China may invade Taiwan within six years, admirals warn. Is the U.S. ready?
The Chinese military will likely attack Taiwan within six years, Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress in March, just before retiring from the Navy. More generally, he said, Beijing’s long-term objective—supplanting the U.S. and remaking the global order to benefit the Chinese Communist Party—will feature confrontation.
Adm. Davidson’s assessment is the clearest articulation of contemporary strategic realities by a major government or military official in the past decade. China is showing its ambitions, increasing its assertiveness in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and ratcheting up military pressure against Taiwan. The Chinese strategic tradition prizes both patience and decisive action when the balance of forces appears favorable.
- If War Comes, Will the U.S. Navy Be Prepared?– Kate Bachelder Odell, July 12
- Why the U.S. Navy Is in Dire Straits– Letters from John Lehman and William Taylor, July 19
- The Cost of a Distracted and Unprepared U.S. Navy– Letters from Art DeJong and John Cauthen, July 22
- The Navy’s Cultural Ship is Listing– Kate Bachelder Odell, July 17, 2020
The implication of Adm. Davidson’s assessment—and a similar one offered this spring by his successor, Adm. John Aquilino —is that any major reduction in U.S. combat strength, particularly naval power, will tempt the Chinese Communist Party to strike.
This assessment should inform the Navy’s recently announced “divest to invest” plan. The Navy will “divest” from older, larger platforms such as the Ticonderoga-class cruiser and reduce its large surface combatant force, including Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, by around one-third.
In turn, the Navy will “invest” in smaller, more numerous platforms, specifically a new Constellation-class frigate and a variety of unmanned surface combatants and undersea vehicles. The Navy will also speed up production of its Virginia-class submarines, the most modern in the fleet, and develop a yet-to-be-defined new submarine class. The Navy hopes “divest to invest” will make the fleet more distributed, more survivable and more lethal.
A more modern fleet is central to any U.S. deterrence or war-fighting strategy. But the “divest to invest” strategy is dangerous, for at least three reasons.
First, there is no guarantee that the Navy will reap any of the savings it expects. Washington’s budget battles will intensify in the coming five years, after trillions in emergency Covid spending. A Navy that voluntarily cuts its outlays will be at the mercy of partisan politics.
The Air Force and Army will be competing for dollars to fund their own efforts. The Navy has failed to produce a 30-year shipbuilding plan that justifies any strategy. Ever since the Trump administration identified great-power competition, particularly with China, as its primary focus, the Army has sought to justify its role in a Pacific conflict. The air and land branches will siphon off these dollars if they make a better case than the sea service does.
Second, it is unclear whether the defense industrial base can execute the “investment” portion of the Navy’s plan quickly enough to avoid a major drop in fleet numbers. The Navy plans to shrink its large surface combatants to about 60 ships from 90, retiring cruisers and likely cutting back on building destroyers.
Meanwhile, the Navy says it will build 15 Constellation-class frigates by 2026 and support them with unmanned ships and perhaps a modified littoral combat ship, which is designed to operate in shallow waters in support of sea control operations. These would be deployed close to the First Island Chain, within the range of China’s arsenal of land-, air- and sea-based missiles intended to deny U.S. forces access to the region.
The shipbuilder Fincantieri Marinette Marine won the contracts for the first three Constellation-class frigates. Fincantieri built littoral combat ships at a pace of about one a year—and that ship was half the size of the new frigate. Even if Austal USA, another shipbuilder, receives frigate contracts, and both builders keep up the pace, the Navy would receive only eight to 10 frigates by 2026, not 15.
The picture is no better on unmanned vehicles. The Navy last year received funding for only two of 10 planned large unmanned surface vehicles, the first in the fleet. The Navy’s unmanned aerial refueling tanker, the MQ-25, has been in the works for years but is still awaiting its maiden deployment in the fall. There’s no reason to think other unmanned vehicles will reach the fleet more quickly.
In other words, the Navy is on track to divest by 2024 to 2026—but the investments may not arrive until one to five years later. The U.S. could be very vulnerable in this gap. Will the People’s Liberation Army sit by watching American military modernization before it acts?
The Navy should instead maintain its surface fleet, extending the life of the cruisers and integrating more-advanced, longer-range systems into its missile-launch cells. The Navy can also build—or buy from allies—many small, highly lethal combatants and unmanned platforms. This will require a 30% annual bump to the Navy’s shipbuilding budget every year for the foreseeable future. That may sound expensive, but an additional $6 to $8 billion next year is a fraction of the overall Pentagon budget and a rounding error in President Biden’s infrastructure package.
Maintaining the fleet at its current size of about 300 ships throughout the 2020s will allow the defense industrial base to catch up to the demands of great power competition. Accelerating submarine construction—building three Virginia-class attack subs a year—must also be a priority. Surface ships, whether large or small, manned or unmanned, will be far more vulnerable to Chinese military capabilities than undersea forces.
America’s most senior naval officers have warned of a Chinese attack against Taiwan in the near future. “Divest to invest” is an invitation to attack.
Mr. Cropsey is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and was a deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.
Appeared in the August 13, 2021, print edition.
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