The U.S. and China are vying for worldwide dominance in two arenas, said the Pentagon's former head of intelligence, Michael Vickers.
"Unlike the Cold War, it's about who is going to be the global leader – first with the biggest economy, and out of that will come political influence," Vickers told CBS News Wednesday. "But then secondarily – who is the most innovative economy and creating the industries of the future."
"Ultimately it's an economic and technological competition," he added.
In an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, Vickers, who served as under secretary of defense for intelligence during the Obama administration, called China "by far the greatest, most challenging long-term threat" to the U.S.
He said a foreseeable risk of technological competition is whether innovation in advanced technologies could alter the military balance between Washington and Beijing.
"That's sort of the 20- to 30-year problem that we have as a nation," Vickers said. "How do we solve that challenge?"
Last week, the National Defense Strategy Commission, a bipartisan commission of 12 former national security officials and experts, issued a report that concluded– absent meaningful investment and operational reforms of its capabilities. (Morell sits on the Commission and helped co-author the report.)
"Russia and China are challenging the United States, its allies and its partners on a far greater scale than has any adversary since the Cold War's end," the Commission wrote. "If the United States had to fight Russia in a Baltic contingency or China in a war over Taiwan," the report warned, "Americans could face a decisive military defeat."
Vickers added that the likelihood that China would remain a viable competitor could depend on Beijing's ability to maintain political stability and cohesion even if its economic momentum begins to wane.
"China's had an economic miracle over several decades that's almost unprecedented in economic history," he told Morell, noting China has four times the population of the U.S. As to whether that population size is an asset or a liability, he said, "I think the jury is out, depending on how capital-intensive or technology-intensive future industries or military power is," he said.
Vickers, who played a key role during the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s as a CIA operative – earning him a fictional portrayal in the 2007 movie, Charlie Wilson's War – also said Russia remained among the United States' most pressing and most complicated national security challenges.
"I think Russia actually is our most immediate threat right now – and has been," he said, calling Moscow's interference in the 2016 presidential election "brazen."
"Ironically, they're using American tools, American creations, the creation of an open global economy where money and things can flow freely," he said. "And then innovation, the invention of social media to attack American weaknesses, our polarization, our economic dislocation and others to heighten tensions that were already there."
Unlike China, Vickers argued, Russia's strategy involves waging its battles where it enjoys asymmetric advantages, all in an effort to restore its great power status. While working to undermine U.S. influence, Russia also seeks to weaken its opponents in Europe – principally by targeting societal and political cohesion, rather than military or defensive capabilities.
"We don't necessarily have a good answer to that as a defense problem," Vickers told Morell. "It's something we need to work on, both how to defend very far forward or to achieve deterrence."
"But also, then, when they threaten to escalate because they know if the war goes on they will lose," he said, "how do we manage that escalation to where they can't declare victory and go home?"
For much more from Michael Morell's conversation with Michael Vickers, you can listen to the new episode and subscribe to Intelligence Matters here.
for more features.