A year ago, on March 9, Indo-Pacific Command Admiral Philip Davidson warned us that the danger – in terms of a Chinese attempt to take Taiwan – was closer than most thought. “Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions,” he said, adding that he believed Beijing would move against the island “in this decade, in fact, within the next six years.”
Remarkably, this warning from the man who would have been tasked with leading our forces in the defense of Taiwan was largely ignored. A week later, even as China conducted threatening air operations around Taiwan and Russia launched what would turn out to be a year-long military build-up along the Ukrainian border, a bipartisan group in Congress pleaded for a reduction in US defense spending of up to 10%.
Many in Washington have settled into the unfortunate mindset that US economic clout alone is significant enough to deter Chinese and Russian aggression. Russian President Vladimir Putin refuted this idea on February 24 when he invaded Ukraine. But the fact is, for more than a decade, China and Russia have worked to insulate themselves from sanctions against the United States. We will see how effective Moscow’s efforts have been in the months to come. Meanwhile, Beijing is closely watching the unfolding of the Western sanctions strategy and no doubt deciding what steps to take to protect itself from this strategy.
Another disturbing fact is that American power – both economic and military – is relatively weaker than it was during the Cold War. Now that great power competition has resumed, Washington will need to manipulate the levers of national power – diplomatic, economic, and military – more cohesively to provide effective deterrence to our competitors.
What is needed most is a realistic and coherent strategy, especially to control China. Perhaps that’s what the Secretary of Defense means when he talks about the administration’s “integrated deterrence” strategy, which has yet to be unveiled. Whatever that means – and its effectiveness has certainly not been demonstrated with respect to Russia – no deterrence strategy can succeed without critical investments in hard military power.
This is especially true when it comes to China, our strongest adversary by far. Backed by an economy that can sustain it in a long war, China has diligently built a modern military that now eclipses our ability to control and win conflict in Asia. Given Admiral Davidson’s warning, and given that it takes many years to build modern military warships and develop our withered industrial capabilities, our leaders must act now to prepare for a coming conflict. for 2027.
So what exactly will it take?
On the one hand, realistic investments that build our military capability to the levels needed by 2025, not a generation from now. Senior Navy officer Adm. Mike Gilday, recently called for growing the current fleet from 295 ships to over 500 ships by 2040. Not fast enough. The danger is more pressing. The distant timelines indicate a lack of urgency unless the rest of this new fleet is delivered this decade.
Second, the nation must earnestly develop an industrial base capable of building and, in the event of a years-long war with China, repairing damaged ships. We must also ensure that the country has the necessary navigation and resources to support a wartime economy. Today, we are heavily dependent on merchant ships and foreign crews. To appreciate the magnitude of this dependence, consider this: Every year, thousands of commercial ships call at US ports, delivering what it takes to keep our lights on, our cars fueled, and food on the table. Yet there are only 157 American-flagged, crewed merchant ships that we could rely on in wartime.
Third, training and exercising the fleet is as essential to success as increasing the number of ships and industrial capacity. No matter how advanced a fleet’s warships or weapons may be, they will only be effective if they are well equipped and trained in combat. The Navy needs more training resources so it can conduct more fleet-level exercises and operational experiments — like the UxS IBP 21 manned and unmanned team fleet experiment that took place. held last April.
Strengthening the homeland to support a wartime economy and bolstering our military is the surest way to deny victory to China and prevent a costly war. The window for taking our defenses seriously is closing fast.
• Brent D. Sadler is Senior Researcher for Naval Warfare and Weapons Technology at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.