The Drift

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ALEXANDRIA – Good Evening, Drifters

Man, there has been a lot of China talk this week. There are all kinds of political reasons why folks may be trying to direct attention toward an external adversary while things seem to be going poorly at home, but I am not here for that kind of analysis.

What I am here for is national security. The fact is, recent heated rhetoric aside, China is a significant security challenge and it’s not a subject we’ve written a ton about here on The Drift. I figured it was time – and timely – to rectify that so I reached out to someone who knows one hell of a lot about the topic. Eric Sayers worked on Asia policy as a staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee for a good while and then went out to Indo-Pacific Command to work on the Adm. Harry Harris’s staff. Eric knows these issues inside and out.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the China problem in light of the recent news that the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s analysis shows that the Navy should go to nine carriers down from 11. There’s seems little question that the Chinese threat to the carrier and the range of the current air wing are the main drivers of reduced carrier requirement.

But this is a movie we’ve all seen before: OSD or the Navy wants to save money and cut carriers, and Congress tells them to pound sand. I thought Eric would have some interesting thoughts on this in light of both his political and his PACOM experience and I was correct. So, without further ado, let’s Drift!


The China Problem

The Drift: The thinking inside DoD is that they need to reduce the number of carriers and plus up the number of unmanned ships in the Navy's inventory. Cutting carriers has proven politically challenging in the past. What are the hurdles as you see them?

I worked for a member of the Virginia delegation earlier in my career. Whether it is the right or wrong strategic decision, trying to skip an [midlife-refueling] and cut a carrier out of the fleet or significantly delay procurement of a new carrier is a deliberate decision to walk into a political buzzsaw.

Even if it were a possibility, a Secretary would need to spend significant political capital to achieve it during his or her tenure that would be a drain on their other agenda.

it would represent a significant risk to try and refashion the entire fleet on a bet we can both cut carriers, build a series of new unmanned platforms, all while preserving the industrial base. I know this is a very conservative perspective, but you have to pick your battles in Congress and I would advise that right now this is a fight not worth a Secretary’s energy.

What we need to be thinking when it comes to the carrier, and any defense innovation for that matter, is how we can bring about positive changes in our military capabilities despite inherent political constraints. Innovation isn’t about just conducting a series of war games, drawing new conclusions on force structure, and then driving in a totally new direction. That isn’t sustainable and is destined to fail. Instead, we need leaders who will can carefully balance new opportunities for innovation with political reality.

Eric Sayers: Do you see a path to making the carrier more survivable and useful in a high-end fight, and is that path politically palatable to a Congress that has been reluctant to cut aircraft carriers in the past?

With the carrier, we have a truly global power-projection platform that offers mobility and modularity. In a world where political access in a theater like INDOPACOM is only going to be in more demand, a floating deck of American sovereignty is something I want in the inventory. Therefore, the chance for positive change in a peacetime political environment isn’t with restructuring the carrier fleet but redesigning the carrier air wing.

When he was CNO, Admiral Greenert would always talk about why payloads should take prominence over platforms. He was right and that is the thinking that should drive us as we think about the carrier’s role in high-threat environments like the Western Pacific. Unfortunately, as many seapower thinkers with more experience than me have previously attested, the Navy has not been imaginative enough when it comes to the ways unmanned platforms can extend the range and strike power of the carrier.

So instead of putting the target on the carrier fleet and accepting the great risk of building a new fleet that won’t be with us for a decade or more, I would prioritize ways we can bring multiple unmanned platforms onto the deck by the mid- to late-2020s. Congress has and will continue to be eager to support such a plan.

TD: What are the avenues you would like the Navy and DoD to explore to make the fleet more effective against the China threat?

ES: The People’s Liberation Army is thinking about maritime warfare as a joint fight. We need to do the same. This isn’t about a potential clash between the U.S. Navy and the PLA Navy. It is a joint maritime contest for control that we will lose if we aren’t pushing our Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps into the game.

The Navy is in a decent position, but I think has been very tardy when it comes to upgrading the quality and quantity of its munitions. Like I said previously, payloads are where change can come about most rapidly and in terms of munitions it is where the PLA has indeed pulled ahead of us in alarming and disruptive ways. For its part, the Air Force should be integrating more anti-ship munitions across all of its bomber fleet and conducting more exercises alongside Pacific Fleet to this end.

I have been an advocate for exiting the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty as a means to present the PLA with a new series of maritime-strike dilemmas in and beyond the first-island chain. Despite the political concerns about this decision here in Washington, I am optimistic there is a path forward where ground-based missiles will be a net-contributor to preserving the maritime balance.

TD: Overall, what should DoD, and government as a whole, be doing to regain the advantage vis-à-vis China?

ES: We should recognize how far we have come. When I first worked on capitol hill in the early 2010s the Pentagon wouldn’t even talk about China as a competitor or military challenge for that matter. It is almost absurd to think things were like that now. Serious work on issues like peacetime competition, military investments, and posture change is almost prohibited in an environment like that. I give Bob Work a lot of credit for asking the difficult questions and making it safe inside the Pentagon to start thinking about the challenge “red” was presenting in the mid 2010s. We have definitely turned a corner and are now in a spot where real intellectual energy is being devoted to the right set of questions.

We succeed or fail when it comes to China based on where our allies and partners stand. China knows this, which is why they spend so much time and energy on things like 5G, the belt-road initiative, and engagement in regional and international organizations to try and build influence to separate us from our friends. This doesn’t mean we need to present these countries with a choice, but it does mean we need to be using every tool in our government to ensure they don’t feel compelled to have to choose China. Despite the challenges and even frustration sometimes, allies have to come first. 

Finally, we have to be investing in all of the theater-enabling military capabilities that the services often overlook. It is one thing to have a fleet of F-35s, but the Pacific Air Force Commander needs the divert airfields, runway repair kits, fuel and munitions storage, and exercise dollars to bring it all together if we are going to squeeze the true value out of that 5th generation platform. Just like the European Deterrence Initiative has injected almost $30 billion into European Command to address these operational gaps, we need a similar funding initiative for INDOPACOM.

TD: Anything else you think worthy of highlighting in this China conversation?

ES: This is a bit anachronous to your readership, but even though I started my career focusing on the military issues that define the Asia-Pacific theater I have come to believe the US-China competition will be even more defined by the technology competition in the coming decade. This could change, of course. But we should remember that during the US-Soviet competition there were periods where various issues took precedence. For example, in the 1950s it was Korea and nuclear weapons. In the 1960s it was Vietnam and the space race. And 1970 became about arms control and détente.

I continue to study and find the questions about hard security policy engaging and critical, but it has become evident that anyone who wants to be a policymaker as this US-China competition unfolds in the 2020s will need to be just as comfortable in the language of telecommunications, semiconductors, and AI as they are with seapower, strategic stability, and power projection. 

TD: Thank you for your time, Eric.

All right, on to The Hotwash!

The Hotwash

This is already running long so straight to the links tonight.

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