on the hill

CENTCOM commander outlines ‘race’ against China in Middle East, rising Iran threat

Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla said that the slow pace of U.S. foreign military sales has provided opportunities for China to make inroads, potentially foreclosing possibilities for integration

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Army Gen. Michael Kurilla, commander, U.S. Central Command, testifies during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command in Review of The Defense Authorization Request for Fiscal Year 2024 and The Future Years Defense Program, in Dirksen Building on Thursday, March 16, 2023.

Testifying on Thursday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, who leads U.S. Central Command, described the U.S. as being in a ‘race’ against China to further integrate militarily with its partners in the Middle East, while also emphasizing that threats from Iran are growing rapidly.

Thursday’s hearing marks the second consecutive day on which senators and administration officials have honed in on the threat of increasing Chinese influence in the Middle East, reflecting spiking concern on the Hill and in the administration about the issue following China’s brokering of a diplomatic pact between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It also highlighted that this challenge comes in tandem with threats from Iran, which continue to grow in scope and sophistication.

“The People’s Republic of China has chosen to compete in the region. The PRC is aggressively expanding its diplomatic, informational, military and economic outreach across the region,” Kurilla said. “We are in a race to integrate with our partners before China can fully penetrate the region.”

China’s military sales to the region, he explained, have grown 80% over the last 10 years as U.S. military sales have decreased by 30%, and China is now also beginning to flex its diplomatic muscles. 

These Chinese inroads pose a threat to plans — driven by the Abraham Accords — for regional air- and missile-defense integration, Kurilla said, noting that Chinese technology is not compatible with that of the U.S. and its Western allies, and that it could pose security threats to U.S. technology if it were integrated.

Kurilla attributed China’s inroads in the military sphere in part to the time-consuming bureaucratic process for approving U.S. foreign military sales, which involves multiple executive departments, Congress and private industry. Current U.S. procedures, he said, are not fast enough to meet U.S. partners’ needs, driving partners toward China.

“What China does is they come in, open their entire catalog, they give them express shipping, they give them no end user agreement and they give them financing,” he said. “They are much faster to [meet the] need, and our security partners have real security needs, and we are losing our ability to provide our equipment so that it can integrate into the region.”

He urged Congress to look for policy changes that could speed up the process, and said the Department of Defense has a team examining the topic. He also said that expanding and deepening the Abraham Accords would help resist Chinese influence, both by enabling increased military and cyber cooperation and providing economic benefits to member countries, which would increase stability.

Asked whether the U.S. is at risk of losing its status as the security partner of choice in the CENTCOM area, which includes all of the Middle East, Kurilla responded that “China is making inroads,” while also noting that U.S. equipment remains preferred.

Gen. Michael Langley, who leads the U.S. Africa Command and testified alongside Kurilla, said China offers similar challenges in his region.

Kurilla said that U.S.-Saudi military relations remain “very strong,” despite the renewed ties between Riyadh and Tehran, but called it “concerning” that China mediated that pact.

“The talks [were] about opening diplomatic relations. This is not an alliance between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he said. “They have had diplomatic relations in the past while they were still shooting at each other.”

He described the rapprochement as the result of three years of discussions, which China began to mediate within the “last several months.”

Kurilla questioned how durable the agreement would ultimately be. 

“Agreement is not implementation,” he explained, noting that the U.S. has intercepted five major weapons shipments from Iran to Yemen — intended to be used in attacks on Saudi Arabia — in the last 90 days as talks were ongoing.

Kurilla, as well as Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-RI) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS), framed Iran as another top priority and concern for CENTCOM.

Kurilla outlined Iran’s “rapid advances in military capability,” describing the Islamic Republic as “exponentially more capable than they were just five years ago.” He said that malign activities and nuclear enrichment capabilities have accelerated in the past two years. Even in the past 90 days, he said, the U.S. has seen some of the highest rates of arms transfers from Iran to Yemen, as well as increases in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.

The CENTCOM commander said Russian-Iranian cooperation is concerning because Iran’s provision of drones to Russia for its invasion of Ukraine has helped Iran improve its drones, while Russia has reciprocated by agreeing to sell advanced SU-35 fighter jets to Iran.

Kurilla said that air- and missile-defense integration and continued resourcing of U.S. partners is critical to combating these threats, adding that “it’s going to take a whole of government approach” to push back on Iran, “not just a military solution.”

One bright spot that the general highlighted in his area of responsibility was Israel’s integration into CENTCOM, which he noted has allowed for large-scale training exercises. He also said that the U.S.-Israel Operations Technology Working Group, established in 2021, has led to leaps forward in air-defense technology.

At the same time, Kurilla acknowledged that it is currently the most dangerous moment in Israeli-Palestinian relations in decades, explaining that the “kindling” for a conflict is present and “we don’t know what it could take, for what spark to be able to start a larger conflict in the West Bank.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked Kurilla whether current protests in Israel over judicial reform plans, which have included reservists refusing to participate in training, could impact Israel’s military readiness. 

Kurilla said he had most recently spoken to Chief of the General Staff of the IDF Herzi Halevi on Wednesday morning, and was told that the IDF head is working to “ensure that his military stays out of the political conversation.” He declined to answer a question on the direct impact of the judicial proposals.

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