3 April 2024

JUST IN: Deterring China Requires Better Understanding of Adversaries

Sean Carberry

The United States is expending military resources around the world — either directly in cases like protecting sea lanes from Houthi attacks, or indirectly by providing weapons, ammunition and supplies to Ukraine, Israel and other partners and allies. That’s putting a strain on readiness, modernization and deterrence, said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

While deterring China from invading Taiwan requires the U.S. military to continue modernization efforts and maintain readiness, deterrence is more than just military actions and solutions, Air Force Gen. Charles Brown said at Defense Writers Group discussion March 28.

“You’ve got to think about deterrence as a cognitive aspect,” he said. “You're trying to convince somebody, and if you don't understand how they think and operate, it's hard to deter them.”

The health of U.S. deterrence today is “pretty good, but I do believe it's something we got to continue to improve upon,” he said, adding that the depth of knowledge and focus on deterrence theory today might not be at the level it was during the Cold War.

“We’ve got to pay attention to what happens in a diplomatic space, what happens in the information space, what happens economically, because those are the indicators that are probably more telling than some of their military capabilities of where their intents are,” he said, referring to China.

In his previous roles as an operational commander, “competition wasn't about orders of battle, airplanes and missiles, it was about understanding our adversary and how they think, how they make decisions. Because you can't control what you don't understand,” he said.

The United States and its allies are gaining more insight into China, and they need to think not just about integrated deterrence but about integrated indications or warnings, he said.

“And what I mean by that is, I can't just pay attention to the military movements, because there's a lot of other things that nations will do economically, diplomatically,” he said. “If you don't pay attention to those, that may impact deterrence.”

“I think our senior leaders also need to be paying attention to those kinds of factors because those may be the first indication that something is going in a direction that may cause a conflict,” he continued. “And the better we understand that, the better we can work with the rest of the interagency and with our allies and partners to mitigate what might be the risk of a potential conflict.”

As the United States is working to understand China, it is also gaining a deeper understanding of Russia’s capabilities and intents. While he would not say either way whether the United States should send Ukraine longer-range munitions like the Army Tactical Missile System, he said the risk of doing so is probably lower today.

“I do sense that the risk of escalation is not as high as maybe it was at the beginning of the process because we understand a bit more over time,” he said. “And based on what the Ukrainians have been able to do — not only there in Ukraine, but you've seen they struck into Russia as well — and just watching the reaction, those are the things that we pay attention to, from actions but also sensitive intel to determine what is the likelihood of escalation based on different capabilities and different actions.”

Brown said that since he took over as chairman a week before the Hamas terrorist attack against Israel, he’s been taking a big picture view of how to balance the demands of the current conflicts with modernization and deterrence.

“I try to put all the things we're trying to get done on the table and have a conversation,” he told reporters.

“We can talk about the Middle East in one bucket — whether it's Israel and Gaza, our forces in Iraq and Syria, or the Red Sea — Ukraine, [China], we can talk about those in individual silos, and if we do that, we will fix one problem and create two or three more,” he said. “And so, what I've been trying to do is step back from a number of these areas and look at it more holistically.”

Brown noted that the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act tasked the chairman of the Joint Chiefs with being the “global integrator.”

“I have that responsibility to sit back, and as I provide advice, to look more globally,” he said. “And one of the things I'm doing is engaging with the combatant commanders to talk to them about how we look at things more globally.

“The typical response is if there is a crisis, they will ask for more capability,” he continued. “My point back to them is what if you got nothing? How would you mitigate? How would you be more creative with the tools that you already have? And tell me about the risk, and then we'll have a conversation because there's risk in another combatant command or risk to a service based on readiness.”

By having those holistic conversations and looking at both the here and now and looking ahead, it’s possible “to map some of these things out so that we can have a conversation so we don't keep causing problems for ourselves.”

And there is a complex mix of problems to solve, from shortcomings in the defense industrial base to Congress failing to pass budgets on time to making better use of data within the department.

“How do you take the data that we have today and use it to help make decisions and provide advice?” he said. “And so, we're using that for some of the tools that look at force posture movements to play out scenarios, pull the data from the services and then look at it and what the impact is on readiness. Because here's what you could do, but there's an impact downstream that you have a better appreciation of because you can model that out. And so, there's an impact and you may pick a different pathway based on looking at the data.”

There’s no low hanging fruit to solving the readiness, modernization and deterrence equation, he said. “The first thing I look at is predictability. Getting a budget on time would be really helpful.”

The Defense Department spent the first 170 days of fiscal year 2024 under continuing resolutions, he said.

“And you think about it, there's roughly close to 450 things we could not do — whether it's new starts, changing your procurement, [military construction], all that stuff,” he said.

That impacts the defense industrial base as well, he said. “Consistency is going to be important because [with] that consistency you can actually write contracts, they can have a workforce, they can set up their supply chains — all those are things that are important. And if you don't do that, you start to lose trust, and you lose trust not only at the larger companies, but it's also those smaller [subcontractors] that provide some key pieces and parts.”

Unstable funding drives up costs and costs time, he said.

“Over the past 15 years, we've been in [continuing resolutions] for five,” he continued. “And so, we got to really look at how we get a budget on time, which gives predictability to our defense industrial base. And then we've got to prioritize where we want the defense industrial base to grow out.

“And partly it's also the workforce,” he added. “When you think about long lead items, that may be one of our long lead items and just making sure we have the talent within the defense industrial base, and part of that is giving them predictability, which means they can hire folks and keep them on versus trying to go up and down based on changes in budget cycles.”

It’s not just a matter of passing fiscal year funding on time, it’s passing supplemental funding requests, he said, noting that Congress’s failure to pass the supplemental request for support to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan isn’t just affecting those countries, it’s holding back efforts to reinvigorate the U.S. defense industrial base, he said.

“When you think about the supplemental — you can talk about whether it's Ukraine supplemental, Israel supplemental — 80 percent of that money comes back into our defense industrial base,” he said. It’s a function of both replenishing what the United States has provided to other nations and building new inventory that can be sold through foreign military sales.

“The one thing I found as I've traveled around the world is that U.S. capabilities are highly desired,” he continued. “And that's why I think this supplemental is important.”

That’s why the department needs to talk more about the longer-term benefits to the industrial base, he said.

“I've asked my staff about that, you know, building out a chart so you can actually show where one of those dollars goes and how it actually doesn't go direct to Ukraine and Israel, how it comes back into our defense industrial base. And it gives us additional capability in the long haul,” he said.

The department asked for seven multiyear procurements in the fiscal year 2024 budget, and Congress approved six, he said.

But because of how long Congress spent passing continuing resolutions before finally passing a 2024 defense budget, “we spent 170 days not doing multiyear procurement and not increasing funding to our defense industrial base and providing that capability,” he said.

Having predictable funding is critical for deterrence and supporting partners, he said.

“If you can't see that something's coming, it's hard to give something away,” he said.

It’s not just the United States that is struggling to keep up with the demand in Ukraine and Israel, he said, adding that he recently spoke to allies and partners in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.

“Early on, they were willing to give stuff,” he said. “But you know what? They want to make sure there's something on the backside so they don't decrease all their readiness and then have a bathtub they can't refill in capability.

“And that's the same thing for us. We want to make sure that as we do this, and the further we go along in this and you get additional capacity, the defense industrial base picks up its pace, then you can actually in some cases … take a little bit more risk because you know you've got a capability coming in behind, and you understand the temporal aspect of that risk. You know how long it's going to be based on what the defense industrial base can do.”

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