Army Sgt. Justin Covert mans an M1A2 .50-caliber machine gun on a Stryker vehicle during training at Fort Irwin, Calif., as the Milky Way galactic center is visible overhead, May 24, 2022.

Army Sgt. Justin Covert mans an M1A2 .50-caliber machine gun on a Stryker vehicle during training at Fort Irwin, Calif., as the Milky Way galactic center is visible overhead, May 24, 2022. U.S. Army / Staff Sgt. Christopher Stewart

State of Defense 2023

A year into a war on European soil, U.S. defense planners remain fixated on China.

With no end in sight to the year-old Ukraine war, defense headlines remain largely, and understandably, focused on Russia’s invasion of Europe’s frontier. But back home, the Biden administration, military leaders, Congressional partisans, and the U.S. security apparatus appear far more concerned about China. The services are shifting their plans, people, and weapons to deter Beijing from military conflict, to be better positioned to respond, and to have a better chance to survive. 

What’s changed is that where military leaders used to avoid saying “China” when talking publicly about their Pacific worries, it’s now all out in the open. Army commanders in the Indo-Pacific region, for example, have always tried to declare the land service’s relevance in that vast and mostly air- and sea-covered side of the Earth. This year, it’s genuine. U.S. Army Gen. Charles Flynn, of U.S. Army Pacific Command, expects 2023 to be one of the business and most consequential ever. 

The goal? Beat China to their punch, which they’ve forecast could come as early as 2027. 

The problem? Convincing Americans to join in the fight. 

“Today’s young Americans appear to be less interested in enlisting in the Army than they’ve been at almost any point in the last 50 years,” writes Defense One’s Ben Watson in his State of the Army 2023.

Meanwhile, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger is reshaping his service along Force Design 2030, which has drawn criticism from retired brass. In an interview with Defense One’s Caitlin Kenney, Berger said the Marines have finished divesting old gear and he is directing the service to immediately update its stocks and move them into the field: “not in five years or seven years—now.” 

Berger also is on record with warnings that the Navy’s amphibious fleet cannot dip below 31 ships, but with the old caveat that the capability and type of ships matters more than the number. Read more on that in Kenney’s State of the Marines 2023

The Navy is hoping that after several years in which its shipbuilding plans were thrown back in its face by lawmakers and the Trump administration, it finally has a map to follow for at least a few years. Still, debates over the future of the amphibious force and the place of drones and autonomous platforms continue to roil service planning. Read about it in Bradley Peniston’s State of the Navy 2023.

The Air Force’s future will not resemble even its recent past. That worries Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, who notes, among other changes, that while in the Middle East war years the Air Force was able to fly into large and secure air bases, that will not be guaranteed in any conflict with China or Russia. He wants the service to have more options and quicker decision making. Jen Hlad writes, “As for the 2024 budget, expect another significant funding bump as the service plans to launch several new programs.” Highlights will include more drones and, yet again, new aerial refueling capabilities. 

Meanwhile at Space Force, newly launched chief of operations Gen. Saltzman says now that much of the organization and personnel are in place, Guardians need to practice their operational skills and do so with intelligence. “The personnel have to be trained. We have to have operational concepts. We have to have tactics that are validated. The operators have to practice those tactics.” That means asking Congress for more simulators, ranges, testing equipment, digital engineering, and more, Hlad reports. Read more on what the future holds at State of the Air Force and Space Force.

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