Five Questions: Rep. Randy Forbes

Military Rebalance to Asia in Jeopardy
Five Questions: Rep. Randy Forbes
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This is the first in a series of interviews with defense policymakers on important national security issues. With Secretary Hagel's recent visit to Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, RealClearDefense reached out to the HASC Seapower Chair Rep. Randy Forbes to discuss the Asia-Pacific rebalance, Navy shipbuilding, and more.

The Pentagon has acknowledged that it is willing to do less in SOUTHCOM and AFRICOM for the Asia-Pacific rebalance, but has refrained from saying that about CENTCOM. Can the U.S. achieve a significant military pivot to the Asia-Pacific without reductions in the U.S. presence in the Middle East?

To be frank, I am afraid the U.S. will not be able to achieve a significant military “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific now, let alone simultaneously supporting our security demands in the CENTCOM region. Resourcing our longstanding Asia-Pacific strategy in a manner that continues to ensure a favorable balance of power to the rules-based order is a difficult task, especially given the severe defense budget reductions under sequestration. These cuts have hobbled the military’s ability to conduct long-term planning, further complicating the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. Nevertheless, the task of rebalancing militarily has started with the development of new concepts like the Joint Operational Access Concept and setting up the AirSea Battle Office to manage this important, though limited, operational concept’s implementation. Now we must take a hard look at the platforms, payloads, training, posture, and alliance questions related to supporting these concepts and our alliance commitments. There may be areas where we need more capabilities, better capabilities, or different capabilities that we haven't consider or that our planning assumptions have previously led us to a different conclusion on. For instance, we may need to take a hard look at our investment in short-range airpower (both Air Force and Naval) at the cost of investments in more long-range strike platforms.

But, to answer your question more directly, our combined presence in the Middle East will in fact be reduced. This is just the fact of withdrawing large numbers of ground forces from both Iraq and Afghanistan over a three year period. But if the last decade in the region has been marked by our heavy commitment to counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the real consideration we must now assess is the security role the U.S. needs to play in the decade ahead. What is the shape of our continued counterterrorism mission as the nature of the Al Qaeda and the Islamist threat has shifted in the Middle East and North Africa in recent years? What is the proper balance of military capabilities, regional posture, and alliance capabilities in the region required to deter Iran while keeping a credible threat of military action on the table should Iran continue with its nuclear program? The answers to these questions should help to shape our decisions in the decades ahead. Unfortunately, budget-driven exercises of the past four years are answering these questions for us before we can consider the larger security priorities the U.S. faces.

What are your views on mil-to-mil ties with China? Do you see them as valuable and important as many others have claimed? What about China’s participation in RIMPAC in 2014?

On the whole, I believe military-to-military engagement with the PRC is important. Bottom line – building long standing relationships between senior DoD officials or military officers and their Chinese counterparts will help keep the back lines of communication open and avoid potential miscalculation in the future.

But we should also be asking the extent to which these ties are valuable and pay dividends for the United States in our relationship with China. Are the Chinese interested in doing joint counter-piracy missions because they share our interest in building relationships, or because they just see the training value in working with the U.S. Navy up close? I think we need to be wary of engagement with China (especially military exercises) when it is done solely for its own sake. Too often I believe we allow ourselves to think that these exercises in themselves are net-positives.

I do not have a problem with China's participation in RIMPAC 2014 as long as our allies and other regular participants have been briefed and are supportive of it. However, it is still unclear to me if they were briefed about the invitation or if they are in fact comfortable with it. Furthermore, I will be watching very closely in the year ahead to ensure their participation is consistent with the 12 operational areas that were prohibited for mil-to-mil contact between the Department of Defense and PLA in the FY2000 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

What will it actually take in terms of resources to achieve a 300-ship Navy in a reasonable timeframe?

There are two important questions we need to be asking to unpack your question. First, will the Navy be able to meet its own plans? The fact is that the Navy’s new shipbuilding plan sets a requirement for 306 ships, but the Navy readily admits it will not even meet this goal until 2037, when the President will be 76 years old. But for the Navy to meet this goal it will also need a much larger investment in its shipbuilding account. By our estimates, the Navy has a shortfall of roughly $4 billion over the coming three decades. If we are going to get to 300 ships then at a bare minimum we will have to choose to fill this shortfall with further defense dollars in the years ahead.

The second question we need to be asking is if the Navy’s planned fleet size and composition can actually meet the global demands on our fleet. Just three years ago a bipartisan, independent panel of defense experts called for a Navy of almost 350 ships. I also continue to see reports that the demand for Navy presence has only continued to rise while our fleet has only shrunk further. But while we certainly need more ships, we also need to build a Navy with the right ships. Quantity and balance. It is an obvious point, but simply growing the fleet to a larger size with small surface combatants or auxiliary ships is not sufficient. We must prioritize growing our attack submarine, destroyer, and amphibious fleets, while also sustaining a fleet of 11 carriers. These platforms are the core workhorses of the battle force fleet. In addition, we need to invest in new platforms that can enable the Navy’s core missions of sea control and power projection. Developing a new offensive anti-surface weapon (OASuW) with more range is a critical priority for enabling effective, credible sea-control in the future. To sustain its power projection capabilities to more confidently operate in the anti-access/area-denial maritime zones of the future, the Navy should also focus on extending the range of the carrier air wing (CVW) with unmanned strike platforms, invest in the the quantity and quality of its stand-off weapons, and build a balanced amphibious fleet capable of meeting the requirements we set for it.

What was your reaction to President Obama’s counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University?

Quite simply, I believe the United States is engaged in an ongoing struggle against Islamist terrorism and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The President was correct that the nature of this conflict has shifted as our enemies have been put off balance and been forced to adjust.  He is also correct that all wars must come to an end. Unfortunately, it takes two willing parties to end a war and our enemies have shown no desire to relent in their campaign against U.S. interests, our friends, or our allies. For as long as American interests are threatened by Islamist terrorism, the U.S. must maintain an aggressive, proactive approach to counterterrorism that seeks to stop potential attacks beforehand rather than merely reacting after the fact.

How do you see the internal debate among Republicans about issues of foreign policy and defense? Does the apparent conservative comfort with sequestration suggest that defense hawks are now a distinct minority in the party?

The modern Republican Party has a proud history of forward-leaning internationalism in global affairs. This stretches back to leaders like Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and is rooted in an understanding that our global role has created a world that allows America to be more secure, prosperous, and free. This does not and has never meant that we should act as the world’s policeman. But what it does demand is a sustained commitment to a robust defense, strong alliances, and confident diplomacy.

Sequestration has threatened the very fabric of our national security strategy. I would not, however, say the Republican Party has become comfortable with sequestration or that it has accepted it by any means. To the contrary, this year Rep. Paul Ryan’s House Budget Committee produced a budget that rejected sequestration cuts to our defense budget. While I believe personally that previous cuts have been far too deep and non-strategic in nature, the House budget was a strong statement across the GOP that further cuts are unacceptable. That said, I do believe there is a strong need to continually infuse our Conference with an appreciation for the indispensable role the United States plays in the world and the true requirements for supporting our national security strategy. That is why I am planning to begin a series of dialogues for Members with various government and non-government officials to come together in an off-the-record setting and begin a conversation about Congress’ Constitutional requirement to provide for the common defense. Through this mechanism I hope we can instigate a pattern of continuing education about American foreign policy that will strengthen the foundation of our great Nation.

Dustin Walker is the Editor of RealClearDefense.

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