Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s resignation under pressure from the White House is a drama largely written of Navy Captain James Fanell’s firing early in November.
Hagel told interviewer Charlie Rose in the third week of November that budget cuts are threatening American military capability. In August, Hagel said publicly that ISIL is “beyond a terrorist group. … This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” This was not welcome news to President Obama, whose cuts are on target to reduce defense budgets by well over a trillion dollars. Moreover, the president had famously downplayed ISIL as “junior varsity.”
The Obama Pentagon had welcomed China’s military as part of an annual trans-Pacific naval exercise earlier this summer. Captain Fanell, a senior intelligence officer with the U.S. Pacific Fleet, also paid with his job for stating that Chinese policy is becoming increasingly aggressive as it seeks political and military objectives in the South and East China Seas.
Put Hagel’s warnings (and those of his Obama-appointed immediate predecessors) about a hollow U.S. military together with Captain Fanell’s caution about Chinese aggression in the West Pacific, and uncomfortable questions about the substance of the U.S. “pivot to Asia” emerge.
Twenty years ago, the U.S. naval fleet numbered about 400 ships. About 100 of these were deployed around the world, leaving the balance in training to relieve those on station, as well as in intermediate maintenance and long-term overhaul. Today, the U.S. fleet numbers fewer than 300 ships — but still deploys about 100 ships around the world at any given moment.
This decreases surge capacity, increases the length of time sailors spend at sea, raises the cost of maintenance, and — in the meantime — points toward a substantially smaller fleet in the future.
A more robust defense budget would relieve this deteriorating condition, and stiffen the spine of the pivot that is intended to bolster U.S. presence and influence in Asia.
Another action that the administration could take to assure allies and strengthen America’s role as a beneficent force for stability in Asia would be to acknowledge Taiwan’s central role in the island chain that brackets China’s Pacific coast. Taiwan, in fact, is at the geographic center of the island chain that extends from Japan to the Philippines. Taiwan is living proof of the Chinese people’s ability to prosper and govern themselves democratically. It is also America’s 11th largest trading partner, and a strategic center of gravity in deterring the aggression that Captain Fanell pointed to earlier in the summer.
China has a large arsenal of missiles directly across the 100-mile strait that separates the mainland from Taiwan, and adds about 100 per year. Still, an aerial bombardment, even one that can saturate missile defenses, cannot take and hold land. To achieve this requires ground forces and occupation, and to land such ground forces requires successful amphibious operations.
China would have to move large numbers of men and volumes of military hardware across the Strait of Taiwan, land them in the face of determined opposition, and conduct a campaign of conquest. One critical deterrent that would make Chinese leadership consider whether they want to accept this risk is Taiwanese submarines. Subs would seek to deny to potential invading Chinese forces the access they need for successful amphibious operations. In military terms, this is called a strategy of access denial.
Ironically, this is the same asymmetric strategy that China seeks to use to prevent U.S. forces from approaching close enough to the Asia mainland to protect its treaty allies such as Taiwan, and if necessary to project power in the region.
But Taiwan’s submarine force is made up of four old submarines. They are not capable of threatening an invading amphibious force, or of preventing a Chinese blockade of Taiwan. Taiwan has been trying for 20 years to purchase submarines or the designs for them. There have been no takers.
The possibility of Chinese ire has stopped those who manufacture submarines from selling them or their designs to Taiwan, which is now weighing the possibility of building its own submarine. This would be expensive and time-consuming, but Taiwan’s experience with electronics and surface shipbuilding suggests that the learning curve, while steep, would be manageable.
But is this the best solution?
The U.S. does not make the diesel-electric boats that Taiwan needs. U.S. subs are nuclear-powered. They are designed and built for long subsurface passages and operations around the world. But the American attack submarine fleet is planned to shrink over the next 15 years from 55 to 41 boats. The U.S. can use all the help it can get during that period, and before the U.S. Navy’s attack sub fleet is planned to start growing again with modern boats.
Taiwan is in exactly the right place to help. The Taiwanese navy’s success in nurturing its aged and tiny current sub fleet is convincing evidence that an addition of modern submarines will be maintained and operated effectively.
America’s interest would be served by helping Taiwan purchase the diesel-electric boats it needs by providing designs and weapons systems. Alternately, the U.S. could encourage other allies that manufacture exactly what Taiwan needs to help support the collective security of the world’s democracies by allowing submarine sales to go through.
China, as Captain Fanell tried to alert the U.S, is acting with increasing boldness and assertiveness in the region. Declining U.S. defense budgets don’t offer much promise for deterring Chinese behavior. Concerted allied action does. American assistance to Taiwan in the form of submarine technology would add materially to the stability on which Taiwan’s security, America’s continued role as the Pacific power, and the growing commerce and trade with Asia depend.