WASHINGTON -- When Army Gen. Henry Knox became the nation's first secretary of war in 1789, the primary mission of the War Department was simple: Defend the United States of America.
That is still the priority mission for Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III today, but the complexity has obviously increased, and the threats have multiplied.
Competitors are trying to take advantage of gaps in protection to put the United States and other Western Hemisphere nations in danger, U.S. officials responsible for defense of the homeland told the House Armed Services Committee today.
Melissa G. Dalton, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and hemispheric affairs; Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command; and Army Gen. Laura J. Richardson, commander of U.S. Southern Command, described the challenges confronting the nations of the hemisphere, which range from actions by China and Russia and run all the way to transnational criminal syndicates.
Dalton said the 2022 National Defense Strategy states that China is the pacing challenge for the United States, while Russia remains an acute threat. "In addition to building conventional and nuclear capabilities, we are concerned that [China], in particular, is using nonkinetic means to subvert our ability to project power," she said.
The strategy also mentions threats emanating from North Korea, Iran and global terrorist networks.
The homeland has to be braced to respond to threats to logistics and supply chains, and natural disasters — like hurricanes, severe storms, earthquakes, fire and floods — must be prepared for, she said. "These hazards contributed to instability and migration, creating conditions that state and nonstate actors can exploit," she said.
"We are doing more than ever to deter, defend and defeat aggression from competitors," Dalton said. "We're using an integrated deterrence approach to harness conventional cyber, space and information capabilities to raise costs for our competitors while reducing their expected benefits of aggression."
Dalton also touched on missile defense and cyber defense efforts, saying "Investments in modern sensors and infrastructure are vital to homeland defense against airborne and maritime threats and to our ability to project forces."
She went on to say that climate change is opening up the Arctic, and that requires a national strategy for the Arctic region.
The United States is working with neighbors as part of the new Defense Operational Resilience International Cooperation program "to build our partners' early warning capabilities to reduce the need for DOD [Defense Department] assets for disasters and other emergencies. We are deepening partnerships with Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Chile, while reinforcing democratic institutions' civilian control of the military and respect for human rights and the rule of law."
VanHerck told the representatives that this "is clearly the most complex and dynamic strategic environment that I have experienced during more than 35 years in service."
Competitors are making gains on the U.S., but he maintained the U.S. military remains the most powerful and professional force in history. "However, we must take action now to stop the erosion of our military advantage," he said. "Our competitors' actions and ambitions are global and all-domain in nature, and our competitors have the capability and intent to hold our homeland at risk above and below the nuclear threshold and in multiple domains to achieve their strategic objectives."
VanHerck gave the House panel his priorities. The first is domain awareness: The ability to see and detect potential threats in all domains. The second is information dominance, which he defined as the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to process data more rapidly for strategic advantage. His said his third priority is decision superiority, which is the dissemination of data and information to the right leaders at the right time from the tactical to the strategic level.
VanHerck said his last priority is global integration. Leaders need to assess threats and information with a global and all-domain approach.
"I believe the greatest risks that our nation faces right now is our inability to change and adapt at a pace required by the strategic environment," the general said. "Homeland defense must be recognized as essential to contingency plans at home and for power projection abroad. And it is vital that all military planning account for that reality. In an area of incredible innovation and technological advancement, inflexible and outdated processes are a greater impediment to success than many of our competitors advancements."
Richardson emphasized the closeness of ties among the nations of the Western Hemisphere when she addressed the panel. She said the region is still under assault from a host of crosscutting transnational challenges that directly threaten the United States. "In the past year, I've traveled in the region, meeting with leaders to better understand these challenges and the threat they pose to our mutual interests," she said. "The world is at an inflection point: Our partners in the Western Hemisphere with whom we are bonded by trade, shared values, democratic traditions, family ties are feeling the impacts of external interference and coercion."
China continues to expand its economic, diplomatic, technological, informational and military influence in Latin America and the Caribbean, she said. China has the capability and intent to overturn international norms to advance "its brand of authoritarianism and amass power and influence at the expense of these democracies."
China has expanded its ability to extract resources, establish ports, manipulate governments through predatory investment practices and build potential dual-use space facilities, she said.
"Russia — an acute threat — bolsters authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela and continues its extensive disinformation campaign," the general said. "These activities undermine democracies and challenge our credibility."
She said both China and Russia exploit the presence of transnational criminal organizations and work to amplify their destabilizing impact on democratic governments, spreading violence and corruption throughout the region and beyond.
"Their fentanyl-laced cocaine contributes to the deaths of Americans in cities and towns across the country," she said. "The good news is that working with our very willing partners leads to the best defense, and we must use all available levers to strengthen our partnerships with the 28, like-minded democracies in this hemisphere, who understand the power of working together to counter these shared challenges."