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Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen H. Hicks Participates in a Fireside Chat at the 2022 Aspen Security Forum D.C. Edition

ANJA MANUEL: We are very, very lucky to have with us as our final keynote speaker Deputy Secretary of Defense Kath Hicks, who is known to many of you, who is absolutely fantastic, who's been a great leader at the Defense Department from when she was in the policy shop, to when she was at CSIS running their national security program, to now when she is helping us modernize the Pentagon, manage the budget, and do so much more that manages this big, complicated, building.

So, thank you so much.


And you will notice that I'm not Margaret Brennan, who was supposed to be here with us. And she, unfortunately, had a very last-minute change and couldn't be with us today. So I'm very happy that I get the chance to speak to you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE KATHLEEN HICKS: It's a pleasure always to talk to you.

MS. MANUEL: Thank you. So let me start you off with a more general question. We'll get into the details.

DR. HICKS: Sure.

MS. MANUEL: But the Department recently released the National Defense Strategy.


MS. MANUEL: And it describes, of course, right up front, China as the pacing challenge. And last week, DOD's latest China military power report painted a picture of the PLA that is setting its sights to 2027. I think that was the quote, increasing military pressure against Taiwan, Xi Jinping says in the 20th party congress, to great applause, we want peaceful reunification, but we'll use force if necessary. What's the Pentagon doing about all this?

DR. HICKS: Sure. Well, again, thanks for having me, Anja. And I get a lot of questions about this - specifically what is the U.S. military doing inside the Biden administration with regard to China?

We did say in the NDS that China's the pacing challenge. When we say that, what we mean is they have, more than any other country, the wherewithal to upend the international order. And that's an international order that we believe serves U.S. interests, by and large.

So, we have a lot of national interests at stake in protecting and defending our capabilities. And that includes putting forward combat-credible capability that the Chinese see as sufficient to deter them. And we think about that in multiple timeframes. And that includes right now.

We think about it in 2022, 2023, all the way to 2027. And we think about it in the mid-term and the long-term, and being able to pace China all through that period as they make changes, as we make changes, that's really important to us.

So, what is our strategy for doing that? We really have three main pillars we rely on and these are the same that are used across the administration. We're investing, we’re aligning with our allies and partners, and we're competing.

And so, on investing, you're familiar with some of the things we're doing here at home. We're very supportive of the CHIPS Act. We worked really hard to indicate the national security interests in having a reliable microelectronics supply chain. We'll be part of the implementation plan in the Defense Department on CHIPS.

We are invested in securing the supply chains in other key areas. Batteries, for example, among others. And we are very much invested in procurement and research and development dollars here in the U.S. We have put forward in the '23 budget request- the President has- the highest both research and development budget requested and the highest procurement dollar value ever requested.

So, when people say, well, they're looking at 2045. Well, that's true. But we're also looking at the here and now. So, that's investment.

Aligning, we're working really closely with allies and partners. I think you had Kurt Campbell earlier today, hopefully he touched on many of those components. But that's happening in and out of the Indo-Pacific, for instance, all the time.

Just in the past year, we landed F-35s both on a Japanese helicopter carrier and on a UK carrier, as an example. We just announced yesterday with the Australians some enhanced force posture initiatives. We work all the time through the Quad and bilaterally with various countries in the region, all in support of this alignment.

And we know this is what the Chinese- among all the things we do- this is what they can't compare to, this asymmetry of alignment and alliance politics.

And then, finally, on competition, we are very focused on competing in ways that are in accordance with the international order and making sure we do so responsibly. We think that's different than what we see the Chinese doing. 

They have had more crossovers of the center line, for instance, by aircraft in the Taiwan Strait this past year than they ever have in their history.

Meanwhile, we make sure we are operating, again, in accordance with discipline and professionalism in the air, maritime, in cyberspace and elsewhere. But we do it in a way, again, that demonstrates our willingness to defend our interests alongside, again, those allies and partners.

So, that's sort of the key elements of how we think about the China issue-set today and how we want to pace today and into the future.

MS. MANUEL: That's very helpful. Thank you for that overview. Let me dig in a little bit on what you said initially, which is about building ourselves up. NDAA, I know you're working on it, it's a huge topline number.

DR. HICKS: Yeah.

MS. MANUEL: But within that are a lot of things that the Department is doing new and differently, for example, on space weapons and on hypersonics, areas where I know the press has reported that there is an actual worry that China, and maybe Russia, could be a pacing challenge. So, can you say a little bit more about those innovative parts of what the Department is doing and how that fits into the budget?

DR. HICKS: Absolutely. I can't let the question go by without saying we try to innovate in all aspects of what we do. These key technology areas, I think, is where a lot of the focus goes. And those are important, and I will talk about them.

But I do want to emphasize a lot of this is about our concepts of operation, being creative and innovative in how we use what we do, combining different approaches, old, if you will, and new technology, and that's really important. I may return to an example there in a moment.

But on space and hypersonics, we do have a significant investment in both. We have probably a historic level of investment, 20 billion plus dollars in space resiliency that we've requested in the '23 budget. We know in order to sense, make sense, and act- all those elements of command and control- we have to be able to access space.

We have in the United States by far the most resilient commercial space enterprise anywhere in the world. The Chinese know that. We're going to lean into that. We, of course, will have government-specific capabilities, but back to my point previously on investing here at home, making sure we're working closely with the commercial sector and leveraging all that space, commercial space capability is an important part of that proliferated viewpoint of how we sense, make sense, and act.

On hypersonics, we have a strong investment there. I'm very pleased with where we are in hypersonics. A lot is made about the fact that the Chinese and Russians have invested heavily there. I will just point out that the Russians have used hypersonic weapons in Ukraine to no discernible battlefield effect.

And what I would simply stress is we are not about arms racing. We are not about matching dollar-for-dollar or weapon-for-weapon what another country does. What we're interested in is making sure we have the capabilities to bring to bear that meet the demands of how we plan to fight. And that is what we are doing on hypersonics and on counter-hypersonics.

I said I'd give you one other, let me cheat in another one. A lot of the innovation that we're doing, as I said, is happening in much less highfalutin areas. So, an example I'll give you is what the Marines have been doing with the modern version of the Humvee, our joint tactical vehicles, light tactical vehicles, they're associating these very mobile platforms that we have in the thousands with Tomahawk missiles that we have in the thousands. And they're looking at how you distribute across the Pacific. This is the same Marine Corps that had an island-hopping campaign, right, in World War II.

And when you look at operational concepts like that, that really complicates things for the Chinese. That's something they have not been thinking about how to deal with. So, we're making sure to innovate at all levels of the Department to create those kinds of complexities that make the Chinese wake up, the PLA wake up, and say, ‘you know what, today's not the day,’ because that's what we want them to be thinking every day.

MS. MANUEL: Yeah, absolutely. That's perfect. And I know you have been specifically such a leader on all of these initiatives, large and small.

Let me ask you about one specific one. You know I live in California. I've been really excited to see the Defense Innovation Unit grow up.


MS. MANUEL: You just announced a new Office of Strategic Capital, which is going to connect innovative companies with the Defense Department in new and different ways.

DR. HICKS: Yeah.

MS. MANUEL: Can you say a little about that?

DR. HICKS: Absolutely. So, I believe you and I saw each other within the last year out at Stanford at the great group that they have, that Steve Blank and company have out there. And we hear both out there and in all of our visits the challenges that folks have working with the Defense Department, how hard it is for this wonderful opportunity of the innovation ecosystem in the U.S. to really be fully tapped into. And part of that, not all of it, is on the capital side.

So, the Office of Strategic Capital is really bringing that use case, combining the use case of what we think we need, what are the solutions that could be brought to bear to warfighter problems with marrying that with those who are willing to bring capital. And we've been really pleased at the degree, the growth, of interest in working with the Defense Department.

There's a huge amount of patriotism, of course, in the private sector, a lot of interest in trying to help us.

MS. MANUEL: And, frankly, a lot of it is sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

DR. HICKS: A lot of -- it's a lot of -- a lot of folks --

MS. MANUEL: It's a whole new -- it's a whole new world out there, yeah.

DR. HICKS: -- who want to make sure that we can protect the way of life that people are used to here in the United States. So, we think there's going to be a lot of opportunity with the Office of Strategic Capital.

MS. MANUEL: Thank you. Thank you for doing that. Let me just dive a little deeper into, we've had a long conversation this morning with Kurt, and then with representatives from the UK and from Australia about the Indo-Pacific.

The Wall Street Journal had a piece on Taiwan recently, couple of days ago, that says that U.S. government and congressional officials fear the conflict in Ukraine is exacerbating a $19 billion backlog of weapons that are bound for Taiwan. Can you say a little bit about that? Is there a backlog? If so, what are we doing to get rid of it?

DR. HICKS: So, let me say emphatically that the U.S. supporting Ukraine is in no way negatively affecting our ability to provide, fulfill FMS cases, Foreign Military Sales cases, or otherwise support Taiwan. 

In fact, there was a lot of lessons learned out of Ukraine and a lot of congressional support for building out the defense industrial base that we believe will be critical to our ability to continue to support whether it's Taiwan Relations Act, commitments that we have, or other allies and partners who bring forward requests.

The major difference, just to demonstrate why these things are not connected, we have been doing presidential drawdowns, the particular equipment items that have been cited in the New York Times [sic] report, Javelin and Stinger for instance, we have been drawing down our own equipment stocks for Ukraine for that. So, think of like used, we've been sending from the used car lot.

What we have for Taiwan is a new car, a brand-new car, on Javelin, and on Stinger, among some of the other issues that we're doing, other cases that we're bringing to them through Foreign Military Sales. So, totally unrelated. 

And again, to the extent that we have been able to leverage dollars from congressional support for Ukraine to put into strengthening our munitions industrial base, which we have been doing, all that strengthening, whether it's making sure we don't have parts obsolescence, training more workforce, putting more lines, production lines into action, all of that will help us speed along and strengthen more broadly our industrial base to include support for other allies and partners.

MS. MANUEL: Yeah. That's very helpful. And I imagine, but tell me if this is true or not, that the muscle you're exercising, getting this military material to Ukraine so quickly, will also then help in other cases or you don't think so?

DR. HICKS: Absolutely.


DR. HICKS: Absolutely. When I talk to industry colleagues, that's very clear there. And there's a lot of areas where we're not in the -- as the President said, we're not in the post-cold war world anymore, and just getting those, that muscle memory moving of you don't actually have to take that long. Before you go on that break, you can actually sign that paperwork and move it from pile A to pile B.

That's so much of what a deputy does and others in the Department of Defense. I'll just give a shout out to the U.S. Army, Doug Bush, the --

MS. MANUEL: I don't envy you that part of the job.

DR. HICKS: No, don't, don't envy that. Doug Bush is our ASA(ALT), the Army acquisition executive, Bill LaPlante, who's our Under Secretary for Acquisition and Sustainment and all their teams, they are working extraordinarily hard to take what used to seem impossible and make it possible. We have put billions of dollars on contract in the course, since February, at amazing speed.

We've had issues move in less than a two-week timeframe from the time of a needs assessment request from Ukraine, approval, to getting something out the door. And then there's U.S. Transportation Command that's moving it all. We take a lot for granted, I think --


DR. HICKS: -- about how hard that is. The Chinese don't take that for granted. They're watching us do that. And they can't replicate that.

MS. MANUEL: Yes. No, I think that's a really important and a little bit of an under-told story, because this is really something brand new for the Pentagon. Let me stick with the Pacific for a minute, though. Taiwan is obviously front and center.

A lot of folks here in Washington have talked about the porcupine strategy. There seems to be bipartisan support for doing whatever it takes for Taiwan to defend itself. What is it actually doing? And what does Taiwan need to do on the readiness front?

DR. HICKS: Yes, so I think we've been very clear in the United States over multiple administrations, that Taiwan needs to put its self-defense front and center. We think the Chinese put a premium on speed.

And the best speed bump or deterrent to that is really the Taiwan people being able to demonstrate that they can slow that down, let alone to defend against it. And that's where the Ukraine example, I think, really can give the Chinese pause to see the will of a people combined with capability to stall or even stop a campaign of aggression.

So what are some of those elements? One is they need a, and we told them this for years, they need a noncommissioned officer corps. They need the training and conscription timelines that support a professionalized military.

Training in general, I think, is an area where any -- we've seen with the Ukrainians, for instance, they've had six years of Western training from 2014 to the newest Russian invasion, that really has paid off, both in terms of creating relationships.

MS. MANUEL: Can I just interrupt you there?

DR. HICKS: Sure.

MS. MANUEL: Are we able to do anything similar with Taiwan?

DR. HICKS: Well they -- I think there's a lot of that they can do themselves and a lot of partnerships that they have available to them. So, I'll say that and you don't have to be in country to do a lot of that, kind of, training. So --

MS. MANUEL: So you think it's for the Taiwanese to avail themselves of training?

DR. HICKS: I do.

MS. MANUEL: That could be out there.

DR. HICKS: I do. I do. And then there is the equipping piece. And there, again, we've been very consistent over multiple administrations about some of those asymmetric capabilities that can be real game changers for them and the value that can provide to them, and we continue to provide that advice.

MS. MANUEL: Great. That's very helpful. Thank you. So, the intersection of these two big situations. I mean, really, we called it this morning a tectonic shift in the plates of the international system.

What lessons do you think Ukraine has taught us, the U.S., and Taiwan, how you might counter a Chinese attempt at reunification?

DR. HICKS: Sure, I think it's a lot. It taught us a lot of things. They're not direct parallels. So, I would emphasize that, but the lessons, I think, the -- we really want the Chinese to take away and that we're taking away is, again, the value of alliances and the strength of international support for a people who are subject to aggression, and how that plays out then in the economic realm, in the international relations realm, and even in the supply chain realm.

So, let me go back to the CHIPS Act and microelectronics. The Russians are going to be years, if not more than years, behind their own military modernization plans, because they're not going -- just if only for the fact, let alone, that they've expended a lot of munitions that they will not have access to, for example, the advanced microelectronics that they need.

The Chinese have to think about things like that, too, right? So that's part of what they want to look -- we want them to be thinking about and what we're thinking about, how do we bring that international pressure to bear in ways that are very concrete and create a high cost for them?

And then I think, as I said before, it's a lot of this is about the will of a people combined with some capability can make it very challenging for them. And then lastly, I think I would say where the United States really can speed up its system, invest, align and compete effectively, to provide that support for, in this case, Taiwan self-defense.

MS. MANUEL: Yes, absolutely. Let me stick with what you just mentioned, which is the international piece of this, and our partners and allies. We had a great conversation this morning about how much is happening in the Indo-Pacific from the Australian exercises, and suddenly, the French and the Brits join, their air force exercises, British carrier strike group, even a German frigate -- more happening, the Japanese and the South Koreans being friendly to each other in a way that you certainly wouldn't have seen a few years ago. Tell me how you are utilizing all that and maybe conducting that orchestra.

DR. HICKS: I think what it really demonstrates is the power of shared values, shared interests and principles. I really do think it comes down to that. For the United States, what we need to do is be able to put forward a value proposition that we are a provider of stability, that we can contribute effectively to stability in the region -- that we're there, and then we're going to be there, and we are a Pacific nation that is engaged. And in the case of the European countries you mentioned, that they likewise have interests that they're looking to allies and partners in the Pacific and thinking about that whole-of-world approach. I think that's really important.

And then we, of course, have the capabilities. We have the ability to work very closely with, for instance, the Australians with their FA-8 teams, which -- or their Growlers, which are common to the United States.

You can look at any of those countries where we have very close relationships, or in many cases, alliances. We're training with them. We're operating with them. We are cross-decking with them, as I mentioned before. All of that creates stability, a common approach, and reinforces our ability to operate together in crisis.

MS. MANUEL: Yes. Thank you. That's very helpful. Let's fly now a little bit farther west, to the other conflict that's probably keeping you up at night. And that's, of course, with Russia, Ukraine. And I'll start with kind of the intersectional question.

In early February, Putin and Xi declare their no-limits friendship. President Xi might be regretting that a little bit. How do you see the relationship between China and Russia developing?

DR. HICKS: I think it's clear that both are concerned about this, the U.S. and the community of nations that have come together in support of the Ukrainian people. And there is that. I think there are some natural tensions between them that are historic and longstanding.

But I would also just add, I think it should be increasingly uncomfortable for the Chinese first to see some of the nuclear saber-rattling that the Russians have done. They have no interest in the use of nuclear weapons.

I think they should be concerned about the accord that the Iranians and Russians appear to have come to that results in Iranian weaponry being used in Ukraine by Russia.

MS. MANUEL: Sorry, let me just clarify, you think the Chinese should be concerned about it.

DR. HICKS: They should be concerned about that.

MS. MANUEL: Right.

DR. HICKS: I think those are --

MS. MANUEL: There's no evidence that they are.

DR. HICKS: -- take those natural tension points.


DR. HICKS: Well, you're asking, where the relationship is going. And I guess what I'm saying is, I think there are some additional tension points that we are seeing play out here that make it challenging. It should make it very challenging for the Chinese.

I know the Chinese very much value their international reputation. These are challenges to that, let alone the aggression itself, the attacks on civilian infrastructure that are the evidence of war crimes. There's a lot here that is of concern, I think, if you're China.

MS. MANUEL: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. We have a new Congress, a Republican-controlled House. Do you think that providing some -- I know, there's also been a request for an additional appropriation for military goods for Ukraine, do you think providing support for Ukraine is going to become more challenging within the U.S. system?

DR. HICKS: I think there is a very strong bipartisan consensus in support of Ukraine. How that manifests in the types of capabilities that make sense to send, I think that's going to evolve over time.

I think our support will itself be shifting into more enduring approaches, training, services, support, maintenance, sustainment. So, I think that's a natural evolution, if you will, the types of capabilities, but I'm not concerned about the bipartisan support for Ukraine.

MS. MANUEL: Good. That's great to know. It is amazing how much bipartisan support there's both for what we're doing with China and with Russia.


MS. MANUEL: I'm sure that makes your job at least a tiny bit easier.

DR. HICKS: It does. It does.

MS. MANUEL: At least a tiny bit easier. So, there's been a lot of -- you already said a lot about production lines we're putting back in place, what we're doing. Do you think there's any impact on U.S. military readiness caused by the Ukraine fight?

DR. HICKS: No. Actually, we work very carefully, every time we're reviewing requests for assistance. In addition to, of course, working closely with those elsewhere in the interagency, we're looking inside the Defense Department and scrubbing what the readiness implications could be of any such provision.

So, those are weighted carefully. The Secretary sees an assessment -- risk assessment -- on readiness for anything that we send forward. And we have sent -- we have only sent forward anything where we are comfortable with that risk assessment, whether it's related to readiness or technology transfer or other concerns.

MS. MANUEL: That's great. That's great to hear. So let me ask you the -- more broad brushstroke question. We had the Prime Minister of Lithuania here last night. She gave a pretty tough assessment of the conflict, and essentially said, it's hard to see how this ends anytime soon. What's your assessment? Where does this go in the next 6, 9, 12 months?

DR. HICKS: Yes. I'm not going to try to predict the mind of Vladimir Putin. I think the real answer is he can end this at any -- he started it, he can end it any day. It's an act of aggression, a war of aggression, against the territory of a sovereign nation.

And it's not going well for him. And he can make that end by ceasing operations and returning territory. The answer beyond that is really with the Ukrainian people. And our commitment is to make sure we are always putting the Ukrainians -- as the President says, always with Ukraine.

We're not negotiating, if you will, around Ukraine separately. So, we are in support of Ukraine, and we'll see where this goes.

MS. MANUEL: That's great to hear. I'm going to ask you one final question because we've only just touched on bits and pieces of your enormous portfolio. What have we not talked about that keeps you up at night?

DR. HICKS: Oh, my goodness. I can't even answer that right now. Everything keeps me up at night at this point. I guess I would just return, kind of, to the China challenge. That's the centerpiece of what I work on every day.

If you can pick a centerpiece, it's that, and just making sure that we are overturning bureaucracy at every opportunity to get delivery of capability to the warfighter as fast as possible.

And that is quite a daunting challenge in the Defense Department, but it is not impossible, and we are making real progress- tangible, concrete, progress in key capability areas.

I'm very proud of what our military is doing. I think all the taxpayers should be very proud of what our military is doing, and I'm quite confident that we're putting out that credible capability that's deterring China.

MS. MANUEL: Thank you. Thank you so much. All of us here are very, very grateful to you and your team and everyone at the Defense Department for staying up at night worrying so we don't have to.

DR. HICKS: Very good.

MS. MANUEL: Thank you for being with us.

DR. HICKS: Thank you. Thank you, all.