Features | Security | East Asia

The Interview: Congressman J. Randy Forbes

Will the “fiscal cliff” impact the rebalance to Asia? Are aircraft carriers obsolete? Can the U.S. build strong partnerships in the Indo-Pacific?

Harry Kazianis

The Diplomat’s Editor Harry Kazianis recently spoke with Congressman J. Randy Forbes concerning the “fiscal cliff”, America’s rebalance to Asia, AirSea Battle, U.S. – China Relations, and building partnerships throughout the “Indo-Pacific.”

1. President Obama on his first foreign trip after winning a second term traveled to Southeast Asia. This was at a time when the Middle East seemed ready to explode with violence between Israel and Hamas stealing the headlines in some respects. While America is seemingly “pivoting” or “rebalancing” its focus towards Asia, large cuts may soon hit the defense budget as we approach the “fiscal cliff.” What impact would such massive across the board cuts have on the defense aspect of the “pivot.” How would such cuts impact initiatives such as AirSea Battle?

Across-the-board cuts in the form of defense sequestration would clearly have a debilitating effect on the defense resourcing side of the Asia “rebalance.” No one denies this. Over the past two years we have already taken $800 billion in defense cuts. With questions already lingering about our ability to resource this effort, our national security strategy simply cannot be sustained under any further reductions.

What I fear most in terms of the Asia rebalance and supporting the AirSea Battle office’s initiatives are further reductions in some of the defense capabilities I consider to be critical. First, we must act to preserve our dominance in the undersea domain by prioritizing platforms like the Virginia-class submarine and its associated Virginia Payload Module (VPM), as well as unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs).  Additionally, we must sustain other areas where we possess competitive advantage; specifically, electronic warfare capabilities including the EA-18G Growler and next-generation jammer; and long-range strike platforms like the Air Force Long-Range Bomber (LRS-B) and Navy Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS).

We also need to support the proper balance between hardening, dispersing, and defending our forward-deployed bases and facilities. Hardening facilities is an expensive endeavor, but doing so will greatly enhance the task of ensuring crisis stability and help to deter potential conflict.

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Finally, our strategy demands a large navy fleet. Admiral James D. Watkins, the Chief of Naval Operations during the mid 1980s, used the term “violent peace” to describe the frantic pace of naval forces during peacetime. Today’s peacetime Navy faces its own violent pace of operations, pushing operational and personnel tempo to the limit. Providing tailored and sustained American seapower in the Indo-Pacific requires a fleet of roughly 346 ships, including 55 nuclear-powered attack submarines.

2. A debate has been brewing in the defense community that aircraft carriers are obsolete. With the cost of replacing older Cold War carriers in the billions of dollars during a time of possible defense cuts with nations developing cruise and ballistic missiles, some would say the time of the carrier is over, like the battleship of years past. What do you think? Is there a place in the 21st century for carriers?

Predictions about the end of the aircraft carrier are a lot like those we hear about the decline of American power – they occur regularly and continue to be wrong. The reason I have serious doubts about such predictions are twofold. First, a CVN provides U.S. policymakers with unlimited mobility. In an unpredictable and competitive global environment, America’s 11-carrier fleet gives it the capacity to deploy two or three CVNs to the Pacific and Indian Oceans at the same time. This provides the President and Combatant Commanders a symbol of strength to project America’s intentions to both friends and competitors during, for example, missile tests on the Korean Peninsula, tensions in the Straits of Hormuz or South China Sea, or elections in Taiwan. Some would push back on this claim and argue that the CVN is a vulnerable floating airfield, susceptible to cruise and ballistic missile attack. But such logic is dubious: the CVN remains less susceptible to missile strikes than fixed airbases in places like Okinawa or Guam. Our Combatant Commanders benefit from a balance of both. Second, and even more important, the modularity of the carrier ensures its continued adaptability to the emerging threat environment. This modularity was on display last week when I attended the intactivation ceremony for the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), a storied ship that has served our Nation for over 50 years. Thanks to the CVN’s ability to support new strike-fighter innovations, the Enterprise remained a front-line power-projection tool for the last half-century.

This is not to say that the CVN does not face challenges. Today, the People’s Republic of China is developing the means to harness the power of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) that can strike naval assets at ranges up to 950 nm from its coasts.  This development stands to be a “game changer” for U.S. defense policy in the Indo-Pacific because the F/A-18 and F-35 lack the combat range to allow a CVN to operate outside the ASBM’s maximum effective reach and still be able to hold adversary territory at risk. Alongside these platforms, we will require an unmanned platform with greater endurance and strike power to overcome the ASBM threat and help preserve Washington’s freedom of action in the Pacific theater. Indeed, a UCLASS platform, like I discussed earlier, with an endurance of greater than 12 hours (or roughly a 1,000nm combat radius), that is moderately stealthy, and can carry as much or more payload than the F-35 carries internally would transform the CVW from a capability with short tactical reach to a global naval strike and reconnaissance platform. A new dawn in naval aviation stands to preserve the indispensability of the carrier well into this century.

3. A recent report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (Strategic Choices: Navigating Austerity) came up with five areas of defense that are vital for America’s national security called the “crown jewels”: special operations forces, cyber capabilities, undersea warfare systems,  and long range surveillance and strike systems. All of these are of importance if America is to move forward with an Indo-Pacific focused strategy such as AirSea Battle. Out of these capabilities, which do you feel are the most important? Is there any that are more of a priority looking at the potential challenges the United States will face in the future?

I would be remiss to say one mission or capability is more important than another. Instead, I would say that in terms of the Indo-Pacific the capabilities we desire must help us achieve two objectives. First, they need to allow us to preserve our ability to access the global commons (sea, air, space, and cyberspace). This is the connective tissue that both upholds the global economic trade system and gives our military the leverage to preserve American interests on a global scale. Not only do we require the means to defend space and cyberspace – domains that act as enablers for our military power – but we must also acquire new capabilities that let us operate both inside and outside anti-access/area-denial networks. As I mentioned, this requires both hardening and dispersing our forward-deployed facilities. It also demands an investment in capabilities to operate from great distances, including sea and air heavy lift capabilities, a family of long-range strike systems, and our submarine fleet with adequate strike capacity.

Second, because PRC warfighting doctrine focuses on winning a rapid victory in a conflict, the most effective means for deterring the potential use of force would be to present Beijing with the prospect of an extended, multiple-theater war with the U.S. and a variety of our allies, if necessary. This is not to argue that I either desire conflict or wish it to be large in scope. To the contrary, conflict between the U.S. and the PRC would be devastating for U.S. interests in the region and for the global economy. As a result, we must do everything we can to maintain a balance of power in the region that favors U.S. interests and the regional order. This should lead us to the conclusion that the strongest way to deter aggressive behavior is to confront the PRC with a choice that includes a sustained set of costs. To achieve this we must emphasize mobilization and logistics, and ensure we have munitions stocks for a sustained conflict. We can also seek mechanisms for compromising China’s sea lines of communication, which it remains dependent on for energy and trade.

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4. This past summer, you penned an op-ed for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) PACNET that discussed peacetime competition between the U.S. and China. You have argued for open and honest debate when it comes to people discussing the real challenges, opinions and discourse when it comes to U.S.-China relations. Has the mood changed in the last six months or so? Are defense and senior staffers in Washington more open to referring to China as a “competitor”? In your view, can honest and frank talk of competition be used to create more areas of cooperation? What benefits do you see by taking the talk of competition out of the shadows?

I wrote that article in the hope of stimulating a public discussion on the need to speak more forthrightly about the elements of our relationship with the PRC that are competitive. In my opinion Washington has become too squeamish about such discussions. Indeed, I believe we find ourselves in a peacetime competition whose outcome will not be decided next year or perhaps not even 10 years from now. As a result, we must think about how we can posture ourselves to exploit our competitive advantages for the long term in order to sustain the peaceful, prosperous, and open international order we have built in the Indo-Pacific. Successfully executing such a strategy means first identifying and building consensus about different areas of competition and potential cooperation. Today, little consensus exists. This is compounded by the fact that our allies and friends in the region, and internationally, now conduct more trade with the PRC than with the United States.

Please note that I did not say we are seeking competition with the PRC, nor did I say we should work to contain their re-rise. But I do believe that the combination of China’s growing economic and military power have altered their perspective on the ways in which they can shift the balance of regional power and/or seek to change the rules-based order we have built in ways that are inimical to our interests. This requires attention and a new sense of urgent initiative.

On the whole, I would say that we succeeded in beginning this discussion. I heard positive feedback from civilian and military officials as well as from the think tank and academic community following its publication. Moving the ball forward will require an effort to continue to educate Congress. It will also call for working with other defense officials and thinkers to begin to lay the intellectual framework for how we can adopt a more holistic approach to peacetime competition in the years ahead. Recent efforts have begun this process.

5. One major aspect of America’s focus in Asia is building strong partnerships with some of the region’s most important nations. American officials over the last eighteen months have visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Australia and various others. What aspect of these budding partnerships do you feel are the most important? Defense? Trade? In what ways do you feel such relationships can be strengthened?

Our interests in the Indo-Pacific are focused on preserving the peaceful, prosperous, and open international order that has benefited both us and the region since World War Two. Our military power and alliances are thus not about China, but they can be if Beijing continues to challenge the foundations of the rules-based order.  Put another way, we should focus on building a balance of alliances that favors freedom. This should put the onus on the U.S. for sustaining the important alliances and relationships we currently have with states like Japan, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Australia. It should also lead us to look for new partnerships and multilateral arrangements, both economic and military, that can benefit the sustainment of this order. Discussing our objectives in these term will allow us to strengthen relationship with states like India, Malaysia, and Cambodia much more effectively.