The Pentagon is planning for war with China and Russia — can it handle both?

February 6, 2021 in News by RBN Staff


WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is in the opening stages of “redesigning the force” around the challenges of Russia and China, the department’s No. 2 uniformed official said Tuesday — while warning that America may not be able to afford preparing for two unique problem sets.

The recent National Defense Strategy identified great power competitors as the major challenge facing the Pentagon, but Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the plans required to counter each nation are naturally “in tension with one another” for resources.

“Here’s why they will be in competition with each other: They are not the same,” Selva explained during an event hosted by the Defense Writers Group. “There are two unique competitions that we have to deal with, and the elements are overlapping but not the same.”

The primary way that tension plays out depends on who would be involved in the fight.

“Any fight with China, if it were to come to blows, would be a largely maritime and air fight,” Selva said. “It doesn’t mean the Army and the Marine Corps don’t have a place. But when you think about how a potential conflict with China would evolve, it very likely involves a substantial contribution from the naval and air forces, and the Army and Marine Corps would be supporting elements in that fight.”

In contrast, “the Russia global problem set is largely an air and ground fight. Supported by elements of our maritime component, because you can’t get to Russia, you can’t get to Europe in any large measure without transiting the North Atlantic,” he said. “Which means there’s going to be a maritime fight to get things to the continent, but the fight itself as it evolves is likely to be an air and ground fight.”

Selva noted that in the National Defense Strategy, Russia is identified as a “global” challenge, a deliberate move by the planner’s part to try and move away from the idea that Russia is primarily a challenge for Europe to deal with.

Of course, there are other threats to the U.S. besides Russia and China. In recent strategy documents, the Pentagon narrowed its focus to what it calls the 4 + 1 threats — Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and terrorism.