Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is interviewed at the U.S. Capitol, Feb. 15, 2017.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is interviewed at the U.S. Capitol, Feb. 15, 2017. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

A panel of defense experts on Thursday raised concern over Russia and China’s ability to match and contest U.S. military power in the next decade, focusing on issues ranging from advanced Russian guided munitions to the Pentagon’s personnel shortfalls.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called the hearing to discuss reshaping American forces for emerging threats. Defense experts told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that the United States has only taken “rudimentary” steps to match capabilities against conventional militaries.

The experts also warned the United States is playing catchup over readiness and technology.

“For 20 years, our adversaries have gone to school on the American way of war,” McCain said in his opening remarks, honing on Russia’s focus on matching and overpowering traditional U.S. strengths such as nuclear and submarine warfare.

“We can go longer take victory for granted. America could lose the next war we fight,” the senator said.

The hearing comes amid a defense buildup of U.S. forces in Europe reminiscent of the Cold War. An Army armor brigade of 4,000 soldiers arrived in January and fanned out across Poland, Germany, Estonia and other Baltic states, marking the first permanent rotational brigade in the region.

About 2,000 aviation soldiers off-loaded equipment in Germany last week as part of the escalation.

Those deployments, part of the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative created in response to Russian’s aggression in Ukraine and Crimea, were authorized by then-President Barack Obama. The continued fate of those deployments remain unclear, as President Donald Trump has signaled a commitment for reduced tensions with Moscow.

However, during the hearing, Russia and China were often mentioned as looming adversaries. More so, McCain and the defense experts raised the specter of Pentagon acquisition and personnel policies as a self-created enemy, one that McCain said hinder the ability to close technological gaps as U.S. troops wait to receive new equipment stuck in bureaucratic pipelines.

“If we can get new stuff in the hands of soldiers, sailors and Marines, they will find amazing ways to employ it,” said Thomas Donnelly, the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

Difficulties with acquisition is mostly a problem of the government not ensuring proper tools and innovative methods are created, Donnelly said.

“It’s not a question of talent, but capability,” he said.

The Pentagon’s chronic problems with staffing combat-ready Army brigades also affects strategic capabilities, Donnelly said.

The next brigade slated to replace the rotational unit in Europe, now at Fort Riley in Kansas, has struggled to fill billets, with some companies failing to assign Bradley crews and dismounted soldiers for as many as one-third of the vehicles, he said.

The experts also agreed permanent forces should remain in Europe and the Pacific to deter aggression and respond quickly to any threats to allies.

Predictable opposition scenarios, such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or Russian incursions into the Baltics, could happen so quickly that the United States would be forced to attack and dislodge units as a first response, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Russia’s advanced development of guided munitions should compel U.S. forces in Europe to disperse across numerous bases, disrupt enemy reconnaissance and use traditional decoy methods to create uncertainty about troop locations, said David Ochmanek, a defense analyst at the Washington-based RAND Corporation.

Though Russia’s overall strength lags behind the United States, that permanent forward presence erodes Russia’s greatest asset of geographic proximity to Europe, which helps to mass troops and war machines on NATO’s eastern flank, Ochmanek said.

The United States’ commitment to NATO was not a focus of the Senate hearing, though Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday echoed Trump on the need of allies in the region to increase their contributions to the alliance.

“America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to the alliance, each of your capitals needs to show its support for our common defense,” Mattis said in a closed-door meeting in Brussels with European defense ministers. Twitter: @AlexHortonTX

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now