In terms of national security threats, the headline-grabbing Islamic State militants that the U.S. is seeking to subdue in Iraq are less of a concern than Russia and China, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, in line to assume the nation's highest military post later this summer, cited Russia's nuclear weapon stockpile and aggressive, unpredictable actions as reasons that country presents the most serious near-term threat to worldwide stability.
"They present the greatest existential threat," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing. "If you look at their behavior, it's nothing short of alarming."
He also cited China's military strength and North Korea's erratic international actions as other top concerns, listing the Islamic State threat in Iraq and Syria below the potential actions of those countries.
But he emphasized that "you can't attack those issues in sequence," and said his greatest worry as a military commander is still the threats that have not yet emerged.
"What keeps me up at night is our ability to respond to the unexpected," he said. "On balance, our force can deal with the challenges that we have now. But there is very little residual capability."
Thursday's hearing was mostly a friendly event for Dunford, one that included as many partisan shots between lawmakers as questions for the nominee himself. Even before the hearing, senators had voiced strong support for him, citing his distinguished résumé over 28 years of service and recent work as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
But Dunford did disappoint several lawmakers who hoped to score political points at the hearing, dodging leading questions while promising open and honest answers in his new role overseeing military forces.
When asked if embedding U.S. special operations forces with Iraqi units could boost their efforts against Islamic State militants, Dunford replied that American troops can always help make foreign allies more effective.
When asked how those enemy fighters could be destroyed within 90 days, he replied that fixing the underlying issues that allowed their rapid rise will take years of interagency work to fix.
Lawmakers from both parties sparred over blame for looming budget cuts and the possibility of a presidential veto of the 2016 defense budget. Dunford said the tightened funding presents potentially serious limits on military readiness, and added that he hopes for a compromise in the coming months.
Future hearings likely won't be as welcoming for Dunford. If confirmed, he'll be back on Capitol Hill this fall to answer questions about the ongoing Iraq campaign, integration of women into combat roles, and military support for Syrian rebels and Ukrainian forces.
Just two days earlier, current Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Ash Carter faced blistering questioning from the same Senate committee over concerns with the seemingly stalled efforts to defeat the Islamic State in the Middle East.
A full Senate confirmation vote is expected on Dunford before Congress breaks for its August recess. Dempsey is scheduled to retire in September.