General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the most recent of top military officials to join in sounding the alarm on China as a “pacing threat” and warn of the implications for the United States. During an event at the Aspen Security Forum this week, General Milley described China as the “number one challenge” to U.S. national security and stated that if the United States military doesn’t engage in “fundamental change” in the “coming 10-15-20 years, then we’re going to be on the wrong side of the conflict.”
These remarks from America’s top military leader follow a multitude of warnings issued by other Pentagon and senior military leaders in recent months. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin used the words “pacing threat,” to describe the slow, but sure military gains that China has made to keep pace with U.S. technological advances, and Colin Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, fleshed out the department’s need to “get China right” during policy talks this summer. Kahl referred to China as the “only country that can pose a systemic challenge to the United States in the sense of challenging us, economically, technologically, politically and militarily.”
Just last month, outgoing Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Hyten, also reiterated the classification of China as a “pacing threat,” describing China’s pace and trajectory as “stunning.” Hyten suggested that the United States remains handicapped by bureaucracy in its ability to stay ahead of China’s growing threat and remarked that if the U.S. does nothing to change or slow Chinese progress, the Communist nation will surpass Russia and the United States.
In his interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Milley this week justified his call for “fundamental” change within the military by providing context for China’s progress. China’s motivation to challenge the global world order, and the United States, in particular, provides legitimate cause for concern, particularly in consideration of China’s significant military investment and progress in a relatively short amount of time. Milley described how China has evolved in a mere 40 years from “a very large infantry, peasant-based, Army” to a nation with capabilities that span space, cyber, land, sea, air, and undersea domains.
Kahl is certainly not mistaken. The United States military remains greatly hindered by bureaucracy. It is politics, however, that determines the extent of bureaucracy’s impact.