China's first domestically made aircraft carrier, the Shandong, has completed regular testing and training missions at sea that focused on actual combat after serving in the People's Liberation Army Navy for 10 months, China Central Television reported. Photo: Global Times

The Cold War gauntlet has been dropped. The ultimate fear scenario, unleashed.

And it’s all about China.

It’s them, or us, says US Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite.

Speaking at an event at the US Navy Memorial SITREP speaker series in Washington, and freshly back from a weeklong trip to the Asia-Pacific region, where he met with local leaders in Japan, Singapore, Guam and Palau, along with sailors and Marines, Braithwaite didn’t hold back.

The Navy and Marine Corps‘ top civilian leader says China poses a greater threat to the US than many Americans may realize, reported.

Worse yet, the US is behind when it comes to competing with China — and it must catch up quickly, he said.

“I think [China] is probably the greatest threat to our country that Americans, writ large, do not understand,” Braithwaite said.

“I literally believe with all my heart and soul — and I can’t stress this any more — what we are seeing emerging is a threat beyond any comparison ever in the history of our country.”

The retired Navy rear admiral and former US ambassador to Norway went on to say that Americans’ basic freedoms could be at risk, reported.

“There could be a day in our lifetime, my dear friends, that we will not have the freedom to speak our language the way that we do, to live with free and open society, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to congregate — all those things can be eliminated.”

China took advantage of all the time the sea services were focused on missions in the Afghanistan and Iraq following the 2001 terror attacks in the US, Braithwaite said.

“We then got caught in a war in the Middle East and that took our attention. We took our eyes off the ball, especially in the Navy,” he said.

The US remains solely focused on its mission to get back on top in the coming decades, he added.

“We can’t say that in America [with] all the domestic quarreling and the divisiveness in our nation right now,” Braithwaite said. “We need to understand that the threat is not from within … It could affect our children and our children’s children and their ability to live in a free society.

“It is an unbelievable threat to our way of life.”

Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite speaks with sailors and Marines while visiting HMS Queen Elizabeth on Oct. 1. UK Royal Navy Photo.

Braithwaite is one of several Trump administration members sharing anti-China messaging, reported.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are in India this week, where they signed an agreement to expand military satellite data sharing between that country and the US, reported.

The State Department called the partnership “critical to the security and prosperity of both countries, the Info-Pacific region and the world,” with Pompeo adding during the trip that the Chinese Communist Party is no friend to democracy or the rule of law.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps is undergoing a force-wide reorganization to counter China’s efforts in the Pacific.

That strategy, which is heavily focused on a return to the service’s naval roots, was in part put to the test this month during operation Noble Fury in which Marines island-hopped, setting up long-range fires while ashore.

He offered some additional details on the Pentagon’s Battle Force 2045 plan for the Navy’s future fleet beyond what Defense Secretary Mark Esper sketched out earlier this month, USNI News reported.

The plan, still on hold by the Office of Management and Budget, calls for a fleet of 500 ships that will include building up to 70 to 80 nuclear attack submarines and anywhere from eight to 11 aircraft carriers.

Braithwaite said that the Navy was set to build additional Constellation-class guided-missile frigates beyond the 20 the service is slated to purchase, USNI News reported.

“We’re looking to build 60 to 70 small surface combatants,” he said. “These are highly capable, sophisticated weapons platforms, projecting sea power around the globe.”

Braithwaite also suggested the Navy could use the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter model to export the frigate design abroad, USNI News reported.

“I have a concept in my head is if we created a Joint Strike Fighter that we could share with NATO allies. Why can’t we create a Joint Strike Frigate? Why can’t we take that same platform and offer it to our allies and partners around the world?,” he said.

Additionally, he suggested creating up to six light aircraft carriers that could be used as a platform for unmanned aircraft, USNI News reported.

“We won the battle of Atlantic on the backs of CVL light carriers that were able to give us [anti-submarine warfare] advantage over the U-boat threat. When you look, and you think about the threat that emanates from the Atlantic today, it’s a little different,” he said.

“The submarine capability of Russia has gotten more challenging, more concerning. Maybe there’s a way that we can shift and perhaps take some of those strike groups and put them where the threat is.”

When asked about the cost, Braithwaite responded: “How much is freedom worth to you? How do we not afford it? We’re going to have to make some tough choices.”