NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Russia and China continue to close the military technology gap with the United States, Secretary of Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned Wednesday.

While the US remains ahead, that lead is imperiled by slow innovation and a lack of consistent budgets, Carter said in a speech at the Air Force Association’s annual conference outside of Washington, DC.

"Our technology remains the best," Carter said. "At the same time, we can’t ignore the overall trend: High-end military technologies long possessed by only the most advanced foes are finding their way into the hands of both non-state actors and previously much less-capable militaries." Carter said.

"It's evident that nations like Russia and China have been pursuing military modernization programs to close the technology gap with the United States," he continued. "They're developing platforms designed to thwart our traditional advantages of power projection and freedom of movement. They're developing and fielding new and advanced aircraft and ballistic, cruise, anti-ship and anti-air missiles that are longer-range and more accurate."

Carter's comments reflect concerns the secretary has raised since coming to office at the start of the year. But they take on a new dimension given events in the last week, as Russia appears to be moving military forces into Syria to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Speaking yesterday, Secretary of the Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, acknowledged concerns about the Russian movement but warned that the US needs more information before acting.

"I don't think we fully understand what it's about, but we certainly know there have been transport aircraft going in and out of Syria, that there are radars and perhaps the movement of surface to air missiles, air base defense types of equipment and these containers, which as I understand could be used to house troops," she said. "So these are the sorts of things we are aware of."

Carter The secretary then pledged that the Pentagon is taking "prudent steps" when dealing with China, with him once again affirming and again affirmed that the US will "fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," regardless of China’s continued use of reclaimed land to expand its territory.

Instead, he said, the US seeks to "ensure all nations have the opportunity to continue to rise" in the Asia-Pacific region.

Carter also highlighted a series of investments he said were the "right areas of focus for the US Air Force" in the president’s fiscal 2017 budget, including nuclear deterrence forces; space and counter-space capabilities; counter-A2/AD platforms, systems and technologies to counter anti-access/area-denial threats; cyber capabilities; guided munitions; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, systems and technologies.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta