WASHINGTON --- People told the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency that in his speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies he should just say "Great power competition, artificial intelligence" and then drop the mic and walk off.
It was a good line, but Army Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley Jr. knows the world is more complex and that even in great power competition among the United States, China and Russia, context is important.
"We look very closely at the technology development. Obviously, there's some breakout things -- we watch the AI side of the house, the hypersonics, counter-space, [and] what they're doing with regard to subs, if you're following the maritime piece of that as well," he said. "They're in the trials for their first carrier. They got an old one from the Russians; now they're building their own."
Ashley said DIA's mission is to "make sure the secretary of defense is never surprised," and that the 16,500 people in DIA work constantly to ensure Defense Secretary James N. Mattis receives the intelligence he needs, when he needs it.
The general talked about context, saying it is not enough to tell leaders what equipment or how many troops a rival military has; they need to know what foreign leaders are likely to do with those troops and equipment. "How are they going to fight it?" he said.
For example, the Russians now have a major exercise -- Vostok -- going on in the Far East. They invited China to exercise with them. "What does that mean? What do U.S. leaders really need to know about Vostok?" Ashley asked.
"What is it that I can pull out of that that tells our key leaders, 'This is the strategy you need think about [in terms of] of how you counter it," he said. "So for me, that's the context."
More Than Simple Military Intelligence
DIA has to be more than simple military intelligence. The agency needs to analyze the diplomatic, economic and military aspects together, he said. "It touches strategy," he said. "It touches what we may see some of those foreign entities do. It touches acquisition. It touches technology."
The general put the great power competition with Russia and China into context during his discussion. "When you think about greater power of competition, even if you go back to the Cold War time, ... any place that Russia could change an alignment, change a relationship, align it to Russia, that would be something they would do to their favor," he said. "They would want to do that."
The same applies today, he said. Russia will do what it can to get a foothold in a nation and develop a relationship separating it from the United States and its allies. The other part of being a great power for Russian President Vladimir Putin is that he sits at the table with other great powers, Ashley said. "And so, that's part of the intent behind what he wants to accomplish," the general said.
Putin wants to be a player, Ashley said, and that is why Russia injects itself into Syria, Libya, the greater Middle East and even in central Asia. "[Putin] gets himself to the table in some way, shape, or form ... to make a decision," Ashley said.
China's Economic Might
China is different, he said, in that the Chinese have the economic might to truly be a great power, noting that have watched the U.S. military closely since 1991's Operation Desert Storm and were amazed at what the American military has done since 9/11.
"They've watched us over the course of the last couple of decades as they have grown capability," Ashley said. "And in many ways, they've mirrored some of the things we've done." The Chinese are trying to develop joint capabilities, he added, and have built a number of national training centers.
It is tough to ascertain what the Chinese see as the end state, the general said. They could be intent on putting in place a strategy for global hegemony over a period of 100 years, or it could simply be about taking care of the Chinese people.
Still, the general said, there are disturbing trends. Building islands is one thing, he said, but placing defenses and missiles on those islands in the South China Sea is destabilizing. "This we watch closely -- obviously, as we do on behalf of the nation," Ashley said. "But it's not a foregone conclusion that this is going to be a competitor that turns to an enemy."
He also watches the growing Chinese economic influence in Djibouti, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. "What takes place over time? Does that lease become a constant visit of a naval presence? Does that naval presence turn into a base? Does that base turn into yet a presence again, mirroring very much what the U.S. is able to do from a global standpoint?" he said.
The debate about China, he said, is whether it is a regional hegemon looking after Chinese interests, or is pursuing interests that are more global in nature.