The Rebalance & America's Navy in the Asia-Pacific

5 Questions for Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA)
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Rep. Randy Forbes (left) speaks with Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus (right)

Yesterday, the House Armed Services Committee kicked off its new oversight initiative on the Asia-Pacific rebalance with a roundtable of ambassadors from Australia,  Japan, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Singapore, and New Zealand. Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), chairman of the HASC Seapower subcommittee, is leading the initiative along with Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI).

RealClearDefense interviewed Rep. Forbes about the new hearing series, the progress of the Asia-Pacific rebalance, the posture of the U.S. Navy in the region, and his hopes for a budget agreement to relieve sequestration. 

1. What’s the most important thing you hope the new HASC hearing series will achieve? More broadly, how can Congress work to make the rebalance more effective?

Thanks for the opportunity to answer your questions. And I want to add that it is great to see how RealClearDefense has grown over the last 6 months into a “first-stop” for the day’s best commentary on defense issues.

Regarding the Asia-Pacific Oversight Series, I am excited to have been asked by Chairman McKeon to lead this Committee effort with my friend and colleague, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa. Colleen and I share a bipartisan appreciation for the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific region to U.S. economic, security, and diplomatic interests. We agree with the Administration that our Nation’s long-term interests are becoming increasingly tied to the shifting power dynamics in Asia, but we also know this policy will only be successful with strong congressional input and support.

After a decade of intense focus on the Middle East, we are interested in finding constructive ways to realign the Congress’ oversight of critical policy issues like those we now face in the Asia-Pacific. This Series presents an opportunity to jump-start such an effort and allow us to begin to ask some of the question about our work on this topic that we need to address. What hearings or classified briefings should we be convening that have perhaps taken a backseat in the past several years? What meetings with foreign government or defense officials should we be taking? What legislation should our Committee be considering? And, most importantly from a HASC perspective, what resources will the Department of Defense require to uphold our now seven-decade-old strategy of fostering a stable balance of power in the Western Pacific Ocean that favors the interests of America and our allies and partners?

Amidst this effort, my principal hope is that this Series will not only serve to educate other Members about our long-term interests in the region but will also inspire some of our more junior Members to take up this important cause in the decade ahead. In recent years both the House and Senate have said goodbye to a host of good members who spent decades developing their institutional knowledge of the region. We need to get to work with the business of replacing our talent base with equally engaged lawmakers from both parties who can help set our Congressional agenda for the region going forward.

2. Some critics of the Asia-Pacific rebalance have suggested it is unrealistic and/or unwise given the continued volatility in the Middle East. How do you strike the balance between the two with constrained resources?

It is remarkable to me how sophisticated some of our discussions can be about American grand strategy, yet simultaneously many of the conclusions we draw can be so unsophisticated. Take the “pivot/rebalance” for instance. I think most recognize that the use of these terms in an essay and several speeches in the Fall of 2011 was a rhetorical tool meant to signal to the U.S. government bureaucracy that it was time to think about American interests beyond the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet some of the reactions I have heard hastily jump to the conclusion that we are now “leaving” Europe or “abandoning” the Middle East. This is nonsense.

Of course, the United States never left Asia-Pacific in the first place, but some areas, including important regions like Southeast Asia, did receive less attention than they maybe should have. As for the Middle East - or South Asia, Africa, and Europe for that matter - I continue to believe our government can manage multiple demands at the same time. Our military presence in the Middle East will certainly be reduced as we continue to draw down our presence in Afghanistan. But the Navy’s 5th Fleet isn’t sailing away nor are our diplomatic Country Teams throughout the region closing down. The question, and where we are likely to have healthy disagreements, then should not be if we are staying or going, but what is the proper balance of diplomacy, military capabilities, and alliance commitments in the region that we need to secure our interests there, including deterring Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

3. The Asia-Pacific rebalance is a whole-of-government strategy, but one that is supposed to have a military component. Are you satisfied with the Administration’s current plans for U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific? What would you do differently?

Following on your last question, I really think we need to escape the bumper-sticker debate that we have found ourselves trapped in the last two years and return our attention to the issue at hand - how we can best uphold our long-term strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. In other words, it’s time to stop talking about what the “rebalance” does or does not mean and start focusing on the serious policy questions at hand.

We certainly understand that our Asia-Pacific strategy is multifaceted, which is why we have tried to emphasize that our Series is security-focused only because it is being led by the HASC. We hope this effort inspires other Committees and subcommittees to take up their own oversight agendas of our policy in the region.

We have also urged the Obama Administration to conduct a formal, interagency strategy review for the Asia-Pacific. We believe an Asia-Pacific Strategy Review, in classified and unclassified forms, is required not only so that departments and agencies across the federal government can have the authority to think and act creatively within a robust interagency system, but also to communicate to Congress the breadth of resources that will be required to implement this strategy. This idea now has bipartisan support on the hill and in the think tank community. Unfortunately, the Administration continues to reject the proposal and has instead allowed the rest of the federal government, as well as foreign officials, to try and parse policy from a disparate collection of speeches, interviews and articles. I hope we can build a consensus around this idea in order to advance a whole-of-government Asia-Pacific strategy.

As the security portion of this equation stands, however, I do have concerns about our long-term ability to sustain the type of posture required to assure a stable balance of power in the region. Some have said that “flat is the new up” in PACOM; another way of saying that in a resource-constrained environment the region will be a “winner” because it will be fortunate to retain the same level of resources it currently has. We are going to have to do much better if we hope to sustain a long-term peacetime competition with China while maintaining the trust of our friends and allies in the region. A few new surface combatants, Marines, or bomber deployments will not solve this dilemma. We need to go back to basics, including analyzing potential future scenarios at places like the War Gaming Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. We need entities like the Office of Net Assessment to conduct long-range assessments of China and PLA capabilities, and then asking tough questions about how we can match our enduring strengths against some of their weaknesses.

We will also need to make tough choices about the critical industrial capabilities that we will need to invest in over the next two decades. And we will have to appropriately size our services in ways that meet the demands of the future requirements we set for ourselves, not just hold on to ways of doing business that are designed to keep everyone content with “fair-shares” of the Pentagon budget.

4. Some experts have expressed concern that our surface combatants are lacking when it comes to ship-to-ship combat. Is the U.S. Navy is in danger of being “out-sticked” in the Asia-Pacific? Are there changes you’d like to see in the composition of our fleet to reflect the threats in the region?

As you correctly point out, we are technically “out-sticked” by Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) right now. The Navy’s own ASCM, the Harpoon, is an all-weather, over-the-horizon, anti-ship missile system. Sounds technical, but in fact it was designed in the 1970s and now does not have the range or survivability to operate against more sophisticated anti-surface threats we are seeing from the Chinese PLA Navy today. You would think the Navy would be pulling their hair out asking who allowed this to happen, but it wasn’t until Pacific Command (PACOM) started to raise the issue that the Navy finally got serious and looked to industry for a variety of solutions. My subcommittee is now playing a leading role in reviewing the range of options for a new Offensive Anti-Surface Weapon (OASuW).

Some will argue that the Navy doesn’t need an anti-surface weapon because we have joint solutions such as Naval Aviation or even the Air Force that can get the anti-surface warfare mission done. But the problem is even larger. We have let our ability to conduct sea control atrophy. Sea control is our ability to control important sea-lanes and drive enemy ships from the sea where and when necessary. We need to be working to revitalize these capabilities across the board.

But there is a lesson here. This challenge did not emerge overnight. Instead, it is the result of a two-decade malaise where our Navy won almost complete command of the sea following the Cold War and then failed to keep pace with emerging threats. Instead of carefully nurturing our newfound position, we allowed ourselves to view sea control as an American right, a natural default of the international order that we could take for granted. Now, 21 years after the Navy published a Maritime Strategy that accepted our almost absolute ability to command the sea “in areas where we anticipate future operations,” competitors like the PLA Navy have developed a host of capabilities aimed at denying our command or wresting control themselves. This demands a refocus and reinvestment in a classic, open ocean, blue water naval strategy that can continue to exploit the maritime environment as a maneuver space for our expeditionary forces.

5. What can defense hawks in your party hope for from the budget conference committee? What should they be advocating for?

I have voted against both the original $487 billion in defense cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act and the half-trillion in cuts forced on the Department under sequestration. We have now heard testimony across the spectrum from senior officials in this Administration, from our military leaders, from industry, from think tank experts and from servicemembers around the country that if sequestration cuts are allowed to reign down on the defense budget our national security will be seriously jeopardized. I heard one official describe it quite eloquently - sequestration is attacking our military in ways our enemies could never dream of. Indeed, our Chiefs have now testified that they will not be able to meet the already reduced requirements of our defense strategy if these cuts are allowed to proceed.

Where do we go from here? I think Members from both parties on the Armed Services Committees understand how bad things are going to get if we do not change course. The challenge is that while in the past we entrusted our defense Committees to study and have oversight of these very technical issues, sequestration has made national security policy an issue for the entire Congress to consider. Unfortunately, the Members not on the Armed Services Committees receive less exposure to national security issues, including classified briefings on our military and its readiness.

That is why I consider non-defense committee Members to be the “center-of-gravity” in the sequestration debate and why informing these Members of the implications of these cuts to military readiness and the health of the all-volunteer force should be our central task in the coming months. To help achieve this goal I sent a letter to House leadership requesting a classified briefing on military readiness for ALL House members. This briefing will take place on November 14th with individual member briefings being made available by Mr. Wittman’s Readiness Subcommittee at any time. I hope Members will then be able to approach the sequestration dilemma this winter with a full understanding of the long-term challenges we will be imposing on ourselves should we not find a way to reverse these disastrous cuts. 

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

Dustin Walker is the Editor of RealClearDefense.

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