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Congress debates how to best deter China – beyond nuclear weapons

Air Force pararescuemen assigned to the 83rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron work with members of Army Task Force Brawler, flying the CH-47F Chinook (Source US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Gregory Brook)

Amid growing concerns in US Congress about America’s capacity to deter an increasingly assertive China, Congress has kicked off a review of how the US can respond to the rising super power and the disruption its actions in the Indo-Pacific bring to the region – with the focus firmly on a conventional approach.

Amid growing concerns in US Congress about America’s capacity to deter an increasingly assertive China, Congress has kicked off a review of how the US can respond to the rising super power and the disruption its actions in the Indo-Pacific bring to the region – with the focus firmly on a conventional approach.

Despite impeachment proceedings in Congress, fiery US President Donald Trump has sought to capitalise on a surging US economy to pass yet another increase for the US defence budget – expected to see the Pentagon receiving US$738 billion for FY2020 with a strong focus on countering the increasing great power competition between the US and China. 

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While the figure is less than the US$750 billion President Trump called for earlier this year, the US$738 billion figure will still see a major ramp up in the modernisation, recapitalisation and expansion of the US military at a time of increasing great power rivalry. 

Ranking Republican law maker on the House appropriations defense subcommittee Ken Calvert welcomed the US$20 billion increase over the preceding 2019 budget, explaining: "The bill increases funding for operations and maintenance, and procurement for the next generation of equipment to ensure our men and women in uniform always have the tactical advantage."

This was reinforced by Senate appropriations committee chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama, who stated that the deal would see "robust investment in rebuilding our military and secures significant funds for the President’s border wall system".

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However, Congress has recognised that the maritime domain is emerging as a key focus of the tactical and strategic competition between the US and China. 

Setting the scene during the House armed services committee, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, former Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell director Andrew Hunter and retired Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt warned that China is on track to outpace America technologically and at sea.

Credible deterrence in an age of great power competition

Today, naval power remains one of the central pillars of any nation's strategic policy and the world's premier navy, the US Navy, is increasingly facing the very real limitations of US economic, industrial and political will at a precarious period in global history. 

While President Trump has been rather inconsistent on the subject, he remains committed to achieving a 355-ship fleet, capable of guaranteeing global maritime security, freedom of navigation and stability in the face of increased peer and near-peer competitors.

Explaining this further, acting secretary of the US Navy Thomas Modly recently made comments identifying that while the Navy would require more money, it needs to provide a clear, 10-year plan for getting to the touted 355-ship fleet. 

"The path to 355 is a challenging path because, frankly, it’s a mathematical issue. I mean, if you’re going to grow the force by 25 to 30 per cent, and we started at 275 [ships], you need to have a top line that matches that. We had a big bump [in funding] in the first year or two [of the Trump administration], but … we’re sort of flat going forward," acting Secretary Modly explained during an interview with American radio host Hugh Hewitt. 

It is important to note that when faced with choosing between funding the US Navy's existing force structure, new build and acquisition programs and maintaining current readiness, US Navy leadership elected to focus almost entirely on maintaining the readiness of the current fleet. 

This resulted in a series of dramatic cuts to shipbuilding programs, including five of the 12 planned Flight III Arleigh Burke Class destroyers being cut from the Pentagon’s five-year budget projections, including two from 2021; a slowdown of the buying profile of both the FFG(X) future frigate and the Block V Virginia Class submarine buying profile.

Additionally, this cut program saw one of each the FFG(X) and Virginia Class being cut from the program, while also accelerating the retirement of the first four littoral combat ships, and accelerating the decommissioning of five cruisers and three dock landing ships.

Acting Secretary Modly explained the rationale behind this rather drastic approach, telling Defense News in early-December 2019, "We definitely want to have a bigger Navy, but we definitely don’t want to have a hollow Navy either ... These are difficult choices, but the requirement to get to a bigger fleet, whether that’s 355 ships or 355-plus, as I like to talk about, it is going to require a bigger top line for the Navy."

Despite this, Under Secretary Flournoy argues that numerical targets like the vaunted 355-ship target were outdated, suggesting that locking down a hostile Chinese fleet in a delaying action could draw on a range of co-ordinated platforms in the near and long term. 

This could include a range of long-range, anti-ship cruise missiles on low-observable aircraft like the B-2, F-22 and F-35 aircraft operating as part of a multi-domain combat force, moving towards a distributed network of long-range artillery and hypersonic missiles, enhancing the strike range of the US Navy and combined US Armed Forces in the region. 

"I’m not suggesting we sink the Chinese fleet in one day. What I am suggesting is that if we could say to them: ‘If you undertake this act of aggression, you are putting your entire fleet at risk immediately; do you understand?’ That might be pretty good for deterrence," Under Secretary Flournoy said. 

This draws on concepts of distributed lethality and enhanced multi-domain battle drawing on the strengths of each of the various US Armed Forces, including the US Army, Navy, Air Forces, Marines and now Space Force to develop and implement distributed deterrence capabilities. 

Conventional deterrence 

This combination of individual formations, from the disparate services with unique capabilities, provides an interesting means of responding to the increasing conventional peer-competitor capabilities being fielded by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). 

Drawing particular focus of Congress was the recent commissioning of the PLAN's next-generation guided missile destroyer, the Type 055, which is designed to fulfil carrier strike group escort duties, along with increased surface and anti-submarine warfare roles. 

The commissioning of Type 055 is just the latest step in the nation's pursuit of a credible, global power projection focused strategic deterrence force with a focus on a fleet of 420 ships by 2035 – in comparison to the US Navy's planned global fleet of 355 ships. 

Indeed, Beijing is already laying the foundation for a capable expeditionary force that includes marines, large amphibious ships, carriers and logistics vessels, which could be fielded throughout the Pacific and along Africa’s littorals.

RADM McDevitt explained this, telling the committee, "China is certainly not pre-eminent in the eastern Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea or the Atlantic Ocean – but it is working on it. China now has the second-largest blue water navy in the world."

Allies like Japan and Australia have a role to play in enhancing the conventional deterrence response to China's growing capacity for regional dominance, with RADM McDevitt suggesting Washington lobby both Canberra and Tokyo to play a great role in countering China's anti-access/area-denial forces (A2/AD) network.

Additionally, this would see both nations playing host to an increasing the number of US nuclear attack submarines deployed to the region from as little as eight to as much as 15, with four of those based in Japan.

Your thoughts

As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.

Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate. 

Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.

To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.

As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep.

It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.  

There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" – "If you want peace, prepare for war". 

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Congress debates how to best deter China – beyond nuclear weapons
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