Navy says China fight is most likely in 2020s, sharpening its focus on readiness


WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy sees the 2020s as presenting the “peak risk” for China making a move against Taiwan, driving the service’s effort to prioritize readiness over fleet size, the vice chief of naval operations told lawmakers Thursday.

Adm. William Lescher told the House Armed Services Committee China clearly remains the pacing threat for the U.S. military.

“The Navy brings a strong view that the decade of concern is 2020 — and in some respects, that’s not a universal view in the department, but we consistently believe and have thought that that’s the decade that we see of peak risk and that we’re going to be ready for,” he said.

His remarks echoed those of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who spoke at a conference in Florida earlier in the day. Kendall told the audience that, “despite current events, the pacing challenge remains China.”

Lescher told lawmakers “the fundamental dilemma of every budget submission” comes down to “current readiness versus future overmatch,” but said concerns about China trying to invade Taiwan have led the Navy to prioritize current readiness.

In its budget request for this fiscal year, the Navy asked to decommission 15 ships, including seven cruisers. This drew the ire of many HASC members, who argued that if the Navy was going to fight China this decade it needed a larger fleet this decade — rather than divesting cruisers today and eventually reinvesting that money into unmanned surface combatants or other technologies still under development.

But Lescher contended there’s no contradiction in the Navy’s fiscal 2022 budget and its expectation that China is most likely to attack Taiwan this decade.

He said the Navy went through a number of analytic efforts to determine the size and composition of the force it would need to defeat China. He said more important than the number of ships is the Navy’s ability to do certain things: send long-range fires down range, maneuver in the adversary’s weapons engagement zone, operate ships without needing frequent resupply in a contested logistics environment, and defend against incoming missiles through hard-kill and soft-kill defenses.

He did not specifically address why cutting the cruisers made sense for a near-term fight, though Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday told Defense News last month the cruisers were eating up time and resources the Navy didn’t have. With the cruiser modernization program facing significant challenges and cruisers experiencing maintenance emergencies during training and on deployment, Gilday said tens of millions of dollars were being rerouted to repair them instead of paying for important fleet training, maintenance and operations.

Rep. Rob Wittman, the top Republican on the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, remains skeptical of the Navy’s approach. In opening remarks at the hearing, he said it was “disheartening” to see a perceived lack of urgency from the Navy in preparing to deter or fight China.

“Last year, the Navy requested only one destroyer, no amphibs, and proposed to retire seven large surface combatants whose firepower exceeded that of the entire British Navy. The Navy provided a ‘30-year shipbuilding plan’ that was only good for one year,” he said. “The Navy submitted a shipyard recapitalization plan with little financial backing. And the Navy continues to underman our surface navy who currently is lacking over 5,000 sailors.”

He noted Congress pushed back against most of these initiatives, but said their very proposal “unsettles our allies and unnerves the industrial base that craves real leadership.”

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