Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley’s prognosis, offered on Tuesday as he asked Congress for more money for the Pentagon, is for an era where large-scale war between major powers is a possibility.
“We are entering a world that is becoming more unstable, and the potential for significant international conflict between great powers is increasing, not decreasing.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens “not only European peace and stability but global peace and stability that my parents and a generation of Americans fought so hard to defend,” Milley said.
He actually isn’t asking for enough money for the Pentagon, according to many Republicans and some moderate Democrats, who noted the Department of Defense didn’t properly account for inflation when it requested $773 billion for the 2023 fiscal year — a 4% boost that is less than inflation, which is currently the highest it’s been in 40 years.
The threat Russia poses to America’s NATO allies in Europe is clear from the invasion of Ukraine, but Milley referred to Russia in the same breath as China.
The growth of China’s military, particularly its navy, has concerned American defense officials and lawmakers in recent years.
A new arms race. An emblem of concerns about US military dominance is the very specific focus in recent weeks on hypersonic missiles.
There is a growing narrative — not unlike the one pushed by President Joe Biden that the US is falling behind to China in its technological capacity — that the US military is falling behind China’s.
“Unprecedented Chinese military modernization has enabled them to leapfrog us in key capabilities,” Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama said at the hearing Tuesday. “The Chinese Communist Party now controls the largest army and navy in the world. It has more troops, more ships and more hypersonic missiles than the United States.”
To find out more about what the US knows about China’s military capacity and spending, I reached out to Matthew P. Funaiole, a China expert, data analyst and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Six key points from our phone conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, are below.
1. China has a long-term strategic goal that involves the US
FUNAIOLE: China wants to establish itself as the premier power broker in the Indo-Pacific, displace the US in that sense, and it sees its military as one of the primary means of doing that … you see that materializing in a number of different ways.
The one that gets a lot of attention is China upgrading its navy and all the efforts that it’s put into building new surface combatants, upgrading submarines and developing an aircraft carrier program. That’s where we’re seeing a lot of advancement happening pretty quickly.
2. The idea that China has ‘leapfrogged’ the US needs context
In terms of technology, Funaiole argued the US still maintains a research and development advantage, but that China has clearly worked at catching up in some specific areas.
3. China’s military, like Russia’s, lacks the human backbone the US military has
FUNAIOLE: The US, for better or worse, has been engaged in conflicts around the globe pretty consistently since the end of the Second World War, whereas China’s military is untested. So the technology will be important and the military spending is really important.
But the one place where China can’t really leapfrog ahead, because it’s just based on experience, is the personnel component. Whereas the US can draw from generations of ingrained experience … So technology tells you one part of it, spending tells you one part of it, but there’s also that personnel component where China doesn’t have that experience.
4. China and Russia are not exactly allies
FUNAIOLE: That framing of autocracies vs. democracies, I think, is effective in understanding what’s actually at risk right now in the way that we think about these international norms and ideals. But China and Russia, they work together as partners, they’re closer together on some things than they are on others — but they’re not allies in the same way that we traditionally think about allies in the US system.
The proof Funaiole offered is that the West — including the US and its allies — has effectively united against Russia on Ukraine, but China has stayed at an arm’s distance.
5. Keep an eye on China’s navy development
FUNAIOLE: When China launches its third aircraft carrier, which is going to be a flat-top aircraft carrier, it’s going to use a … catapult system to launch aircraft — that’s advanced new technology … And a couple years from now, when it’s actually positioned into the Chinese navy, that’s going to be something that people are going to be talking about. When China develops its first nuclear reactor for powering aircraft carriers, that’s going to be something that people are going to start talking about …
We need to have a more comprehensive understanding of the spaces in which China is investing, where China is upgrading its military and what that necessarily means, as far as US interests are concerned, in the US’ ability to develop or to leverage existing countermeasures.
6. Putin’s difficulty in Ukraine sends a message to China
FUNAIOLE: If a month ago or six weeks ago, you thought that you could test the system and that you wouldn’t necessarily get much pushback from it, you might think differently about that now … Certainly we’re entering or we have entered into a more multipolar era where the bygone days of US unipolarity have eroded away, but we’re also seeing pretty effective use of how the US can build coalitions with its allies and partners to help reinforce the principles, ideals and institutions that they stand for.