US Defense Secretary Dr Mark Esper has reaffirmed urgent calls for an increased level of funding for US Navy shipbuilding programs as the naval arms race in the Indo-Pacific continues to gather pace.
Famed American author Mark Twain is credited with what is perhaps one of the most poignant and relevant quotes in human history: "It is said that history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes", and nowhere is this more evident than in the expansive naval arms race reshaping the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
In the lead up to the First World War, the global hegemon, the British Empire, was challenged by the rising economic, political, industrial and strategic might of Imperial Germany, with the naval arms race the major battleground following the launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906.
As we now know, the race between the British Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy to design, build and field the largest, most capable fleet of battleships was one of the major catalysts for the tensions between the two nations that would ultimately culminate in the devastating First World War.
Today, as we look not only across the Indo-Pacific, but more broadly around the globe, many established and rising powers are expanding the capability and composition of their respective naval forces as tensions continue to mount in the post-COVID world.
However, perhaps most concerningly and true to Twain's statement, across the vast swathes of the Pacific Ocean, the world's two superpowers are circling one another, each probing for weaknesses and making move and countermove to assert and in some cases reassert their prominence.
The US, divided domestically and weary from decades of serving as the world's policeman is feeling the weight of its global responsibilities, is being stalked by the 'newcomer'; Communist China, an ancient power, with a proud and storied history, reinvigorated by decades of development seeking to extend its influence and prestige as a truly global power once again.
This economic, political and strategic competition is gaining increasing traction in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly as both sides embark on one of the single largest naval modernisation and recapitalisation programs in history.
China's rapid recapitalisation and modernisation has seen the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) evolve into one of the world's most powerful and modern navies, capable of global reach on an increasing scale, with aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, amphibious warfare ships and next-gen large surface combatants all on the shopping list.
Across the Pacific, the US Navy is struggling to modernise, repurpose and recapitalise a range of Cold War-era platforms that have formed the backbone of the world's most powerful navy since the end of the Second World War, increasing budget overruns, delivery delays and a focus on land-based wars in the Middle East have seen the fleet fall by the wayside.
Subscribe to the Defence Connect daily newsletter.
Be the first to hear the latest developments in the defence industry.
Despite efforts by US President Donald Trump to establish a 355-ship fleet capable of reaffirming America's global responsibilities and reassuring allies in the face of growing great power tensions, funding has been hit and miss, with many large-scale programs absorbing much of the additional funding promised.
This is particularly relevant as Beijing's own fleet strengths continues to grow. In response, US Defense Secretary Dr Mark Esper has redoubled calls for more funding to directly support America's naval modernisation.
More funding is necessary
Reaffirming America's naval primacy is a critical component of maintaining the balance of power, security and stability in the Indo-Pacific, particularly as Beijing becomes increasingly confrontational and bold in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Dr Esper expanded on comments made earlier in the year, telling Rand Corporation experts: "We will build this fleet in such a way that balances tomorrow’s challenges with today’s readiness needs, and does not create a hollow Navy in the process. To achieve this outcome, we must increase funding for shipbuilding and the readiness that sustains a larger force. Doing this, and finding the money within the Navy budget and elsewhere to make it real, is something both the Navy leadership and I are committed to doing."
This call is backed by a record US$207 billion request for the US Navy as part of the Pentagon's 2021 budget request as the force pivots to respond to key capability developments by Beijing, namely, a powerful fleet, paired with shore-based, long-range anti-ship missile capabilities designed to blunt traditional US and allied advantages and, critically, to keep the US Navy’s powerful carrier air wing out of striking distance.
All of this aims to keep pace with Beijing's ambitions to build a fleet of 425 ships by 2030, making it the world's largest navy, expanding its already formidable and growing global reach. In response, Secretary Esper's calls for increased shipbuilding funding builds on traction in congress.
Echoing calls for an increase to the US shipbuilding enterprise in response to the rapidly evolving geo-political reality, US Republican senator for Georgia David Perdue jnr has recognised that the US can and should be doing more to keep pace with its rivals.
"Right now, the world is more dangerous than any time in my lifetime. The United States faces five major threats: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorism. We face those threats across five domains: air, land, sea, cyber space and space," Senator Perdue explains.
"The US Navy is one of the most effective tools we as a country have to maintain peace and stability around the world. Today, however, the Navy is in danger of being surpassed in capability by our near-peer competitors. On top of that, our competitors are becoming even more brazen in their attempts to challenge our Navy every day.
"To address this, the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act called for a 355-ship Navy to be built as soon as possible. This effort is extremely expensive: $31 billion per year for 30 years. This can’t be funded by new debt. We must reallocate resources to fund this priority.
"It is unclear at this time whether we will be able to achieve this goal, however, because Washington politicians have failed to provide consistent funding to our shipbuilding enterprise over the years.
"The last two Democratic presidents reduced military spending by 25 per cent. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did it. Also, since 1975, Congress has only funded the government on time on four occasions due to our broken budget process. As a result, Congress forces the military in most years to operate under continuing resolutions, which further restricts the Navy’s efforts to rebuild."
This echoes concerns regarding the potential for a 'hollow force'. Secretary Esper speaking to DefenseNews articulated his commitment and ambitions to getting the US Navy to a 355-ship fleet by 2030, with an aim to achieve a much higher number in response to the mounting global challenges.
"To me that's where we need to push. We need to push much more aggressively. That would allow us to get our numbers up quickly, and I believe that we can get to 355, if not higher, by 2030," Secretary Esper said.
There needs to be a balance of platforms to meet challenges
Expanding on these earlier comments, Secretary Esper's commitment to increasing shipbuilding funding, billed as a "game-changer" comes as a result of an internal 'Future Naval Force Study', led by Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist, which focused on balancing traditional platforms and next-generation technologies and platforms to better meet the operational requirements of the US Navy.
Esper explained, "[The report envisioned fleet will include a number of unmanned systems that will] perform a variety of warfighting functions, from delivering lethal fires and laying mines, to conducting resupply or surveilling the enemy. This will be a major shift in how we will conduct naval warfare in the years and decades to come.
"In short it will be a balanced force of over 350 ships, both manned and unmanned, and will be built in a relevant time frame and budget-informed manner."
Again, looking to comments made by Esper earlier in the year, Secretary Esper posited some interesting ideas for consideration, leveraging advances in unmanned and autonomous/semi-autonomous ships to ensure the US Navy meets its force structure obligations.
"What we have to tease out is, what does that future fleet look like? I think one of the ways you get there quickly is moving toward lightly manned [ships], which over time can be unmanned," Secretary Esper added.
"We can go with lightly manned ships, get them out there. You can build them so they’re optionally manned and then, depending on the scenario or the technology, at some point in time they can go unmanned."
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.
In response, 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".