An EA-18G Growler attached to the Shadowhawks of Electronic Attack Squadron 141 launches from the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan on June 14, 2021, in the South China Sea. Photo: Navy petty Officer 3rd Class Quinton Lee

“There are very few things as expensive as preventing a war. But there are two that are more expensive. One is fighting a war. And the most expensive of all is fighting and losing a war.”
– Army General Mark A Milley

The man who may very well have stopped a disastrous coup attempt on US democracy, hatched by an unhinged former president, was speaking at the Navy League of the United States’ Sea-Air-Space Global Maritime Exposition at National Harbor in Maryland.

And basically, it had to do with the high cost of maintaining US military readiness in the Indo-Pacific and other regions.

Milley, the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized that sea control and power projection are critical to sea power superiority.

“In my mind, no one has ever done it better than the United States Navy, in the history of the world. The same is true for air and space and cyber in our ground forces. In fact, our joint force is second to none.

“Failure to recognize, adapt and capitalize on the changing character of war and failure to see the future produces devastating consequences. And it did for our military.

“It resulted in losses on a scale that’s difficult to fathom that none of us alive today have ever experienced,” he said, referring to the hundreds of thousands of US service members killed in World Wars I and II after the nation was slow to arm – a disturbing historic comparison.

Milley also mentioned future capabilities needed to deter aggressors or to win should deterrence fail.

They include artificial intelligence, long-range precision fires, hypersonics, unmanned systems, biotechnology, 3-D printing and miniature electronic components.

“Those technologies are available right now to every country in the world. There’s nothing particularly secret about many of them.

“And I would argue that the country that masters those technologies … is likely to have a significant, and perhaps decisive advantage,” he said.

An MH-60R Seahawk assigned to the ‘Saberhawks’ of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 77 lands on the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan while conducting operations in the South China Sea. Photo: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Tarleton

While Milley highlighted the importance of the tech gap, Navy Admiral John C Aquilino was more direct about the US military’s growing concerns in the Indo-Pacific during a presentation this week at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

“We certainly view with concern many of the actions that we’ve seen from Beijing,” said Aquilino. “I think what I view with most concern are certainly not the words, but the actions that we’ve seen.”

China’s actions in Hong Kong, for instance, reneging on promises of autonomy guaranteed there under agreement in 1997 with the British government, are of concern, Aquilino said.

“Those actions were completely disconnected from the words from Beijing to adhere to the agreement that was in place,” he said.

“We see similar actions if you were to look at the border of India – we view that with concern. If you look at the actions associated with the Uighurs in Xinjiang, and the violations of what we believe — the dignity and respect and human rights — that we view those actions with concern.”

Also of concern are China’s claims on the South China Sea – which Aquilino said interfere with the well-being and prosperity of all nations in the region.

“We view with concern [China’s] unlawful claim to the entire South China Sea – directly and negatively impacting all of the countries in the region, from their livelihood, whether it be with fishing or access to natural resources,” Aquilino said.

The US has been operating in the Pacific for more than 80 years now, he added, and will continue to do so.

“We will operate here to ensure that freedom of navigation for all is maintained and that we will preserve the stability and peace in the [region’s] shared prosperity.”

The USS America conducts a replenishment with the Australian frigate HMAS Ballarat during Talisman Saber in the Coral Sea on July 27, 2021. Photo: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew Cavenaile

That’s a lot of tough talk, but under the surface, other factors are at play, and they are largely budgetary as well as political.

For example, the Air Force’s F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Warthog, along with the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet, are all 1980s-era aircraft that have seen numerous updates.

New software, weapons, avionics and targeting technologies have made these fourth-generation airplanes relevant and useful.

But according to Kris Osborn at National Interest, these upgrades do not make a fourth-generation plane stealthy, so if the Defense Department’s plans for large numbers of F-35 jets are canceled, the US might find itself being massively outmatched by countries with fifth-generation capable forces – namely, Russia and China. 

Complicating things is the political tug of war between the Pentagon and politicians who are concerned about losing high-tech jobs in their districts.

Rear Admiral Andrew Loiselle, who leads the chief of naval operation’s air warfare directorate, provided the rationale to USNI News for why the Navy wants to stop buying the Boeing-built aircraft.

Super Hornets are “a 30-year airframe at 10,000 hours. So that takes us out to about 2055. And there isn’t a lot of analysis out there that supports fourth-generation viability against any threat in that timeframe,” Loiselle said at Sea Air Space 2021.

Loiselle was expanding on comments made by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday, who has criticized defense lobbyists for pushing Congress to purchase navy platforms the service does not want.

The Virginia Class attack submarine is an advanced stealth multimission nuclear-powered submarine for deep ocean anti-submarine warfare and littoral, or shallow water, operations. Photo: US Navy

“It’s not the ’90s anymore. If you go to the tri-service strategy, we really try to punctuate the sense of urgency that we feel every day against China to move, to move the needle in a bureaucracy that’s really not designed to move very fast,” Gilday said.

“And so although it’s in industry’s best interest … building the ships that you want to build, lagging on repairs to ships and submarines, lobbying Congress to buy aircraft that we don’t need that are excess to need, it’s not helpful.”

Among those lobbyists are House Armed Services Committee tactical air and land forces subcommittee ranking member Vicky Hartzler, whose state is home to the plant where Boeing builds the Super Hornets.

“While the navy’s justification for this decision is to invest in its next-generation aircraft, its Next Generation Air Dominance program has just begun defining aircraft requirements and developing concepts,” Hartzler wrote in a St Louis Post-Dispatch op-ed.

“These Super Hornets are a proven platform that will make up the vast majority of the strike fighter force for at least the next decade. Modernizing in this regard is a positive step. However, doing so without plans to replace the lost capability is why we need the Super Hornet.”

Meanwhile, the navy is assuring lawmakers that its proposed 2022 budget will meet key priorities and that the budget will support its vision, even if not supporting an investment strategy that will meet fleet size goals to counter China. 

William Davies, Associate Analyst at GlobalData, comments: “The budget that the navy have submitted will likely cause friction with Congress, especially because it does not provide details about how ship numbers will change beyond the next year.

“Congress continues to push for the navy to achieve and maintain the 355-ship goal, but recent budgets have failed to show that the fleet is on track to reach it.”

A US Marine with Force Reconnaissance Platoon, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, uses his M1110 semi-automatic sniper system to provide security during a Maritime Interdiction Operation training exercise aboard the USS Germantown in the Philippine Sea on June 24, 2021. Photo: Marine Corps / Corporal Karis Mattingly

According to Naval Technology, the ships the navy are requesting funding for include one Arleigh Burke-class Flight III destroyer and two Virginia-class attack submarines amongst others, and will cost US$18 billion in total.

Additionally, the navy is requesting to decommission seven Ticonderoga-class cruisers as well as three Freedom-Class Littoral Combat Ships — but this is likely to encounter Congressional pushback.

In a statement that cut through the smoke and mirrors, Admiral Gilday dryly observed: “We can’t really afford to have a navy bigger than the one that we can sustain … based on our current budget, I believe the analysis shows we can afford a fleet of around 300 ships.”

According to Forbes magazine, China now has 360 warships in its own navy and looks likely to easily surpass 400 in the near future.

Its maritime aspirations lie mostly close to home, for now, whereas the smaller US Navy is expected to police the entire globe.

If that sounds like an impossible task, it is — the navy’s most recent internal budget guidance suggests the mismatch will be getting worse in the future, as the strategic goal of a 355-ship fleet appears less likely.

President Biden’s first proposed military budget, meanwhile, has drawn concerns from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. He wants to spend US$753 billion for national defense, some US$715 billion of that going to the Pentagon’s budget.

It’s a nearly 2% hike from former President Donald Trump’s final budget as president.

But Democrats say during a time of relative peace, now is the time to shift some of that money to other priorities, such as Covid-19.

Amidst all this budgetary arm-twisting, one small but important fact seems to have been lost in the Pentagon shuffle.

As one former Pentagon wag pointed out, until the US knows what to do about China and Russia’s hypersonic glide missiles — a technological advantage that no doubt worries Milley and the Joint Chiefs — the budgetary shell game seems rather pointless.

Sources: Department of Defense, National Interest, USNI News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Global Data, Forbes Magazine, Naval Technology, SpectrumNews1