctic.  

The Coast Guard, she said, has played a key role in bolstering these partnerships through exercises and capacity building among Arctic stakeholders.  

"This is our nation's competitive advantage," Fagan said. "Not only do these nations welcome us, we're partners of choice." 

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Randy A. George also highlighted the key role the NATO alliance will continue to play in Europe, and the importance of the bloc to continue to improve its collective capability.  

"The battlefield is changing very rapidly," he said. "I think it's changing more in the last couple of years than I've ever seen it."

George said NATO's collective ability to respond quickly and effectively to the changing battlefield will be critical going forward.  

In addition to underscoring the importance of partnerships among allies, Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman said the ability to work across the services is critical.  

He said the service chiefs each espouse a commitment to partnership "because we know that's the only way to succeed." 

He said that includes not only partnering with allies, but also partnering with industry and between the services.  

"We know that each, individually, our forces, our services, our capabilities are inadequate to the global tasks that we've been presented," Saltzman said. "And if we can't work together — [...] technically, operationally, doctrinally — if we can't work together then we're in a world of hurt."

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