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Next major war will be 'very different:' Pentagon chief

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has warned of emerging cyber and space threats, along with the prospect of much bigger wars. His remarks come amid concerns over China's growing military assertiveness.

The US Air Force X-37B space drone

The US has successfully launched its high-tech X-37B drone, carrying classified payloads into space

In his first major speech as US defense secretary, Lloyd Austin on Friday called for a "new vision" for American defense, warning that future conflicts will bear little resemblance to "the old wars."

"The way we fight the next major war is going to look very different from the way we fought the last ones," Austin said during a trip to the US Pacific Command at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

"We can't predict the future," he added. "So what we need is the right mix of technology, operational concepts and capabilities — all woven together in a networked way that is so credible, so flexible and so formidable that it will give any adversary pause."

How can the US maintain its advantage?

Austin, who was marking the arrival of Admiral John Aquilino as the new commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, called for Washington to harness technological advances in the face of emerging cyber and space threats and the prospect of larger wars.

He singled out quantum computing, artificial intelligence and so-called edge computing, which speeds up response times by allowing data to be processed and shared while it's being collected.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin

Austin spoke at a Change of Command ceremony for the US Indo-Pacific Command at Pearl Harbor

Amid concerns about China's rapid military modernization and aggressive rise, Austin warned that the US military cannot be satisfied with believing it has the world's strongest and most capable armed forces — "not at a time when our potential adversaries are very deliberately working to blunt our edge.''

The Pentagon chief did not mention China by name. However, in another speech, the outgoing commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Philip Davidson repeated his assertion that China is using "pernicious" behavior to challenge US dominance in the region.

Davidson has been outspoken over his concerns that Beijing could potentially try to take Taiwan by force within several years.

Defense analysts have noted that China has sped up its construction of a wide range of sophisticated weaponry in recent years and displayed more aggressive behavior in its claims over disputed areas of the South China Sea.

The US, on the other hand, has been focused for two decades on combating extremist groups like al-Qaida in Afghanistan and, more recently, the "Islamic State" (IS) group in Iraq and Syria.

Diplomacy first

During Friday's speech, the Pentagon chief also reflected US President Joe Biden's promise to put diplomacy first in American foreign policy.

Austin said the US military should provide leverage that diplomats can use to prevent conflict.

"US military isn't meant to stand apart, but to buttress US diplomacy and advance a foreign policy that employs all of our instruments of national power,'' he said.

He added that Washington would continue to persuade potential foes that the "costs and risks of aggression are out of line with any conceivable benefit.''

Austin's speech came as the US and NATO begin an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistanon May 1.

Critics have said the pullback will not end Afghanistan's internal conflict or extinguish the threat of terrorism.

mm/rc (AP, Reuters)