Thank you for introduction, and for the invitation to speak to you.
As usual, I need to issue the standard disclaimer that these remarks are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of CRS or the Congress.
In my talk today, I want to start at the general or strategic level, because there are important developments there to discuss, and then proceed to more specific issues.
So let me begin with the strategic situation. Events over the last several months in the East and South China Seas, and in Ukraine, have convinced a number of analysts that we are now in the midst of a shift from one strategic era to another—from the post-Cold War era (or unipolar moment, as some have called it) that began around 23 years ago, to a new era of renewed great power competition.
There is debate on this point—not everyone agrees that such a shift in strategic eras is occurring. But among those who believe that it is, the view is that this new strategic era will be characterized by challenges to key elements of the U.S.—led international order that we have come to take for granted over the last two decades or so.
These challenges include a greater use of force and coercion by major powers as a routine or first-resort method for settling disputes and achieving foreign policy goals—in other words, a reassertion of the principle that might makes right—as well as a challenge to the fundamental and long-established precept of freedom of the seas.
Furthermore, in this point of view, the emerging strategic era will be characterized by new, 21st Century forms of aggression and coercion that are characterized by a fusing of grey-zone or deniable activities by military and paramilitary forces, cyber operations, and control of media for the broadcasting of propaganda and supporting narratives.
Behind these challenges to the international order, in the view of these analysts, are governments in China and Russia that are quite different from one another, but which, in their own ways, appear to be shoring up their legitimacy through the use of nationalistic and chauvinistic narratives that are grounded in part in an asserted sense of resentment over past injustices supposedly inflicted by the West, and by the pursuit of irredentist and revanchist foreign policy goals that are intended to reverse these past injustices.
If that is a more-or-less accurate description of the dynamic at work, it would be highly significant, for at least two reasons. First, we have not seen a combination of nationalism and irredentism driven by a sense of supposed victimization take hold as a significant element in major power politics since the 1930s. And second, in the case of China at least, we may be witnessing an attempt by a major power to become a regional hegemon in its own part of Eurasia, and it has been a longstanding goal of the United States going back several decades, in both peace and war, to prevent the emergence of a regional hegemon in one part of Eurasia or another.
The first challenge: recognizing a shift
If these analysts are correct that we are witnessing a shift in strategic eras of the kind just described, then what challenges might that pose?
Well, the first challenge would be to recognize that it is happening, and that is not a trivial challenge, for at least four reasons.
First, although Russia’s seizure of Crimea was a pretty stark event, the markers of this potential shift in strategic eras have for the most part been less dramatic and clear-cut than the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Second, many younger professionals who today work on foreign policy and security issues, as well as older professionals who started working these issues within the last 20 years or so, have not lived through a shift in strategic eras in connection with their work. Many of them lived through 9/11, which led to some important changes in the strategic setting, but those changes, it can be argued, amounted to a major adjustment within the unipolar moment, rather than a full-scale shift in strategic eras.
For those who have been working foreign policy and security issues only within the last 20 years or so, the post-Cold War era has been the sole strategic construct within which issues have been identified and debated. That the post-Cold War order as we know it may not, in fact, be permanent, and that it may be ending right now, may seem strange to them. Their knowledge of what to look for in assessing whether a change is taking place, and their readiness to truly shift their thinking as a result of such a change, may not be well developed.
Third, even among those who can see such markers and know how to recognize a shift in strategic eras, there may be an unwillingness to acknowledge this shift, because the era that we may be heading into looks less pleasant than the one we’ve been in. One commentator, writing earlier this month rather pointedly about Vladimir Putin, stated, “Even today, many are having trouble recognizing the true nature of a man who is currently in the process of turning the European peace order on its head. Perhaps we don’t have the courage to make the right comparisons because they remind us of an era that we thought we had put behind us.”
And lastly, a lot of programs, careers, and reputations have been built up over the last 20-plus years within the familiar framework of the post-Cold War era. Consequently, there may be vested interests in arguing that the post-Cold War era is not ending, and a reluctance by those with such vested interests to admit that it might be.
A second challenge: reacquainting ourselves with the link between geography and U.S. naval forces
If it is correct that we are witnessing a shift to an era of renewed great power competition and a consequently to a renewed focus on geopolitics, then a second challenge would be to reacquaint ourselves with the influence of geography on the structure of U.S. military forces, particularly given a U.S. strategicgoal of preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon in one part of Eurasia or another, and how this can lead to, among other things, a U.S. Navy with features that differentiate it considerably from the navies of other countries.
I included some remarks about this topic in testimony I gave to the Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee on October 23rd of last year. You can get that testimony from the committee’s web site, and I also understand that portions of it, including this portion, were reprinted in a recent issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.
A part of this challenge involves recognizing the value of submarines not only as platforms for penetrating and countering anti-access/area-denial forces, but more broadly, but as platforms that establish U.S. dominance of the undersea domain, which in turn forms the foundation for the United States being able to convert the world’s oceans into a medium of maneuver and operations for projecting U.S. power ashore and otherwise defending U.S. interests around the world. The ability to use the world’s oceans in this manner—and to deny other countries the use of the world’s oceans for taking actions against U.S. interests—constitutes an immense asymmetric advantage for the United States. Over the last year or so, I have been interested to observe that an awareness of the value of the Submarine Force ingenerating this asymmetric advantage appears to be growing among policymakers.
A third challenge: restructuring the debate on defense
Continuing on, if it is correct that we are witnessing a shift in strategic eras, then a third challenge would be to consider whether to restructure the current basic framework of debate over U.S. defense plans, programs, and budgets. That framework is established by things such as the Budget Control Act of 2011 as amended, the Defense Strategic Guidance of 2012, and the 2014 QDR.
The question is whether this framework reflects the strategic era we are leaving, but not to the one we may be entering. The issue, in other words, is whether the terms of debate over defense spending that we have become familiar with over the last few years are becoming, in effect, a dead man walking, leading to a zombie debate on defense, if you will.
If the terms of debate over defense spending are not responsive to the strategic era we may be entering, it may take some time to recognize and acknowledge this, because there are vested interests in the current terms of debate, and because, vested interests or not, the mental and bureaucratic grooves associated with the current terms of debate are fairly deep. It might not be until the next administration—no matter who is elected in 2016, from whatever political party—that a critical mass forms for restructuring the debate to be fully responsive to a new strategic era.
A fourth challenge: thinking through the implications for the Navy, and for submarines
And finally, if we are witnessing a shift in strategic eras, then a fourth challenge, for this audience, would be to explore, specifically, how a change in the terms of debate over defense issues might affect the Navy in general, and submarines in particular.
On this question, one reaction you might have had, listening to me for the last few minutes, might be something like: “Hey, I think there’s going to be more money for defense!” And that’s a possibility. But it’s not a certainty, since the country will face a choice as to how to respond to the new strategic era, and it’s possible the country will choose to respond in ways that do not lead to higher defense spending. And it bears remembering that the Budget Control Act, with its statutory limits on defense spending, remains in place, and that among those who do not like the BCA, there is little consensus on what kind of arrangement should replace it.
Taking a step down from the question of the DOD top line, another issue to explore concerns the Navy’s share of that top line. Here, the situation is a bit complex. One the one hand, there seems to be growing traction for the idea that in light of the strategic rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, a greater share of the DOD budget should go to the Navy and Air Force, since the Asia-Pacific is, for the United States, primarily a maritime and aerospace theater.
On the other hand, events in Ukraine have put renewed attention on our ground-forces presence in Europe, and on the importance of land-based forces for fulfilling our treaty obligations there.
And there is one more thing for this audience to begin thinking through, which are the implications of this new, 21st Century form of warfare for the attack Submarine Force. The key issue is this: What contribution can Navy attack submarines make in defending U.S. interests against this new form of aggression and coercion?
In the Ukraine, the answer is probably not much, given the land-oriented geography of the region and the Montreux Convention’s limits on naval forces operating in the Black Sea.
China’s near-seas region, however, is a largely maritime area. Here, the challenge is China’s salami slicing strategy—its strategy for accomplishing a creeping annexation of, or gradual consolidation of control over its near-seas region, including the East and South China Seas, through a series of incremental actions, none of which individually amounts to a casus belli.
China’s salami-slicing strategy in its near-seas region poses a direct challenge to other countries situated on those seas, but it also poses a potentially significant challenge to the United States, for two at least reasons. First, if China were to gradually annex or consolidate control over its near-seas region, it could form part of a broader effort by China to become a regional hegemon.
And second, if China were to gradually annex or consolidate control over its near-seas region, it could give greater legitimacy to China’s views regarding the legal regime for waters beyond the 12-mile limit.
China’s views on this matter appear to be quite different from the views held by the United States and many other countries, and seem to be much closer to the position that the high seas should be treated as territory, rather than as an international commons. This is a view that goes against hundreds of years of customary international law of the sea.
If China’s views regarding the legal treatment of the high seas were to become established in its near-seas region, it could affect the U.S. ability to use naval forces for defending U.S. interests not only in that part of the world, but possibly in other parts of the world as well, because international law is universal in its application, and a challenge to it in one part of the world, if sustained, could serve as a precedent for challenging it in other parts of the world.
Given these stakes, the United States, if it has not done so already, might consider it a matter of some urgency to devise a strategy for countering China’s salami-slicing tactics in its near-seas region. And the challenge for the submarine community would be to figure out how the attack submarine force might contribute to such a strategy—and not just in terms of surveillance and reconnaissance. Since this is a matter of some urgency, as daily news stories from the East and South China Seas make clear, the challenge is to think quickly about this issue. If you haven’t been following this situation in detail, now’s the time to get up to speed on it.
The role of attack submarines in a potential major conflict with China has presumably been explored in detail for some time now, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the role of submarines—beyond ISR, which is the easy part to imagine—in a U.S. strategy for countering China’s ongoing salami-slicing strategy in the absence of a conflict.
Funding for Navy Shipbuilding
I want to shift now from strategy to budgets, and specifically to the issue of future funding for Navy shipbuilding. It’s now widely known that fully implementing the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan would require increasing the shipbuilding budget in coming years by something like 30 or 40 percent above the average level it has attained in recent years. The Ohio Replacement program is a big part of the reason for that, but it’s not the only contributor to the situation.
The point about how much the shipbuilding budget would need to be increased to implement the 30-year plan has been made repeatedly, and it has sunk in. Repeating this point, and only this point, however, can lead to a sense that fully implementing the 30-year shipbuilding plan is an unattainable goal, and to a feeling of helplessness and resignation about the matter.
In my testimony to the HASC last October 23, I introduced an additional point into this conversation. It’s a simple point, based on a calculation you can do in your head in about five seconds, but it’s one that had been overlooked, even though it can be useful in providing some additional context for the conversation about the prospective affordability of the Navy’s shipbuilding plan.
I simply pointed out that the additional funding needed to fully implement the 30-year shipbuilding plan equates to 1.5% or less of future levels of defense spending under the BCA, and that in a context of allocating a larger share of the DOD budget to naval and air forces as a consequence of the strategic rebalancing, shifting 1.5% or less of the DOD budget to the shipbuilding account would appear quite feasible.
Introducing this additional point can change the conversation about the affordability of the 30-year shipbuilding plan, and indeed, the conversation has now changed.
Of course, it’s not just a matter of building ships, but of operating and supporting both them and their embarked aircraft. So I also pointed out in my testimony that the Department of the Navy’s entire program of record as submitted in the FY13 and FY14 budget submissions, which was aimed at achieving the 306-ship fleet in all its aspects, could be fully funded, even within the BCA’s limits on defense spending, by increasing the Department of the Navy’s share of the DOD budget by 4 or 5 percentage points.
That’s more ambitious than shifting 1.5% or less of the DOD budget to the shipbuilding account, but I pointed out that there have been even-larger percentage shifts in DOD budget shares on two previous occasions—to the Air Force in the 50s and 60s, and to the Army between FY03 and FY13—which were done to support U.S. strategy as interpreted by policymakers at the time. As we head into a debate about what might or might not be affordable for the Navy under various DOD budget scenarios, it can be helpful to keep these points in mind.
Ohio Replacement Program
I’ve talked now a little about strategy, and a little about budgets, so let’s now shift to programs, starting with the Ohio Replacement program, and here I want to make five points.
The first is to note that last September, the Navy stated explicitly in testimony to the HASC that the Ohio Replacement program was the Navy’s top program priority, meaning, the Navy explained, that the Ohio Replacement program will be fully funded, even if funding for other programs needs to be reduced as a consequence.
What this means is that if there is a funding crunch in the shipbuilding budget, it will not be the Ohio Replacement program that will be cut back, but other programs, including, for example, the Virginia-class program.
What this also means is that the aim in setting up a separate fund in the DOD budget for the Ohio Replacement program, as has now been proposed in the HASC-reported version of the FY15 NDAA, is not so much to protect funding for the Ohio Replacement program, but to protect funding for other shipbuilding programs, including the Virginia-class program.
The second point is that this year’s deliberations on the FY15 budget have underscored that while the Ohio replacement program is the Navy’s top program priority, and consequently will be fully funded, it has, at the same time, paradoxically become somewhat of a brittle program, because there is no longer any slack in the program’s schedule, due to the lead boat’s procurement having been deferred to FY21.
As a result, even relatively small funding shortfalls or in-stances of funding instability can now create a risk of the lead boat not being ready in time for its first deterrent patrol.
We’ve already seen that in this year’s deliberations on the FY15 budget, due to an $11-million shortfall in the DOE part of NR’s budget. This shortfall, if not addressed, could cause something like a 6-month delay in the designing of the boat’s nuclear core. So here we have a program whose total acquisition cost will be in the tens of billions of dollars, now facing a schedule delay because of an $11-million shortfall.
This issue is being addressed as we speak, so the point is not that the delay will happen. The point is that every year between now and the late 2020s, those connected to the Ohio Replacement program will have to be on constant lookout for smaller-scale funding shortfalls and instances of funding instability that could cause problems in the program’s schedule.
The third point is that there is growing awareness of the possibility of reducing the cost of the Ohio Replacement boats by acquiring them through a joint, cross-class block buy contract with the Virginia class program. There appears to be interest in this option, at least on the authorization committees.
Whether this is the best possible contracting strategy, and how much it might save, have not yet been determined, but the groundwork for discussing the option has now been put into place.The fourth point is that announcements about progress that the Navy has made in reducing the estimated cost of the boats 2 through 12 in the program, so as to get closer to the target cost for these boats, have been few and far between. I understand that this is because these announcements are tied to acquisition milestones, but these milestones are widely spaced. The Navy might consider looking for a way to make announcements about progress in reducing the cost of these boats more frequent, so that the ongoing conversation about the cost of these boats can reflect this progress on a more up-to-date basis.
And the fifth and final point I want to make about the Ohio Replacement program would be to consider making more prominent the fact that this submarine will employ an electric drive system, and that this system presumably could be adapted to become the electric drive system for the next-generation surface combatant that the Navy is now beginning to scope out. Right now, there is little discussion of how research and development work for the Ohio Replacement boats could benefit the rest of the Navy. The electric drive system is a major example in that regard, but we’ve heard almost nothing about that.
I want to shift now to the Virginia-class program, and here I want to make two points.
The first is that in light of the strategic rebalancing and concerns over China’s naval modernization effort, as well as the Virginia-class program’s success in reducing procurement costs and delivering boats ahead of schedule, there is strong support among policymakers for procuring two Virginia-class boats per year.
Congress’ action to provide funding for a second Virginia-class boat in FY14, which became the 10th boat in the current multiyear, is emblematic of that.
The second point is that there was some push back last year from the appropriators on the Virginia Payload Module. Given that, it is clear the Navy has some work to do to in terms of arguing the affordability and cost effectiveness of the VPM. The estimated cost of the module has come down over the last year or two, which has made it easier for the Navy to make that case. Additional reductions in the estimated cost of the module could further strengthen the Navy’s argument.
Submarine-launched unmanned vehicles
Finally, I’d like to talk for a moment about submarine-launched unmanned vehicles—both UAVs and UUVs. And here, I’d like to make two points.
The first is that, with the focus on the Ohio Replacement program, the Virginia-class procurement rate, and the Virginia Payload Module, the topic of submarine-launched UVs, which may well be critical to the future of the attack Submarine Force, can easily be pushed into the background.
The second point, and my final one here today, is that for outside observers, there is no clear sense that the experiments and demonstrations that the submarine community has been doing with UVs over the last several years are going to lead any time soon to programs of record for procuring operational systems and getting them deployed in the force in significant numbers by a date certain. If the submarine community has plans of that kind, the community might consider giving them more prominence. And if there are no such plans at present, the community might consider taking steps to create them. I’ve mentioned this issue before, but it bears repeating, because there continues to be relatively little in the way of major observable developments on this issue.
In conclusion, and working backwards through my remarks, here are some specific options to consider:
– First, consider doing more to show how the submarine community’s work with unmanned vehicles will transition by a date certain into one or more major procurement pro-grams of record.
– Second, consider doing more to show how the electric drive system being developed for the Ohio replacement program might benefit the Navy’s next-generation surface combatant.
– Third, consider finding a way to make the Navy’s announcements about progress in reducing the cost of the fol-low-on Ohio Replacement boats more frequent.
– And lastly, consider exploring how the attack submarine force could contribute—in ways other than ISR work—to a U.S. strategy for countering China’s salami-slicing strategy in its near-seas region.
Thank you again for the invitation to speak. I hope you found these remarks, helpful, and I look forward to your questions.