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Senators question Biden nominee on fighting China and Russia

Christopher Grady, Biden's pick for vice chair of the Joint Chiefs, said the military would be prepared

U.S. Navy Admiral Christopher Grady speaks during a Memorial Day celebration at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York on May 28, 2018.
U.S. Navy Admiral Christopher Grady speaks during a Memorial Day celebration at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York on May 28, 2018. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The United States needs to retool its strategic planning to incorporate the possibility of simultaneous conflicts with China and Russia, senators warned Wednesday during an Armed Services Committee hearing.

Several Republicans prodded Adm. Christopher Grady, the Biden administration’s nominee to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to concede that the Pentagon needs to revisit its force planning construct, a major component of 2018’s National Defense Strategy. That document, the most recent overhaul of the Pentagon’s strategic priorities, emphasized the need to shift away from planning on fighting two regional conflicts at once in favor of a conflict against a major adversary.

The Pentagon is in the midst of producing a new National Defense Strategy and other planning documents, including the Nuclear Posture Review.

“Two major planning assumptions have been overtaken by events, and now, they seem to be critically flawed,” said South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds. The first assumption is that the United States would be fighting one war at a time, and the second is that wars or conflict would be short in duration.

“I know that strategy was driven by affordability, but in my view, this probably does not make strategic sense now, given the activity, investments, and behavior of China and Russia,” Rounds said.

A new strategy would “be one that is informed by current conditions and current threats,” replied Grady, who serves as the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command. “It will be a balance of capability and capacity; it will be a balance of being there when we need to be there.”

Dual threats

Rounds’ comments reflect growing anxiety among U.S. policymakers that the United States could potentially find itself in armed conflict with both Russia and China at the same time.

Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border, leading some intelligence analysts to conclude Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning an invasion.

President Joe Biden said Wednesday that sending U.S. troops to defend Ukraine “is not on the table.”

At the same time, China has conducted a series of recent incursions into Taiwan’s air defense zone. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said Saturday these activities look like “rehearsals.”

Missouri Republican Josh Hawley, one of the bigger China hawks in the Senate, challenged Grady over the Pentagon’s Global Posture Review, completed last month. That analysis, a routine part of a larger updating of U.S. military strategy and planning, indicated that no major shifts were needed in the number and location of U.S. troops and equipment abroad.

In light of the looming threat posed by China in the Indo-Pacific theater, Hawley said he was concerned that the Global Posture Review failed to list a single area where the Defense Department would do less.

“The overwhelming message, I think, sent by the review, is that our posture abroad doesn’t need any changes at all,” he said.

Hawley wanted to know if China should remain a priority, even if the U.S. is already involved in multiple conflicts.

“If conflict arises, we’re going to have to provide all that we can to win that conflict,” Grady said.

Guarded answers

Diplomatic, noncommittal answers are standard for confirmation hearings, so Grady’s anodyne replies came as little surprise. Nominees have to walk a fine line between not angering senators who could block their confirmation and agreeing with criticism of the administration, fair or not, that could put them out of sync with their leadership, including the president.

West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III also asked Grady to share his thoughts on Ukraine and Taiwan, but in a less confrontational manner than Hawley.

“It’s a very dangerous and destabilizing situation that we’re working our way through,” Grady said of Ukraine, adding it was important to work with NATO allies and that U.S. support of Ukraine’s sovereignty should be unwavering.

“In the western Pacific, the challenges are equally important,” he continued. With “two peer competitors, we’re going to have to balance those going forward.”

The post of vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs has been vacant since Gen. John Hyten retired on Nov. 19. Grady’s confirmation hearing, originally scheduled for Dec. 1, was delayed a week as the Senate tried unsuccessfully to pass its own version of the annual defense policy bill.

Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan took umbrage at the Biden administration not having a nominee teed up to step into the role of the military’s second-highest ranking officer to avoid a vacancy in such an important position.

“We have all these challenges that we’re facing as a nation,” Sullivan said. “Russia is looking like it’s trying to, possibly going to invade Ukraine, [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping is very aggressive towards Taiwan and we don’t even have a vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

Grady didn’t comment on reasons why the White House didn’t move faster to select a nominee.

“I’m happy to be sitting here now, and if confirmed I look forward to working with you,” Grady said.

“I think it’s part of a broader trend, a dereliction of duty trend as it relates to the military and this White House, this president,” Sullivan replied. “They don’t seem to prioritize the military.”

For continuity, nominees for key Pentagon positions are generally in place so that vital responsibilities don’t go unfulfilled, but the transitions are not always seamless. In 2019, the role of vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs was vacant for over four-and-a-half months as the Senate looked into accusations of sexual misconduct against Hyten before confirming him.

In 2007, the position was vacant for just over a month after Adm. Edmund Giambastiani retired and before Gen. James Cartwright was confirmed.

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