Not all branches of the U.S. military are equally worried about keeping pace with China’s military expansion.
While U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro warned earlier this week that he needed more ships to meet the threat posed by China’s rapidly expanding naval forces, top Army officials believe U.S. ground forces still hold a critical edge over their Chinese counterparts.
“The human dimension of the United States Army, I think, is a comparative advantage,” U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth cautioned during a breakfast in Washington on Thursday with the Defense Writers Group. “The quality of how our soldiers are trained, the kind of leaders that they have, the kind of combat experience that the force has.”
Army Chief of Staff General James McConville added that the quality of leadership, especially that rising from the ranks of the Army’s enlisted soldiers, cannot be understated.
“One of the biggest lessons from Ukraine and Russia is the value of these non-commissioned officers that we have in our organization,” McConville said. “Everyone would like to have the folks we have.”
Despite that confidence, both McConville and Wormuth acknowledged the threat posed by China’s military modernization and expansion is not being taken lightly.
“One should never underestimate the PLA [People’s Liberation Army],” Wormuth said. “We’re just as focused as the Navy and the Air Force and the other services on China as the pacing challenge … how that expresses itself for the Army, I think, is a little bit different.”
Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth addresses the media after touring the Joint Systems Manufacturing Center, Feb. 16, 2023, in Lima, Ohio, where the latest version of the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank is built.
Wormuth said the Army’s investments in long-range weapons systems, integrated air and missile defense systems, and even helicopters are all “very much geared towards looking at China as the pacing challenge.”
Still, the sheer size of China’s military cannot be dismissed.
The Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military, issued late last year, notes PLA ground forces boast about 975,000 active-duty personnel who have been put through increasingly “realistic training scenarios,” both with the Chinese Navy, and in 2021, with Russian forces on Chinese soil.
“The PLA is aggressively developing capabilities to provide options for the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to dissuade, deter, or, if ordered, defeat third-party intervention in the Indo-Pacific region,” the report said.
In contrast, the U.S Army has about 485,000 soldiers and missed last year’s recruiting goal by about 15,000 people.
“That is a major priority for us this year,” Wormuth said of growing the number of recruits, saying she and her team “are pulling out all of the stops” to increase recruiting numbers.
But the Pentagon’s China report warns that China is also growing key capabilities, even doubling its nuclear arsenal, to about 400 warheads, over the past two years.
And the report echoed concerns that Beijing wants to at least have the ability to take Taiwan by force by 2027.
Unlike their Army counterparts, U.S. naval officials have expressed concern about losing the numbers game to China.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro speaks at the National Press Club Headliners Luncheon in Washington, Feb. 21, 2023.
“Capacity does matter,” Del Toro warned Tuesday, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington.
The Chinese navy “have approximately 340 ships and are moving towards a fleet of 440 ships by 2030,” he said. “We do need more ships in the future, more modern ships in the future, in particular, that can meet that threat.”
Still, like his Army counterparts, Del Toro said China is still not ready to compete when it comes to the quality of equipment and personnel.
“Our shipbuilders are better shipbuilders. That’s why we have a more modern, more capable, more lethal navy than they do,” he said.