Vineetha Menon
Dr. Mark T. Esper, 27th U.S. Secretary of Defense under President Donald Trump, was the featured speaker in the Distinguished Lecture Series on Monday, May 15, 2023, in the Student Services Building. Prior to his talk he met with UAH students and took their questions.
Michael Mercier | UAH

In an evening focused on the dangers of China’s strategic positioning as a global “full-spectrum threat,” Dr. Mark Esper reassured attendees of the first Distinguished Lecture Series event of 2023 at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) that war with the burgeoning superpower is neither imminent nor inevitable.

However, the Secretary of Defense under former President Donald J. Trump offered a sobering perspective of China’s goals during a ‘fireside chat’ with WHNT news anchor Steve Johnson, as well as assessing Russia’s war with Ukraine and the U.S.’s role in addressing these and other challenges. The talk took place on Monday, May 15, in the Student Services Building at UAH, a part of The University of Alabama System.

“This is a very busy time in our nation’s history,” Esper said. “We now face the greatest threat of our lifetime; one much greater than the Soviet Union. War with China is not imminent, but they are a full-spectrum threat. China has the second largest economy in the world, but they are also on the decline in some ways. Their population dropped by a million people last year, for example. The vibrancy of American values, democracy and capitalism, in contrast, are on our side.”

Esper served with the 101st Airborne Division ‘Screaming Eagles’ in the 1990-91 Gulf War. He was Chief of Staff at the Heritage Foundation and served on the House Armed Services Committee as policy director. He was also the national security advisor for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. During the administration of President George W. Bush, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Negotiations Policy and was appointed commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Esper later acted as Executive Vice President for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center and as Vice President for Government Relations at Raytheon before being nominated to become the 23rd Secretary of the Army in 2017. Esper was sworn in as Secretary of Defense in 2019 and served in that capacity until Nov. 2020.

‘One Belt, One Road’

“China wants to be seen as a ‘peace broker’ these days,” Esper noted. “But it’s all about strong-arming small countries abroad. Many call it debt diplomacy. The idea is to invest in foreign projects to build goodwill, but to also dominate key ports and strategic resources, such as rare minerals. They want to match our global network, but I don’t think it’s possible. Regardless, we need to push back on Beijing and work to get more of our allies starting to perceive China as a global threat much like we do.”

Michael Mercier | UAH

Regarding President Xi Jinping’s ambitious ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, Esper said the U.S. rival is making aggressive economic and development inroads around the globe to consolidate power. “We need to provide them [other countries] an alternative that is not China-based,” he went on. “I think we missed a great opportunity with both this administration and the previous one – we should have pursued the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.”

The former Secretary stressed that the changes taking place with China under Xi Jinping are historic, and paint an especially troubling picture for nations in the region.

“[President] Xi Jinping was given a historic third term,” Esper said. “That hasn’t been done since Mao; it basically makes Xi Jinping dictator for life. He wants to seize Taiwan to make his mark on history. They have wanted to do this for a long time. Taiwan is quite an economic miracle. They are a young democracy with 23 million people. They don’t want anything to do with China. They’ve seen what happened with Hong Kong. You have to stand up and do the right thing. It only works if we are the leader. We can’t allow China to bully Taiwan and others.”

Esper views China’s quest for a growing hegemony in technological sectors as yet another hazard that must be addressed.

“They are also stealing our intellectual property,” he explained. “They steal $600 billion of our innovations and ideas every year. Beijing needs to stop breaking global rules and norms to advance its narrow interests.”

The future battlefield

Turning to the war in Ukraine, the former Secretary fielded a number of hot-button questions, illuminating his perspective on where the conflict stands.

“[Vladimir] Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a strategic failure. Nobody has done more to unite NATO. So, thank you, President Putin. They thought they would roll right in and decapitate the Ukrainian government. Instead, President [Volodymyr] Zelensky stayed and fought, telling Washington he needed ammo, not an evacuation. The Ukrainians have done tremendous work on the battlefield. They are on the cusp of a major offensive. Our duty is to keep supplying the weapons, technology and munitions they need to win.”

In pondering the future of the war, Esper remained confidently sanguine, emphasizing the major difficulties facing President Putin and the Russian army.

“Will there be a coup? Will they use tactical nuclear weapons? You could see the Russian army collapse,” Esper said. “They have lost over 200,000 men killed or injured in 14 months. As many men, if not more, have left the country to avoid being conscripted. They’ve tapped the hinterlands; now they are going to have to start reaching into the cities. Everybody in Russia is not ethnically Russian, and not everybody there is buying what Putin is selling.”

As for NATO and questions about Russia crossing other borders, Esper sees enhanced solidarity, as well as significant changes on the horizon.

“It’s not a question of will Ukraine join NATO, but when,” he said. “I don’t think Russia is going to attack NATO. The key will be what role does China play?”

On that front, Esper sees technology as the most vital aspect of keeping pace with adversaries and maintaining an edge on the battlefield over the foreseeable future.

“AI is the most important technology we need to advance in the years ahead,” he noted. “It will change the character of warfare as we know it, and it’s important that we get there first before the Chinese or the Russians. Robotics is number 2. If you master AI and robotics, you can move toward full autonomy. Think of the truck convoys that were often the target of IED attacks during the Iraq War. Imagine the lives that could have be saved if those convoys were fully autonomous.”

Be willing to fail

The former Secretary of Defense sees this technology as rapidly achieving far-reaching implications for all areas of society as well.

“In 2020, I approved an ethics policy about AI for the Defense Department,” Esper said. “I think this is very important. There is a lot of work to be done across functional disciplines on this front. ChatGPT is just the beginning. It’s going to change the economy, the DoD, everything. I am confident we will win this AI race, and it’s because of great institutions like this one.”

Asked about his future plans, Esper continued in the same vein. “If I were to go back into office now, I would reach out to the really innovative parts of our economy, including the academic community, and I would bring them to the Pentagon, and I would run our version of the Shark Tank. I would do that every three to four months. Washington is too risk-averse. You have to take risks. You have to fail. Look at what happened with SpaceX recently. Look at what you did right here with the Apollo program.”

To this point, he highlighted the need for academic institutions to operate at the forefront of technical advances to reap the greatest benefits from cutting-edge knowledge.

“Where is the DoD going? The further out, the better,” the former Secretary said. “Academia provides a perfect role for this, unbounded by conventions like those in the DoD and the government,” he explained. “Corporate America has a role to play here as well, putting money into bright young people and their ideas, and then being willing to fail. You want to lead, like here at UAH – you have cybersecurity, the optics center, directed energy, hypersonics. You set a high standard here for other universities to aspire to. You have this remarkable ecosystem here to do that.”

The Distinguished Lecture Series was conceived to enhance community collaboration with UAH, the agencies on Redstone Arsenal and industry partners in Cummings Research Park. The series aims to raise awareness and foster a better understanding of current events and future trends, and how these activities are positively influenced through the region’s government, corporate and academic partners.



Kristina Hendrix

Elizabeth Gibisch