The return of great power competition requires the U.S. military services to change and adapt quickly, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper said at the Air Force Association's convention in Washington.
The military advantage the United States has maintained has eroded, and Russia and China have almost achieved near-peer status, Esper said at the event today.
But while that erosion has been arrested — and in some cases reversed — it remains a threat to maintaining the current international order, the secretary said.
"The strategic environment has changed, and, therefore, we must change, as well, if we are going to maintain this overmatch we have held for decades," Esper said. "Across the Department of Defense, we must adopt the mindset of competition that influences everything we do."
The U.S. military is unsurpassed in handling counterinsurgency conflicts that have dominated the strategic landscape since 9/11, the secretary said. That knowledge must remain, he added, because extremists still pose a threat to the homeland, but the range of capabilities must expand.
"For decades now, the Air Force has dominated the skies. Air superiority has been relatively uncontested. Persistent [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] has become the norm, and precision airstrikes are now the weapon of choice," he said. "But the conveniences of today's battlefields will not be the realities of the future."
Russia and China, unfettered by low-intensity conflicts, were modernizing their militaries to specifically target chinks in the armor of the American military. Russian and Chinese leaders now seek to challenge the U.S. advantage to expand their powers and influence, Esper said.
Russia is the greatest near-term challenge, the secretary said. Its attack on Georgia in 2008, its annexation of Crimea and its continuing warfare in the rest of Ukraine show Russia is willing to redraw the map, he told the audience. The Russians have embraced hybrid warfare to intimidate and threaten neighboring states, he added, and the entire U.S. government — and allies and partners — must unite to ensure this tactic is not successful.
But China, with its economic growth and long-term goals, is the greatest U.S. competitor. The Chinese "One Belt, One Road" initiative seeks economic and security leadership around the world, the secretary said. This is in spite of the success of the current international system that allowed China to progress.
In the face of the return of great power competition, the United States military must follow the precepts of the National Defense Strategy to effectively compete in today's complex security environment, the defense secretary said.
"Everything we do must be aimed at achieving the goals and objectives of that strategy," he said. "If something does not, then we should question why are we doing it in the first place."
Implementing the National Defense Strategy will require "disciplined execution and the guts to make tough decisions," the secretary said. He noted that the Defense Department is prioritizing resources, research and acquisition as part of a Defense-Wide Review to laser in on the military capabilities most needed today and in the future. The review “is putting a microscope to our budget,” he said.
"Our current focus is on what is known as the Fourth Estate, but eventually we will address other parts of the DOD enterprise," Esper said. "This effort isn't just about saving money. It will allow us to give our warfighters more of what they need to deter our adversaries, and if necessary, to fight and win."
Esper said the department is also examining force posture and major operational plans.
Adapting to change also means adapting to the new warfighting domains of space and cyber, the secretary said. "It is time now for us to develop joint concepts and doctrine to fight in a multi-domain environment, building on the great work done by the services in recent years," Esper said.
One example of that adaptation is the establishment of the U.S. Space Command. The command ensures the U.S. military can defend national interests in space and safeguard the capabilities that having the high ground gives, Esper said. "Spacecom is now responsible for our daily operations of running our space-based systems and ensuring that our space capabilities are integrated into all our plans and operations around the world," he added.
The command is a great first step, Esper said. "We must take the leap ahead and create an independent Space Force as our newest armed service," he said. "The development of Space Force will allow us to create a cadre of warriors appropriately organized, trained and equipped to deter aggression — and, if necessary, fight and win in space."