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New Policy Meets Old Politics in Avoiding Conflicts

Improving policy execution may be more important than comparing capabilities against adversaries.
Kathleen Hicks, deputy secretary of defense, discusses deterrence strategy at the Washington D.C. Intel Summit on Thursday, September 15.

Kathleen Hicks, deputy secretary of defense (l), discusses deterrence strategy with Letitia Long, INSA chair of the board, during the Intelligence and National Security Summit. Credit: Herman Farrer

A warfare domain often needs more than a "news service" on the battlefield. But “the realm of information warfare is a substantial domain of international engagement and certainly of conflict, and we need to make sure we can outpace challengers like Russia and China,” said Kathleen Hicks, deputy secretary of defense, during a keynote speech Thursday at AFCEA's and INSA's Intelligence and National Security Summit.

The policy outline Hicks drew was around avoiding conflict. “Part of deterring successfully is having the war-winning combat credible capability to fight and win,” Hicks told the audience.

“We also contribute across a broader range of deterrence tool sets that we have at the DoD (Department of Defense). It’s about integrated deterrence, so we're working across multiple domains of warfare: air, land, sea, space, cyber. We are thinking dimensionally in terms of a pre-conflict through conflict,” Hicks said.

The broad domains where the DoD must dissuade means that rivals' activities are weighed beyond U.S. current capabilities and budgets.

“China's a pacing challenge for decades to come. We expectwithout being predictive about where any country, including the United States or China, might be further down the roadthat they have comprehensive power. They demonstrated that they are building and have tried to challenge us in ways that affect our interests. So we have to worry about this today, in the midterm and in the long term,” Hicks told the audience.










Kathleen Hicks
China's a pacing challenge for decades to come.
Kathleen H. Hicks
Deputy Secretary of Defense

But not all concerns are about the United States. One of the asymmetric capabilities created by Beijing was a so-called “carrier killer” hypersonic missile that drew significant attention, especially after the recent visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, an island that China claims as its own. As tensions rose, the People’s Liberation Army tested one of these weapons systems. “We did invest in better asymmetries for us that the Russians and the Chinese have to worry about, so that's how I would think about hypersonics: in dollar terms,” Hicks said.

Hicks brushed off the perception that the United States may be behind in hypersonic capabilities vis-à-vis China and warned about Cold War-style comparisons. Still, there are expectations after China showed its capabilities, “that that does not remove pressure; that creates a different kind of pressure, which is to make sure we are investing in the right areas and prioritizing effectively,” Hicks said. “And that is where having strong strategy, having strong fiscal discipline, being good at communicating strategy and being able to explain, for example, on Capitol Hill, why we have made the investment decisions.”








Kathleen Hicks, deputy secretary of defense (l), speaks to Letitia Long, INSA chair of the board, during the Intelligence and National Security Summit. Credit: Herman Farrer
Kathleen Hicks, deputy secretary of defense (l), speaks to Letitia Long, INSA chair of the board, during the Intelligence and National Security Summit. Credit: Herman Farrer

The future’s future

Beyond dollars, defense is as good as the people who actually get jobs done, and Hicks admitted that younger people, especially Generation Zers, were proving hard to recruit, except for the Space Force.

At historic low levels of unemployment, “recruiting for the military, when it's a hot job market, it's kind of tough,” Hicks said and added that the pandemic was a contribution to slower intakes since schools were closed due to shutdowns. “We think getting recruiters back up and running and being able to look at the economics [of military salaries], to look at things like retention bonuses, those will help increase propensity to serve.”

Nevertheless, she stressed that the professional environment should be improved to make a military career an increasingly attractive path for future soldiers and added, “I'm just going to go also with some of the other challenges we have, which are harm and self-harm challenges.”

Psychological well-being is another step toward making service more attractive, especially when under extreme pressure. Despite all possible difficulties, there’s one thing that a life of service offers to the younger generation.

“We've got a really strong message because Gen Z, they want mission, and boy do we have it,” Hicks said.