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China could have 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030, according to Pentagon report

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

China continues to spend vast amounts of money on its military. The country is building more ships and more planes and nuclear weapons. It is also, says the Pentagon, creating futuristic armaments that will operate in space and in the cyber realm. All of this concerns U.S. military officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley. He spoke about China at the Aspen Security Forum today.

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MARK MILLEY: We're witnessing one of the largest shifts in global geostrategic power that the world has witnessed, and it only happens once in a while.

KELLY: Let's bring in NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: What's the general mean there when he says one of the largest shifts in global power?

BOWMAN: Well, General Milley likes to talk about history, and he compares the time we're in now to the 1930s between World War I and II, when you saw these new technological developments in warfare - the airplane, mechanized vehicles like tanks and the radio, which of course, gave troops instant communications. Now he says you're at another such turning point. Let's listen.

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MILLEY: One of the areas that concerns me a lot is space and cyber as we go forward. Operations in space - and then second to that is cyber. Those are going to be key determiners of who has decisive advantage at the beginning of a conflict.

BOWMAN: Decisive advantage at the beginning of a conflict. The concern, Mary Louise, is an adversary could knock out your communications, your radar or other senses even before you launch, let's say, an attack with aircraft or ships or troops.

KELLY: So those are some of the fears on General Milley's mind. Did he say how the U.S. is responding to or preparing for this?

BOWMAN: Well, he said the U.S. is number one in space, but other nations, especially China, are close behind. Other officials tell me China, in some areas, is exceeding U.S. capabilities. A Pentagon report just released says China is prioritizing space capabilities to include anti-satellite weapons and again focusing on cyberwarfare. Now, of course, the U.S. spends some $715 billion each year in defense. That number is not expected to increase. So a big question in the coming years will be how much does the Pentagon spend on ships and planes and troops and how much on the more futuristic items - lasers, robotics and drones and cyber, of course? They're going to have to make some hard choices in some areas. And also, Mary Louise, what kind of service member do you need? The Marine Corps, interestingly, is considering a way to bring in more cyber experts, civilians - get this - maybe in their 30s who could get an officer's commission, as opposed to the old way of recruiting - mostly teenagers for the infantry.

KELLY: You're talking about some very big high-level thinking that's going on in terms of how the Pentagon wants to align priorities. Let me ask you about one very specific place - Taiwan. It's been all much in the news. Did General Milley have anything to say about Taiwan today?

BOWMAN: You know, he said he doesn't expect any Chinese invasion or attacks on Taiwan in the next couple of years. But he and others say the Chinese are clearly building up their military might, and it's possible such military action against Taiwan could happen in the years after that. Now, already you're seeing China putting pressure on Taiwan. A lot of aircraft and ships are flying close to the island. And meanwhile, you're also seeing the U.S. military and other nations - Great Britain, even Vietnam - sending its warships through the Taiwan Straits. At this point, the big concern is a mistake, a miscalculation at a low level, and that could spark something even larger.

KELLY: Yeah, how big a concern is that? Do officials like Milley believe the U.S. could find itself in a military conflict with China?

BOWMAN: They don't think so right away. And he said the important thing is to build up a credible military force and also to keep communicating with the Chinese. He does so with his Chinese counterpart.

KELLY: That is our Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURA MARLING SONG, "SOOTHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.