Supporting military operations in a war against China would pose serious problems for the U.S. military, but American forces currently are stronger than Beijing’s army, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress on Wednesday.
Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley also repeated an earlier assessment that China currently lacks the capability to carry out a military takeover of Taiwan, an attack that likely would involve U.S. military forces in defense of the island state.
The four-star general testified at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on the fiscal 2022 defense budget of $753 billion, a budget that some Republicans criticized as insufficient to counter China’s growing military might.
Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, the committee’s ranking Republican, said the defense budget request “doesn’t keep pace with China. It doesn’t even keep pace with inflation.”
“The only reason [President Biden] is not spending more on defense is because the radical left is pushing him to cut it,” Mr. Rogers said. “They want to slash defense spending by 10% or more. To his credit, the president has not gone that far, but what he’s proposing is far from what we need for a credible deterrent.”
A war with China “would be an enormous expensive undertaking in terms of all measures and I would be concerned about the ability to sustain a long term conflict,” Gen. Milley said.
“The idea, though, is to deter conflict and to keep great-power competition at competition and not get it into conflict,” he said. “But [if] we had a war with China, sustaining a fight would be a significant challenge. There’s no question about it.”
The U.S. military plans to spend $5 billion to bolster forces and alliances under the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
Gen. Milley did not elaborate on the problems with sustaining a conflict with China. However, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board warned in a 2019 report the U.S. system for moving troops, weapons and supplies over long distances has decayed significantly and needs to be upgraded for any future war with China or Russia.
The board said shortfalls in military sealift, airlift and pre-positioned equipment and supplies would make it difficult to support military forces in a high-end conflict. Electronic, space and cyber warfare capabilities by adversaries also could be used to disrupt supply lines.
Gen. Milley said Wednesday that China has built “an extraordinarily capable military” through decades of modernization and spending billions on new weapons. Even so, Chinese forces currently are no match for the United States.
“They are not, to be clear, they are not currently superior to the United States military,” he said. “But their aim, their object is to be at least co-equal to if not superior.”
Gen. Milley warned that China’s military could outgun U.S. forces in some years ahead, including in the areas of cyber warfare, space weaponry and submarine warfare. Other emerging Chinese military capabilities systems include hypersonic missiles, advanced robotic weapons and very high-powered computer systems.
“These are emerging technologies [that] are going to hit in time and space in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years, max, and we, the United States, need to be out front and all of them,” the general said. “Otherwise, we’re going to be setting up future generations for a very difficult situation relative to China.”
Currently, U.S. forces, both conventional and nuclear, far outpace those of either China or Russia, the general said.
“I don’t want China or Russia to ever think that the United States military is not better than their military,” he said. “We are in all domains, every day, 24/7. And that’s not just bragging. That’s fact.”
Gen. Milley sought to clarify his recent remarks to Congress that China could not currently launch a military takeover of Taiwan. He insisted he did not dismiss dire assessments made by two Indo-Pacific Command military leaders that China could move against the island in six years or sooner.
“What [Adm. Philip] Davidson and [Adm. John] Aquilino and others have said is that Chinese capability to invade and seize the island of Taiwan is being accelerated to 2027, six years from now,” Gen. Milley said.
China in the next year or two is not likely to launch an invasion because the cost to Beijing would far exceed the benefit.
President Xi Jinping and the Chinese military “would do the calculation and they know that an invasion in order to seize an island that big with that many people and the defensive capability the Taiwanese have would be extraordinarily complicated and costly,” he said.
But China is “clearly” building military capabilities for such an operation and the Pentagon is closely monitoring the buildup, he added.
Gen. Milley said reuniting Taiwan with the mainland is a high priority for both the Chinese military and Mr. Xi, designating the action a “core” interest.
“And it’s also a core national security interest to the United States to ensure that whatever happens with respect to Taiwan happens peacefully and we don’t have a general conflict in the region or globally,” he said.
Gen. Milley said the military services are developing what he called “long-range fires” — missiles and other strike weapons that can make pinpoint attacks.
“Land-based long-range precision fires will give us a significant advantage relative to the pacing threat of China so that they can be operated off of, basically, unsinkable aircraft carriers,” he said, noting the weapons can do significant damage to the Chinese navy.
Experiments on long-range fires are being carried out by the Army and submarine forces in the Pacific and South China Sea.
The extended-range strike weapons will cover the South China Sea, where China is claiming sovereignty over some 90% of the strategic waterway linking trade routes from the Pacific to Indian Ocean.
“The conceptual idea would be that we could handle the Chinese surface fleet with land-based long-range precision fires in combination with air and naval fires,” Gen. Milley said.