WASHINGTON – Why don’t we make the bad guys bleed money for a change? That’s the strategic insight that helped us win the Cold War, and it seems especially timely today as the nation wobbles back – we hope – from the brink of yet another budget crisis.
Delayed by vote calls and overshadowed by the news that House and Senate negotiators had finally reached a budget agreement — one that might actually stabilize the situation for two years — House seapower subcommittee chairman Randy Forbes went ahead with a hearing late yesterday on China’s growing naval power. The four experts on the panel couldn’t articulate a coherent strategy for the West Pacific, Forbes told me after the hearing, but they agreed on one big thing:
“All four of those witnesses [said] we need to be sure we go back to competitive strategies,” Forbes told me. What does that mean? “Causing our potential competitors to spend money, and not in the areas they want.”
That’s what the US did to the Soviets when it developed stealth aircraft that forced Moscow to question its massive investment in anti-aircraft systems. Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative likewise threatened to neutralize the Soviet missile arsenal, forcing them to scramble for expensive countermeasures, even though we never managed to build it. The influential Center for Strategy and Budgetary Assessments calls these “cost-imposing strategies,” where every dollar you spend in the arms race makes the other side spend two dollars or more.
The first step, of course, is to stop bleeding money ourselves. “When you’re continuing the spiral of cuts downward, I think it sends an enormous message, a negative message, to our allies and to our competitors,” Forbes said.
That’s the value of Tuesday night’s tentative budget deal. “I don’t think this deal is a step forward, but I do believe it’s an inch forward, and I believe an inch forward is superior to continually spiraling in the wrong direction,” Forbes told me. After two years of increasing fiscal chaos, when the federal government sometimes wasn’t sure what it had to spend from month to month, he said, “this bill is crucial because it does give that stability, it stops that hemorrhaging, and it does stop $20 billion from being cut out of the Pentagon in January.”
But it isn’t the dreamed-of “grand bargain” that would replace the Budget Control Act’s 10-year, $1 trillion mandatory cut to discretionary spending – $500 billion of it to defense – that’s known popularly as sequestration. That’s why Forbes and other pro-Pentagon lawmakers see this week’s deal as just a start. Even they acknowledge, however, that defense budgets must come down. So how do we counter China’s rise at a cost we can afford?
We shouldn’t try to meet China head-on, Naval War College professor Andrew Erickson told Forbes’s subcommittee. (See Erickson’s written testimony). Beijing is investing in a wide array of increasingly advanced aircraft, warships, submarines, electronics, and a host of long-range missiles to keep US forces out of the West Pacific – a strategy China calls “counter-intervention” and we call “anti-access/area denial.” But, said Erickson, we shouldn’t spend ourselves into the ground trying to build a high-tech countermeasure for each new threat. Nor should we invest in an ambitious, expensive, and escalatory approach that relies either on striking targets on the Chinese mainland – a common criticism of the evolving Pentagon concept known as “Air-Sea Battle” – or on cutting off China’s sea trade and oil supply – a rival concept called “distant blockade.”
Instead, Erickson argued, the US and its allies need to realize we have a strategic advantage: We get to play defense. It’s China that wants to stake new claims to islands, waters, and, most recently, airspace. That means they have to come to us. All we have to do to win is keep them out. If they do grab an island before we can react, we just need to isolate the occupation force from supplies and reinforcements long enough to starve them out or blow them up.
So instead of trying to batter down China’s “anti-access/area denial” defenses, let them dash themselves to pieces against ours. Even if it was a draw, where each sides’ long range weapons kept the other at bay – an air and naval “no man’s land” like the Western Front in World War I – we win by default because it’s Beijing that staked its international reputation and domestic legitimacy on taking new ground, not us.
“The US and allies should maximize disruption capabilities, their own form of A2/AD, [to] deny China the ability to seize and hold offshore territories,” Erickson told the subcommittee. (It’s an idea that CSBA has discussed as well, albeit less vividly). “Here some pages can be taken from China’s own A2/AD playbook…. submarines, missiles, and sea mines.”
So, I asked Forbes after the hearing, how should we reshuffle the Pentagon budget to best do this? His immediate answer: Don’t put the budgetary cart before the strategic horse.
“First,” he said, “shouldn’t we at least have a discussion at the Pentagon where you say, what’s the most valuable place we should place resources?” Forbes has argued against what he calls the “arbitrary split” that doles out defense dollars into roughly equal thirds (not counting supplemental war funds) to the Army, Air Force, and Navy/Marines. As a representative from a shipbuilding state himself, he’s also said the Navy’s entire shipbuilding shortfall could be solved by giving it an extra 1.5 percent of the defense budget. But, Forbes told me, he’ll defer to the strategists on whether or not to do that.
That said, Forbes was quick to point out, “one of the things you did hear from the experts today…minimally we have to maintain a two Virginia-class sub build out a year.” The Virginia is America’s latest attack submarine (as opposed to a nuclear-missile-carrying sub) and is generally considered the hardest Navy vessel for the Chinese to kill. It’s also named for and partially built in Forbes’s home state.
But nuclear aircraft carriers are built in Virginia too – in fact, they can’t be build anywhere else on earth but the Newport News shipyard – yet Forbes didn’t spend any time in our interview or in yesterday’s hearing pushing for more carriers. In fact, witnesses and lawmakers spent a lot of time talking about submarines, new missiles for them to fire, and new weapons like lasers and rail guns to shoot down Chinese missiles, but carriers rarely came up.
In fact, wrote industry analyst Byron Callan, director of Capital Alpha Partners, “[while] this was a hearing held by a subcommittee focused on naval programs and three of the Representatives at the hearing had major naval facilities or shipyards in their districts….we did not hear much clamoring for 1) more surface combatants, 2) more amphibious ships, 3) more tactical combat aircraft.”
“Granted, there are other areas where these assets are needed,” Callan went on in his newsletter dissecting the hearing. But, he said, to the extent that the highly specific threat posed by China dominates the defense debate, “these other platforms could see less relative support.”