In his valedictory testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, the outgoing Indo-Pacific Combatant Commander, Admiral Phil Davidson, stunned his audience with his observation that China might seek to achieve its ambition of integrating Taiwan with the mainland “in the next six years.” While others had discussed China’s abandonment of Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of hiding the ancient nation’s capacities and biding its time, the ascension of his successor, Xi Jinping, assertive military strategy backed by “wolf-warrior" diplomacy, no senior policymaker, least of all the military regional combatant commander had ever been so bold or time specific regarding China's military ambitions. It appears that the one area of bipartisan foreign policy consensus finds its center on the U.S. approach to China both nation’s political parties seemed to accept Davidson’s threat window, with Biden administration senior officials electing to continue both the rhetoric and policies of their more bellicose predecessors from the Trump administration.
Surprisingly, however, the Biden defense budget appears to ignore Davidson’s warning. Smaller than the last Trump budget when adjusted for inflation, the new spending plan, in the near term, shrinks those forces that would be expected to confront China in the Indo-Pacific region, cutting 17 bombers from the Air Force and fifteen Navy battleforce ships, including seven Ticonderoga class cruisers, while adding no replacement bombers and adding only eight new battleforce ships, with half of those falling in the logistics or auxiliary categories. The administration can and does justifiably trumpet its near record-breaking investments in research and development of new advanced capabilities, investments that have been long needed. The nation needs new defense related communications, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, hypersonic, unmanned, and directed energy systems to remain competitive in the future battlespace. However, these investments appear to have come at the cost of divesting older platforms and the capacity they bring to the fight today to invest in future capabilities, dis-investing to investing, and therein lies the problem.
Admiral Davidson’s comment reveals that a threat window has opened regarding China and U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific region. It's probably open just a crack at this moment because China wants a successful winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022 and all the global prestige and money that generally accompany those events. This is probably the main reason that the People’s Republic of China President recently advised his followers to shift their tone with foreigners away from “wolf warrior” rhetoric towards words that convey a more “credible, lovable and respectable” China. However, once the Olympic torch is extinguished in late February, the Davidson Window will fly fully open and Xi Jinping, suddenly freed from diplomatic goals, will be able to pursue political and military ambitions once again, much like his ally Vladimir Putin did following the 2014 Sochi games when he invaded and occupied portions of Georgia. The bottom line is that the Chinese military threat to vital American national interests in the Indo-Pacific region is proximate in terms of time and very real in terms of China's military capabilities and capacity.
The Chinese Navy is already acknowledged as being larger than its American counterpart. The great Asian continental power has also spent two decades investing in anti-access/area-denial weapons to push both the American Navy and Air Force back far from its shores. Therefore, the U.S. military cannot afford to underinvest in both capabilities in terms of new, cutting edge weapons systems to counter and roll back China's recent investments and capacity in terms of ship and aircraft numbers. To fail to do the former risks losing to China in the future. To fail to do the latter risks losing to China during the present "Davidson Window" of geostrategic vulnerability.
The solution is rather straightforward and has already been discussed elsewhere. In late 2018 the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission recommended a steady three to five percent increase in defense spending year over year for the foreseeable future to maximize the nation's ability to invest in new research and development while simultaneously adding ships and aircraft to the current force. From the perspective of growing the Navy in the near term to deter Chinese aggression, such funding would allow the sea service to add new ships while also extending the lives and modernizing older ships currently within its inventory. Such investments will enable the Navy to grow quickly even as it modernizes. Admiral Davidson did the nation a great service by being frank with his assessment of the Chinese threat timeline. We should heed his warning and grow both the defense budget and our Navy to meet China’s immediate and long-term challenges.
Mr. Hendrix is a vice president of the Telemus Group and a retired U.S. Navy captain.