CSIS: China Power Conference 2021; Secretary of the Army's Opening Remarks

By Dontavian HarrisonDecember 20, 2021

Thank you so much for hosting me this morning. My pleasure to be here.

Such affection for CSIS, so many terrific colleagues, doing such high quality work with very practical application – something I welcome as someone working in government!

Some may wonder why the Army Secretary is key note speaker for a conference on China. But the reality is that competing militarily and strengthening deterrence in the Indo-Pacific is a joint undertaking, and certainly any potential military conflict with China would require the entire joint force – not just maritime and air forces.

So I want to take the opportunity to talk a bit about how I see the China challenge – how it has evolved over the last 20 years, how it looks today, and what I see as the Army role in the Indo-Pacific.

As you all know very well, while the United States was countering insurgencies and combating terrorism in the Middle East for the last 20 years, the PRC very deliberately began what has become a sweeping military modernization effort.

The Gulf War, the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis, the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – Beijing saw in these events, each in different ways, the power of the U.S. military.

They appear to have been catalysts for China to begin figuring out whether the PLA could undermine key elements of the American military’s power projection model and to much more rapidly modernize their own military forces so they could face a “strong enemy.”

A more powerful Chinese military helps to underwrite the PRC’s strategy to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049 – to include development of the PLA into a “world class military” by midcentury.

China’s focus on modernizing its military capabilities will strengthen its ability to coerce Taiwan and rival claimants in territorial disputes, project power globally, and counter interventions along the PRC’s periphery.

Today the PLA has approximately 2 million personnel in the regular armed forces. China has the largest navy in the world numerically, the largest aviation force in the Indo-Pacific region, and 975,000 active-duty personnel in its army combat units. Its Rocket Forces are embarking on a significant expansion of its nuclear arsenal and its Strategic Support Force centralizes the PLA’s space, cyber, electronic, information and psychological warfare capabilities.

China has capabilities today to attack our sensors in space and our communication links that largely run through space. China has missiles that can sink ships and bring down airplanes. They have missiles that can reach US bases in Japan and Guam, exposing our planes and runways to attack. Not only does China have advanced precision weapons, it has them in large and growing numbers. And just recently China conducted a missile test that sent a missile around the world, dropping off a hypersonic vehicle that glided all the way back to China where it then struck a test target.

Given the distance China has come militarily in the last 20 years, we must be clear eyed about the challenge we now face.

We should not seek a second “Cold War” or ask our allies and partners to choose between the United States and China, but we also should not underestimate China and the challenge it poses for the United States. This is why Secretary Austin calls China the pacing challenge for DoD.

As I said at my confirmation hearing, we are at a strategic crossroads - we are in a competition with China that has far-reaching consequences. And while I firmly believe the most important dimensions of this competition aren’t military, the military piece is a foundational element that we have to get right.

So let me say a few words about the role I see the Army playing in this competition, and address what the Army will contribute as part of the Joint Force should competition transition into outright conflict.

Fundamentally, a core competitive advantage we have in the Indo-Pacific is our network of allies and partners – we are always stronger when we work together with our friends – and the Army has very strong relationships in the region. I believe an overarching mission for the Army is to provide assurances on the ground to our friends in the region that the United States will be there for them.

We are building those relationships by being forward in the theater and by exercising together, whether it is with the Philippines and Thailand as part of Pacific Pathways or with Australia and Japan in exercises Talisman Sabre and Orient Shield.

Through its Pacific Pathways initiative, USARPAC has Army units partnering with allies and partners in the region for training and extended deployments, to include staying in the region for up to six month.

Our 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade, which is aligned to INDOPACOM, operates frequently in the region - elements of 5th SFAB have been on the ground working with partners in Thailand, India and Indonesia, just to name a few.

And finally we’ve recently begun experimenting in the region with employment of our first Multi-Domain Task Force, a formation designed to help better understand the environment, develop potential target information and bring together kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities  - think space, cyber and electronic warfare as well as long-range fires.

These relationships and regular interactions demonstrate our commitment to maintaining stability in the region, something our allies and partners tell us routinely that they want, set the conditions for potentially increased access in the event of a crisis, and enhance deterrence by demonstrating our ability to work together.

But what if deterrence were to fail, despite our best efforts? What role would the Army play? Unfortunately much of the conversation on this topic has been framed around battles over the defense budget or inter-service rivalries, or lost in a sea of acronyms like A2/AD, MDO, MDTF or LRPF.

So let me try to articulate plainly what role the Army could play in a conflict in the Indo-Pacific.

In my view, the Army will have at least 5 core tasks if a conflict breaks out, and these are tasks the Army can usefully perform without presuming substantial expansion of Army permanent posture in the region in the near term future.

First, we will serve as the “linchpin service” for the Joint Force – what I mean by that is the Army will establish, build up, secure and protect staging areas and joint operating bases for air and naval forces in theater.

We will be prepared to provide integrated air and missile defenses, both for fixed sites and using mobile elements. We will provide area security and quick reaction forces where needed.

Second, we will sustain the joint force across the vast distances of the Indo-Pacific, using Army theater support capabilities.

The Army will provide much of the secure communication network background, we will generate intra-theater distribution networks to keep the Joint Force supplied from dispersed locations, and we will maintain munition stockpiles and forward arming and refueling points.

Third, we can provide command and control at multiple operational levels to coordinate, synchronize, sustain and defend ongoing joint operations using scalable, tailorable combined joint task force headquarters.

The Army, with its substantial planning and operations capacity at the division and corps level, is uniquely well placed to provide command and control for the Joint Force.

Fourth, the Army will provide ground-based, long-range fires as part of the Joint Force’s strike capabilities.

Using our Long-range hypersonic weapons, mid-range capability and Precision Strike Missile – all of which we will begin fielding in FY23, we will be able to interdict fires across sea lines of communication, suppress enemy air defenses and provide counter fires against mobile targets.

Fifth – if required the Army can counter-attack using its maneuver forces –for example, infantry, Stryker elements and combat aviation brigades - to restore the territorial integrity of our allies and partners.

And lastly – something that is often overlooked is the likelihood that a conflict in the Indo-Pacific will include attacks on the US homeland. Here too, the Army will be important.

For example, if there are cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure, it is very likely that the Army will be called upon to provide defense support to civil authorities, just as we do in so many natural disasters every year – but the scale could be much bigger.

I will close by noting that the Army is embarked on the most comprehensive effort to modernize itself in the last 40 years – the majority of the new systems we are developing and fielding are relevant to specific operational challenges we see in the Indo-Pacific. And we are testing and experimenting with these new capabilities day in and day out, and not just by ourselves.

Last year we launched an initiative, Project Convergence, to enable us to explore how best to apply new technologies to some of the most pressing operational challenges we are likely to face in the future. This year, at Project Convergence 21 which just ended earlier this month, we expanded the effort to include our sister services so that we could learn together how to connect and integrate our data, sensors and shooters over the kinds of vast distances one would encounter in the Indo-Pacific, and experiment with 100 new technologies using vignettes representative of various anti-access and area denial challenges we are likely to face.

The Indo-Pacific is a region of great opportunity for the United States, but also real challenges. The Army is stepping up to that challenge, both in terms of how we contribute to the country’s ability to compete with China and to our ability to deter coercion and aggression in the region. No one service can meet the challenge alone, which is why we are focused on learning, experimenting and operating in the region as part of the Joint Force.