FORT MEADE, Md. -- As threats from near-peer adversaries grow, the fiscal year 2020 budget will allow some National Guard units to bump up their operational tempo, Army senior leaders told lawmakers Tuesday.

Selected units within the 343,500-member Guard will need to mobilize and deploy faster in case conflicts with Russia or China arise, Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"I don't believe Russia and China will give us the time to build combat power in the future," he said.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Army's chief of staff, said training time for these selected units will increase and combat training center rotations will jump annually from two to four. Milley said the Guard will need to modestly raise its numbers in FY20. The Guard fell 8,000 members below its projected end strength in fiscal 2018.

"The Army is dependent upon the National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve to execute our wartime mission," Milley said. "It cannot be done without it."

Esper lauded the efforts of Guard members from Nebraska, Minnesota and other states who assisted rescue and relief efforts following catastrophic flooding in parts of the Midwest this past week. More than 340 Guard members have participated in search and rescue missions, delivering needed relief to stranded and displaced residents.

"Our hearts go out to the people of Nebraska and what they're going through right now," Esper said. "It sure is going to take some time and we really feel for them."

In recent years, the Guard has provided crucial aid to residents affected by Hurricanes Michael and Florence, as well as helping with relief efforts for California wildfire victims.

"The Guard is no longer a strategic reserve," Esper said. "It is an operational force and it's proved itself very well over the past many years."

Readiness and deployability will be crucial not only for the Guard, but across the service, Milley said, adding the Army expects to have 66 percent of its active-duty brigades and 33 percent of Guard brigades at "full states of readiness."

The Army has increased its number of fully-ready, brigade combat teams by 55 percent over the past two years. The Army expects to reach its highest levels of readiness by 2028, Milley said.

GROWING THREAT

In the race to meet the rising challenge of Russia and China, the Army's senior leaders asked lawmakers to approve its $182 billion FY20 budget proposal which will also provide more money for its modernization efforts to develop future capability.

"We intend to regain the competitive advantage," Milley said.

The Army has been developing the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, or ERCA, which has undergone testing at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. Esper, who recently visited Yuma, said that Russian air defense has surpassed U.S. capabilities and the cannon will help U.S. Forces regain its edge.

Russia has been steadily undergoing its own modernization efforts, Esper said. Field testing for Russia's next-generation tank, the T-14 Armata, is currently underway, as well as development of advanced Russian air defense and artillery systems.

"Russia is still the only country on earth that is actually an existential threat to the United States of America," Milley said. "They are the only ones who have the capability to bring that level of destruction to our country. And they have been very aggressive in the last decade or so."

Milley said increasing the Army's capabilities in Europe will be crucial to defending the nation against the Russian threat and said additional funding in the budget proposal will go toward deterring Russian aggression.

"The Russians are modernizing their fighting vehicles," Esper said. "They are modernizing their air defense systems. Across the board they are doing things that we need to (do)."

Meanwhile, China continues to invest in cutting-edge technologies, including artificial intelligence, directed energy and hypersonic weapons. The U.S. Army continues to upgrade its capabilities, he said, most notably long-range precision fires, the service's top modernization priority.

When asked about the possibility of reducing the number of troops stationed on the Korean Peninsula, Milley said U.S. forces are currently in "good shape" in the Pacific to handle potential threats by North Korea.

The Army took bold steps toward reaching its future modernization goals with the establishment last summer of Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas, Milley said. This will hasten the acquisition process and get needed equipment and vehicles to units faster, he said

"In the last 17 years, our strategic competitors have eroded our military advantages," the general told senators. "With your help, starting two years ago, we began to restore our competitive advantage and our recent budgets have helped improve readiness and laid the groundwork for future modernization. And we ask with this budget, that you sustain these efforts."