The former head of all U.S. forces in the Pacific said the pessimistic attitude vis-a-vis the growing Chinese threat is bad for the Navy, and leaders need to step up and figure out how to defeat the Chinese threat if it came to blows.
Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, who commanded PACOM from 1999-2002 and who later served as Director of National Intelligence in the Obama administration, told an audience of military and defense contractors that China has not yet gained a strategic advantage over the U.S. Navy in the region, but if the U.S. sits around and mopes about its growing capability, it might.
"Right now they have not developed the maritime and air superiority that would undermine American deterrence and our treaty commitments, they've not developed the capability to take and hold Taiwan, the Senkakus, or the South China Sea," Blair said. "But if the U.S. Navy does not develop new concepts of operations — new ways of operating and new capabilities — China might be able to attain those goals. And if they were to do that, the consequences would be grave and the damage to our interests would be enormous. "
Blair pointed to a litany of recent reports from think tanks saying that China will gain ascendancy in the region in the coming decades. But what's more troubling, Blair continued, is that the analysts who compiled the reports tell him that some of the pessimism in the reports is reflective of attitudes within the Pentagon.
"The conventional wisdom around this town is that the Navy is being driven out of the western Pacific," Blair said. "There are those who believe that in the event of a conflict over Taiwan, the Senkakus or the South China Sea, China would actually win or would cause enough damage to American forces for us to pull back."
Blair pointed to those attitudes as being somewhat self-fulfilling and that they have a tendency to filter all the way down to the deckplates where sailors and officers carry out the mission.
"If this perception is growing ... it's bad on many levels," Blair said. "It's bad for our position in Asia — the most important part in the world. It's bad for our position in Washington, the Navy will lose control of its destiny if it allows others to do its thinking for it. ...And finally it's bad for the sailors and officers themselves. They should be the best in the world, they should think of themselves that way, they should act that way."
The message that the U.S. Navy is the dominant force in the Pacific has to be clear to Washington and to the Chinese, and the Navy has to take the lead, Blair said. And can only happen by adapting to the threat and letting everyone know you can beat it.
"My message to those of you who are actually in the Navy or supporting it from various perches is: Get going, recess is over," Blair said. "Figure out how to defeat the [People's Liberation Army] threat to the maritime operating in the Pacific and let everyone know — the chattering classes in Washington, the Chinese themselves — that if they tangle with the U.S. Navy, they'll lose."
Blair said one thing the Navy could do is to take top secret weapons currently in development, downgrade them to secret and get them onto ships for testing in war games.
"The Navy has been secretly working on systems that could make a huge difference in the sort of scraps I'm talking about, and yet the working assumption seems to be that if they pull them out at the last minute for use that they'll work perfectly the first time with the people who have been planning without knowing about them for many years," Blair said. "We simply are not going to be able to use these capabilities that can make a decisive difference unless we downgrade them to the secret level, plan for exercises with them and have them ready."
Blair also called for leaders to speak openly about the prospect of war with China.
"We just have to be confident about it, it needs to be known to all of us and known to the Chinese that if they try to take Taiwan or the Senkakus, or they try take islands in the South China Sea by force and the U.S. decides to stop them that they will be defeated. We will take losses but we'll persevere and we will win."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.