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Our Town by William Kelly: American military ‘must compete’ with China, U.S. armed services chair says

Russian aggression and Chinese power and ambition present the gravest dangers to U.S. global security, an authority on American military power told a Palm Beach Civic Association audience on January 19.

U.S. Senator Jack Reed, chairman of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, was the keynote speaker at a Civic Association Signature Speaker Series gathering at The Beach Club.

During a roughly hourlong discussion with Civic Association Chairman and CEO Michael Pucillo, who moderated, Reed touched on many aspects of our military preparedness at home and abroad.

Russia and China continue to be America’s most dangerous adversaries in a world where North Korean belligerence and Iranian malignity are also formidable threats to peace, Reed said.

“We can compete, we will compete, [and] we have to stay ahead,” said Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat first elected to the Senate in 1996. “We’re now in a world that’s no longer relatively peaceful like in the late 1990s. It’s more complex and confrontational.”

Reed, 74, is a Harvard-educated attorney who first joined Congress as a representative of Rhode Island’s 2nd Congressional District in 1991. A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, he was a U.S. Army officer from 1971 until 1979, when he left active duty after obtaining the rank of captain.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a threat to the stability and security of Europe, Reed said. If Russian leader Vladimir Putin prevails there, he will be tempted to invade other former Soviet republics on the continent – an act that could trigger a much wider conflict with Western powers.

President Biden has asked Congress for funding for additional military assistance for Ukraine and Israel for its war in Gaza.

“We must [continue to] aid Ukraine,” Reed said. “If Ukraine loses, we lose – big time. The stability of NATO will be threatened. Then Putin will not stop. Moldova, other areas, and, also, he will be tempted to go after the Baltics. That means NATO is involved. That means we’re sending troops.”

Reed said he was in a meeting a few days ago with President Biden and other congressional leaders that included a discussion about additional aid to Ukraine.

“I made the point to the president, and I think he agrees, that I’d rather send dollars than young Americans,” he said. “Our hope is that if [the aid legislation] passes with very strong bipartisan support, [House] Speaker [Mike] Johnson will take it up and say, ‘We’ve got to do this.’”

China

But China, not Russia, is the principal long-term strategic threat facing the United States, Reed said. It is the only nation with both the intent and capability to challenge U.S. interests. It is also the only nation with an industrial capacity greater than ours.

Since the Obama administration, the U.S. has been shifting its military focus toward the Indo-Pacific theater, where China threatens American hegemony.

China possesses a geographic advantage over the U.S. if a military conflict were to break out between the two great powers in the South and East China seas. Unlike China, the U.S. would have to develop supply lines across thousands of miles in the Pacific Ocean, Reed said.

But Reed said the United States has the upper hand in key areas: its extensive network of allies and its submarines, which Reed said remain the best in the world.

U.S. allies, partners and friends in the Indo-Pacific region include South Korea, the Philippines, Japan, and Australia, which Reed said has very capable naval forces.

The outcome of a Sino-American conflict would likely boil down to which side has superior technology. China and the United States are competing for the upper hand in emerging technologies that include artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, and quantum computing.

“Artificial intelligence and quantum computing is critical not only to the military but every aspect of our society, and it’s developing rapidly,” Reed said. “The Chinese and United States are trying to use that as a military or defensive weapon. We are funding it quite aggressively. China is also doing it.”

The trilateral security partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, to build nuclear-powered attack submarines for Australia, gives us a huge advantage, he said.

“That is something that worries the Chinese dramatically because they don’t have that,” Reed said.

China is well on the way to becoming the world’s third major nuclear power, Reed said. Neither China nor Russia seems willing to negotiate for limits in nuclear weapons production.

“The Chinese are not interested in any negotiations until they get to about 1,000 warheads – roughly what we have – so they’ll be treated equal,” Reed said. “Putin seems reckless, and he’s not interested.”

U.S. Readiness

After supply lines were interrupted during the Covid pandemic, U.S. contractors discovered that most of the world’s semiconductor chips are made in China, South Korea, and Taiwan. The chips are essential to U.S. military equipment, and our dependence on those Asian manufacturing sources, which can easily be disrupted, leaves us vulnerable, Reed said.

The U.S. has responded with the CHIPS and Science Act, authorizing $280 billion more for domestic research and development of the chips.

Pucillo noted that, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is enormous worldwide demand for munitions. Ten of the largest defense contractors in the West are sitting on more than $730 billion in orders. American defense contractors compete in a free-market economy with different priorities than state-owned manufacturers in Russia and China. Pucillo asked: Does that put the U.S. at a disadvantage?

Reed replied that the United States has an advantage in that it is the country that produces “the first of the best” weapons systems, including ships, submarines, and military vehicles.

“We have the contracts in place already,” he said.

Reed said the U.S. has spent a lot of money on research and development, and that, because our free enterprise system is “more open,” the U.S. can discover and respond more rapidly to design or manufacturing problems with its weapons systems.

China’s leader Xi Jinping recently fired his country’s military hierarchy for extensive corruption. The U.S. military doesn’t have that problem, Reed said.

The U.S. is working to assure its access to strategic minerals in locations around the world. Those minerals are vital to the production of the defense systems in the future. “Those minerals will probably be the ‘oil’ of this century and the next century,” Reed said.

Pucillo asked whether the all-volunteer military the U.S. has had since 1973 will be sufficient to meet the recruitment challenges facing this country.

Reed said he was in the Army during the period when the U.S. ditched the draft in favor of all-volunteer personnel. Volunteer personnel tend to be better educated and more motivated to serve.

“It has really increased the quality of the young men and women who come in,” Reed said. “It’s definitely a better service.”

Current recruitment challenges include America’s aging population, its obesity epidemic, and mental health issues. Recruits also need better education, Reed said.

Rumbough Legacy Society

The Signature Speaker Series engagements are sponsored by the Stanley M. Rumbough, Jr. Legacy Society through a gift from the late Cynthia Van Buren. The Rumbough Legacy Society is named for the late businessman and philanthropist who was co-chairman and CEO of the Civic Association.

Paul Tudor Jones II, a prominent investment manager, conservationist, and philanthropist, will headline the second Signature Speaker engagement on Thursday, January 25, at 10 a.m. at The Beach Club. The topic will be “the U.S. fiscal situation and what the future might hold.”

David Rockefeller Jr., a business executive, philanthropist, and environmentalist, will headline the third and final Signature Speaker gathering on Tuesday, February 27, at 12 noon at The Beach Club. Rockefeller will focus on work to promote conservation of the world’s oceans.

The Signature Series events are open to Civic Association members at the giving level of $1,000 and above. To RSVP, call 561-655-0820 or visit palmbeachcivic.org/events.

 

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