Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took the stage at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado on Saturday to answer questions about looming threats faced by American defenses. According to the General, Russia remains the single largest nation-state threat to the security of the United States, but warns against focusing too much on any single challenge.
NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, appeared on stage with Dunford, and asked him if he still stood by a statement he made nearly two years ago, in which he claimed that Russia was America’s most dangerous foe on the global stage.
“From a state actor perspective, it is Russia,” Dunford said, citing their military modernization program, nuclear and cyber capabilities, and the nation’s actions in Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine as examples to support his position.
“I would quickly add that we don’t have the luxury today of singling out one challenge,” the chairman added.
According to the Marine General, the world is currently amid its most volatile geopolitical climate since World War II, and Russia’s actions on the world’s stage have served to degrade conditions even further.
In order to counter the potential for tensions with Russia turning toward war, Dunford recommended a two-part strategy that has been championed by a number of other defense officials in recent months: first, improve and maintain American’s nuclear weapon arsenal in order to more effectively serve as a deterrent against nuclear threats, and second, continue to work with America’s allies, strengthening NATO and its ability to counter Russian advances in Europe.
These steps are integral to ensuring Russia “is not tempted” to challenge the U.S. and its allies abroad. Dunford also explained that Russia’s foreign policy may be full of bravado, but often falls short of inciting actual war.
It has a military dimension, but it falls short of armed conflict,” he said. “That’s where Russia integrates cyber capabilities, information operations, unconventional operations to advance their interests on a routine basis and we have to compete in that environment as well.”
Dunford then moved on to address the wide breadth of challenges America faces elsewhere on the globe.
I think from an aggregate capacity and capability perspective, Russia is the most capable state actor we face,” he said. “But we have other challenges — North Korea, from a sense of urgency perspective, would be our number one challenge. We are certainly dealing with malign challenges from Iran on a daily basis.”
“Clearly the fight against violent extremism is one that we are completely engaged with, and we have security challenges in the Pacific with a rising China as well,” the chairman continued.
Despite each of these threats presenting their own challenges, few of them seemed to give the chairman more pause than the potential for war with North Korea. Kim Jong Un has continued to heighten tensions in the region with tests of increasingly technologically capable ballistic missile platforms, along with accompanying threats of preemptive nuclear strikes.
American Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has repeatedly made statements indicating how horrible open war with North Korea could be in terms of loss of life. Last month, he appeared before the House Appropriations Committee to address the concept with lawmakers.
“I would suggest that we will win,” Mattis said regarding a war with North Korea. “It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953.” He went on to tell the press such a war would be “catastrophic.”
Dunford echoed Mattis’ statements in his own assessment of what war with North Korea would be like.
Many people have talked about military options [against North Korea] with words like ‘unimaginable,’” he said. “I would shift that slightly to ‘horrific.’ It would be a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes. Anyone who has been alive since World War II has never seen the loss of life that could occur if there is a conflict on the Korean peninsula.”
Despite that, Dunford cautioned that even such a tragic loss of life in a war against North Korea would still be the better alternative to allowing Kim Jong Un to launch a nuclear attack on U.S. soil.
It is not unimaginable to have military options on the Korean peninsula,” he explained. “What is unimaginable to me is allowing a nuclear weapon to land in Denver, Colorado. My job will be to develop military options to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense