Esper Warns US Now Confronting New Era of ‘Great Power Competition’

September 19, 2019 by Dan McCue
Defense Secretary Mark Esper addresses the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference. (Photo courtesy Air Force Foundation)

WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Mark Esper had a stark warning for attendees at a major U.S. Air Force conference Wednesday morning, telling them “great power competition has once again returned to the global stage” and as a result, “we must change course … and face the challenges of the future head on.”

Esper delivered his sobering assessment during a keynote address at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor.

The annual event is attended by the top U.S. Air Force brass, airmen and airwomen of every rank, and the cream of the nation’s military contractors and manufacturers hoping to sell their wares to the Pentagon.

Just months into his tenure as Defense Secretary, Esper said “our military has become very proficient at low-intensity conflict.”

“For decades now the Air Force has dominated the skies. Air superiority has been relatively uncontested,” he said. “Persistent ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] has become the norm. And precision airstrikes are now the weapon of choice.”

“But the conveniences of today’s battlefield will not be the realities of the future,” he said.

Esper said while the United States military has been focused on ongoing operations in the Middle East, strategic competitors have been actively modernizing their militaries, “growing their power and expanding their influence.”

“Russia remains our greatest near-term security challenge,” the Secretary said. “Its invasion of Georgia in 2008, annexation of Crimea in 2014, and sustained aggression in Ukraine demonstrate Moscow’s continued efforts to unilaterally redraw international borders.

“Russia’s hybrid style of warfare presents a persistent threat to our European partners, particularly those former Soviet states that are now more closely aligned with the West,” he added.

And if anything, Esper said, China presents an ever greater long-term challenge to the United States.

“Aside from its growing military power, China is enacting its comprehensive One Belt, One Road initiative to gain economic leverage and military access around the world,” he said.

“So, what does this all mean for the United States military?” he asked rhetorically. “Put simply, some of our long-held advantages have started to diminish.” 

In 2018, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis concluded roughly the same thing and drafted a National Defense Strategy to counter Russian and Chinese threats — especially in the areas of air, space and cyberspace.

Esper said he is advancing the Mattis strategy by directing two major reviews at the Defense Department.

The first entails “putting a microscope to our budget.” He said while the financial review has started with the department’s administrative agencies, it will eventually address other parts of what he called “the DoD enterprise.”

“This effort isn’t just about saving money.  It will allow us to give our warfighters more of what they need to deter our adversaries and, if necessary, to fight and win,” Esper said.

The second review is focusing on the Pentagon’s force structure and operational plans, looking to ensure the department is not just doing things right, but is “doing the right things,” he said.

Later in his remarks, Esper turned to the department’s newly minted Space Command, calling it “a critical step to ensuring we can defend our national interests in space.”

“SPACECOM, led by Gen. Jay Raymond, is now responsible for our daily operations of running our space systems and ensuring that our space capabilities are integrated into all of our plans and operations around the world,” the Secretary said.

But he added that the creation of the new command alone is “not enough to truly posture ourselves for long-term dominance in space.” 

“We must take the leap ahead and create an independent Space Force as our newest armed service,” he said. “The creation of Space Force will allow us to develop a cadre of warriors who are appropriately organized, trained and equipped to deter aggression and, if necessary, to fight and win in space.”

Esper likened the creation of Space Force to the separation of the Air Corps from the Army in 1947, creating the U.S. Air Force.

“The time is now to allow our space professionals to branch out and prepare for our future in space,” he said. “America’s adversaries are already fielding new weapons to attack U.S. satellites and space-based systems.  The next big fight may very well start in space, and the United States military must be ready.”

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