Russia and China are near-peer competitors and the United States must benchmark military capabilities against these possible threats, Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford said at Duke University, in Durham, N.C.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a standing room only audience that the two-plus-three strategy gives civilian and military leaders the framework they need to prioritize personnel and resources.
The rise of China and Russia represent the return of great power competition and the American military must respond to this challenge. But the United States still is concerned about North Korea, Iran and violent extremism, he said.
This does not limit officials, he said. The best guess is that these threats are most likely, but there could be other threats that rise and must be addressed.
Preparing Against Challenges
“Our assumption is if we prepare against one or some combination of those challenges, then we’ll have the right inventory of capabilities to deal with the unexpected,” the general said. “But clearly, as we do our planning we think of the unexpected in addition to these five challenges.”
He said ensuring overmatch against these threats is not easy and the sources of strength for the U.S. military is what nations concentrate their capabilities on. In the U.S. case, one source of strength is the network of allies and friends around the world. This helps another source of strength and that is the ability to deploy forces and capabilities anywhere in the world and then sustain that effort.
Both Russia and China have developed capabilities that would negate some of these advantages, the chairman said. Russia is doing its level best to chip away at the North Atlantic alliance. China is trying to separate the United States from allies in the Pacific region, like Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines.
What complicates this is two new domains of defense: space and cyberspace. Russia and China are developing combat capabilities in both domains and the United States has to defend these areas, the general said.
This is not a return to the Cold War, Dunford told Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and the founder of the Duke Program on American Grand Strategy. “Competition doesn’t have to be conflict,” the general said, “but we now have two states that actually … can challenge our ability to project power and challenge us in all domains.”
This does not mean that Russia or China are enemies of the United States, Dunford said, and he stressed that American diplomats need to continue engaging the countries. But, as a military leader, the chairman said he has to deal with capabilities, not intents.
In Europe he tells his Russian counterpart that “what you’re seeing in our posture, what you’re seeing the increased forces that we have put in Europe, what you’re seeing in the path of capability development that we are on is in order to deter a conflict, not to fight,” the general said.
These developments are “largely reacting to what we have seen over the last 10 years, which is a significant increase in the development of [Russian] maritime capability, modernizing their nuclear enterprise, cyberspace and space capabilities and in the land domain,” he said.
Dunford added, “Over all domains, Russia has made a concerted effort to increase their capabilities, and we are responding to them.”
The challenges are different in the Indo-Pacific region, he said. The U.S. goal is to follow the rule of law that has benefitted the region since the end of World War II. The U.S. government would like to see China acquiescing to these rules and not trying to replace them.
“In order for us to have a free and open Indo-Pacific, in order to have China comply with international law and standards as they exist or seek to change them in a legitimate venue, what it will take is a collected multilateral response,” Dunford said. “One of the things we work on very hard is to develop a group of like-minded nations that will seek to have a coherent, collective response to violations of international law.”
He added, “To the extent that we are able to do that, we will be able to manage the situation in the Pacific peacefully.”