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Is the US ready to address China’s threats in time to make a difference?

Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Caylen McCutcheon/U.S. Navy via AP
Aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and the USS Makin Island fly in formation past Nimitz in the South China Sea on Feb. 12, 2023. The 7th Fleet, based in Japan, said the Nimitz strike group and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit have been conducting “integrated expeditionary strike force operations” in the South China Sea.

Are we prepared to deal with aggression from China? We hear increasingly strident rhetoric from Beijing. They issue veiled threats against U.S. surveillance aircraft operating in international airspace. The potential for miscalculation escalating to conflict is growing.

As of this writing, four airspace violators, detected by North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), were shot down over North America in the past two weeks. We know for certain that at least one of the objects was a Chinese spy balloon.

Last week, President Biden downplayed the significance of the espionage, claiming it did not represent “a major breach” in relations with Beijing. Despite White House efforts to moderate, no one can deny that the U.S. relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is at a low. China’s blatant actions will only encourage the confrontational ambitions of countries such as Russia, North Korea, Iran and others.

Here’s what we know:

China is advancing its nuclear modernization faster than anticipated. Last week, United States Strategic Command stated that China now has more ballistic missile launchers than the U.S. If the PRC feels unfettered in violating our borders in a highly visible way today, what will it do when it achieves nuclear parity with the United States and Russia in the next decade?

War in Taiwan won’t be limited to Taiwan. If the PRC invades Taiwan, we should expect it to attack targets in the U.S. as well. There hasn’t been a major attack on U.S. territory since 9/11. Both CIA Director William Burns and Adm. Philip Davidson, the former chief of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, have stated that China will be capable of successfully attacking Taiwan by 2027.

China has a global fleet of high-altitude spy balloons. After the Chinese spy balloon was shot down, the Pentagon press secretary told reporters, “These balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations, which have also violated the sovereignty of other countries.” Why did it take the recent incidents for the Pentagon to inform the American public?

NORAD has gaps in domain coverage. Recently, the commander of NORAD said that his organization was not aware of previous PRC balloon incursions. He candidly shared that “We did not detect those threats and that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out.” He indicated that NORAD was apprised of previous overflights by the intelligence community, but only after the agencies analyzed the recent PRC incursion and compared it to historical events.

Our command-and-control processes require review. The Biden administration allowed the Chinese airship to fly over America’s homeland, including military facilities from Montana to South Carolina. Under pressure, the Biden administration reacted more quickly to the subsequent incidents. Do we have adequate systems and procedures in place to address threats in time to make a difference?

The state of U.S. air and missile defenses requires immediate attention. The American people deserve to know whether the Defense Department and intelligence agencies are adequately prepared to defend North America. If they aren’t, then Congress should provide the money to get them appropriate capability and capacity. For example, skilled Air Force pilots did shoot down the intruders, but our Air Force fields the smallest and oldest fleet of aircraft in its history, including bombers over 60 years old and a fighter force too small to meet U.S. national defense responsibilities. NORAD gets their aircraft from the Air Force, and it too has been underfunded and allowed to atrophy over the past 30 years. Both situations must be corrected to assure U.S. security.

Beijing may escalate by targeting lawfully operating U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. Weeks ago, a PRC fighter had a near-miss incident with an Air Force RC-135 operating over the South China Sea. How will we respond to a more dangerous escalation?

As Congress undertakes hearings on these topics, questions might include:

  • Are our aerospace defense means, organizations and processes sufficient for dealing with today’s threats? Are there clear lines of responsibility and authority? If it did take several days for the Secretary of Defense to alert President Biden of the existence of the Chinese intruder, why?
  • Do we possess sufficient military capability and capacity to deal with the growing threats to our airspace posed by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea?
  • China is seeking nuclear superiority over the United States and Russia. We’ve never lived in a tri-polar nuclear world — a world that is inherently unstable. How should we adjust?
  • Is the intelligence community postured to identify and track threats to our homeland that include ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles, high-altitude airships, long-range aircraft and cruise missiles, and uninhabited aerial vehicles?

The potential that the U.S. might lose a war with China grows as our military advantage erodes. Congress can help with hearings and appropriate action on what is learned from them. The Biden administration also should take steps to improve communication with Beijing to reduce the risk of miscalculation. There is no time to waste.

Brian J. Morra is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, the author of “The Able Archers” historical novel, a former intelligence officer, and a retired aerospace executive.

Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, U.S. Air Force, retired, is dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, planner and commander of multiple joint military operations, and was chief of Air Force Intelligence.

Jeffrey “Skunk” Baxter is a senior consultant on defense and intelligence matters, a two-time inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a Grammy Award-winning musician.

Tags Biden China China aggression China spy balloon US-China tensions

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