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Defense secretary lays out vision of future in first major speech

In his first major policy speech, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin laid out a vision of warfare starkly different from how “the last of the old wars” of the past two decades were fought, urging the military to move toward a faster, more innovative approach capable of acting at the “speed of war.”

Austin stressed the importance of emerging technology and the rapid increases in computing power to push the military into the future — and away from the more traditional wars of the Middle East fought on conventional battlefields.

“Galloping advances in technology mean changes in the work we do to keep the United States secure across all five domains of potential conflict — not just air, land and sea, but also space and cyberspace,” Austin said, speaking Friday afternoon at the change of command for US Indo-Pacific Command at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. “They mean we need new capacities and operational flexibility for the fights of the future.”

Austin’s speech hardly mentioned any specific ally or adversary, but the impetus behind the secretary’s remarks was clearly a rapidly modernizing and increasingly aggressive China intent on spreading its influence in the western Pacific — and more willing to act against the US in cyberspace.

“What we need is the right mix of technology, operational concepts and capabilities — all woven together in a networked way that is so credible, flexible and formidable that it will give any adversary pause,” Austin said. “We need to create advantages for us and dilemmas for them.”

The secretary, who rose in the ranks fighting the wars of the Middle East, put forward a new paradigm of deterrence across all domains of warfare. It will rely on investing in cutting-edge technologies like quantum computing and artificial intelligence, Austin said, concepts that have little to do with fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria or the Taliban in Afghanistan but are a critical element of deterrence against China.

Though Austin didn’t explicitly mention China, the outgoing commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, speaking after Austin, issued a blunt assessment of the state of affairs.

“The strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific is not between our two nations, it is a competition between liberty — the fundamental idea behind a free and open Indo-Pacific — and authoritarianism, the absence of liberty and the objective of the Communist Party of China,” Davidson said. “This competition does not have to put us on the road to conflict. Our number one job is to keep the peace, and to do that, we must be prepared to fight and win.”

Two weeks ago, the nation’s top spy chief warned that China poses an “unparalleled priority for the intelligence community,” with cyber capabilities that can, at the very least, affect and disrupt critical infrastructure in the United States.

Austin’s speech underscored the fundamental shift in the Pentagon’s thinking from fighting wars in the Middle East to planning for a future conflict against China or Russia — stronger, more capable adversaries willing to challenge the United States and its allies. Austin has referred to China as the “pacing challenge” of the American military and a “near-peer adversary.”

“Our view of deterrence has to rise above the old stovepipes that can build up in any big organization,” Austin said. “Deterrence in the space and cyber domains, and nuclear deterrence itself, shouldn’t be seen as somehow entirely separate from the sweep of our operations.”

The shift goes beyond the military, as the Biden administration focuses on strengthening alliances with Japan, South Korea and other countries in the region in order to stand up to China.

President Joe Biden, in his first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday evening, made confronting China and what he dubbed its “unfair trade practices” a top priority. Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met their Japanese and South Korean counterparts in mid-March. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley met his Japanese and South Korean counterparts in Hawaii a day before Austin’s speech. An official readout of the meeting made no mention of China, but the focus of the intent was clear with America’s commitment to provide “extended deterrence” to regional allies.

The Japanese Prime Minister visited the White House earlier this month, while the South Korean President is expected next month.

“We’ll be working even more closely with our friends in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere — particularly in Europe — to strengthen a rules-based international order that favors the advance of freedom,” Austin said. “Our allies, as I’ve said, are a force multiplier and a strategic advantage that none of our competitors can match.”

This story has been updated with comments from Adm. Philip Davidson, outgoing commander of US Indo-Pacific Command.

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