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Former US Navy Secretary John F. Lehman has warned in an exclusive interview with Asia Times that the US faces the danger of a “New Pearl Harbor from growing cooperation between China, Russia and Iran that is marked by increased military and technology sharing.
“China, Russia and Iran are doing joint naval exercises and they are sharing anti-aircraft and antisubmarine technology,” Lehman said. “They don’t have to be allies. They figure if they carry out their designs in co-ordinated fashion that this will stretch the US so thin that we can’t deal with it — and that is the worry right now.”
But as the US military confronts a three-way alignment that Lehman compares to the Tripartite Alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan before World War II, Lehman says the chief danger isn’t from anti-ship missiles or supercavitating torpedoes. Rather, the main threat to American preparedness, he says, springs from a painfully slow US process for procuring new weapons systems. He also blames recent collisions involving Navy ships in Asian waters on the combined pressures of generational change, and training and budget cuts, on a smaller, peacetime Navy.
“All these problems are fixable,” Lehman said. “We just need the leadership and will to do it.”
Lehman served as the Reagan administration’s Navy secretary between 1981-1987. He was the architect of the 600-ship Navy that harried the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
He believes the past is repeating itself in the current face-off between the US and a new set of foes. “If you go back and read how the Triple Alliance before World War I or the Axis alliance before World War II evolved, you’ve got exactly the same thing happening now. Russia, China and Iran are concert parties,” Lehman said.
Against this backdrop, Lehman sees an urgent need to quickly develop and deploy new US weapons systems. But he says a tortuous, decades-long acquisitions process involving the Pentagon, defense contractors, and Congress, makes many US planes, ships and supporting systems obsolete by the time they are operational.
The former top Navy official reckons it takes the US more than 22 years to get a major weapons system up and running. Russia and China, he says, can do it in about 6-7 years. He notes that new Congressional legislation is needed to streamline and simplify the procurements process.
“We’re strangling on bureaucracy and overhead,” Lehman said flatly. “In digital technology, the procurement system has become so paralytic that by the time we get new digital weapons and electronics deployed, it’s ten years old.”
Lehman’s views on the need for quick deployments of new US weapons systems are shared by former US naval officers. “We can talk about potential future technological advantages forever. However, it doesn’t mean anything unless Congress funds the military our country needs. Some segment of our military-industrial complex must also be motivated and have the capability to manufacture the quality and quantity of the weapons needed,” Joseph F. Callo, a retired rear admiral in the US Navy Reserve, told Asia Times.
But Lehman also downplays the notion that new weapons like lasers and rail guns will be instant “game changers” against China and Russia.
“Lasers and rail guns will have their role — but naval weapons are evolutionary, not revolutionary,” he said, pointing to history.
“The biggest challenge for the the Navy is that they are currently under-resourced and over-committed. For the last 15 years, the fleet has continued to shrink, with fewer ships, while the requirements and demands from combatant commanders have continued to increase.”
He notes that the Navy’s current fleet of under 300 ships is about half of its Cold War strength.
Navy mishaps explained
Lehman says this has been a major factor in a series of fatal accidents involving Navy ships and planes in the western Pacific this year. A total of 20 US sailors have died in incidents which are stirring doubts about Navy preparedness as military activity surges because of a nuclear crisis with North Korea.
“There has been this constant pressure to do more with less,” Lehman noted.
The Navy, according to Lehman, is also reeling from generational change as older, more experienced personnel are replaced by younger types who are lower on the learning curve. “People are standing watches that they’re not experienced enough to stand,” Lehman pointed out.
He adds that the Navy faces a staff retention problem as budget cuts and other changes make the military a less desirable place to work vs. the private sector. Fewer ships also mean extended deployments, taking sailors away from their families for longer periods.
“This happens frequently between wars. The last time was in the 1970s and we’re reliving that now with the hemorrhaging of the most qualified people,” Lehman said.
“There has been this constant pressure to do more with less”
Navy budget cuts have also led to spare parts and maintenance shortages. “The equipment they have doesn’t work half the time,” Lehman noted. Funds are also needed to reactivate mothballed Navy ships to take the strain off of deployment schedules.
Lehman says current bipartisan support in Congress for increased defense spending is a step in the right direction. The Trump administration has requested US$677.1 billion in total defense spending under its fiscal 2018 budget. Republican and Democratic legislators are expected to dole out billions more than the administration has requested.
“It’s a very serious situation,” Lehman said, but if Washington acts quickly to enact legislation to streamline weapons procurements, raise defense funding, address the spare parts and maintenance issue and reactivate more ships, the former Navy secretary says things will turn around.
“But if we don’t do any or some of these things, then we’re in very serious danger of a Pearl Harbor type of situation,” Lehman warned.
Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times