WASHINGTON -- In this era of great power competition, the Defense Department has prioritized China, then Russia as its top strategic competitors, the defense secretary said.
"These revisionist powers are using predatory economics, political subversion and military force in an attempt to shift the balance of power in their favor — and often at the expense of others," Dr. Mark T. Esper said today at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, California.
The secretary mentioned steps the department is taking to counter these peer competitors, per the National Defense Strategy, which contains the three key pillars: readiness and modernization, strengthening relations with allies and partners, and reform. He touched on each of these pillars and then focused on China and the maritime domain.
The Indo-Pacific region is the priority theater, Esper said. In the face of destabilizing activities from China's People's Liberation Army, particularly in the maritime domain, the United States must be ready to deter conflict and, if necessary, fight and win at sea.
The Chinese Communist Party intends to complete the modernization of its armed forces by 2035. Beijing is also investing in long-range, autonomous and unmanned submarines, which it believes can be a cost-effective counter to American naval power.
"I want to make clear that China cannot match the United States when it comes to naval power. Even if we stopped building new ships, it would take the PRC [People's Republic of China] years to close the gap when it comes to our capability on the high seas," Esper said.
"Nonetheless, we must stay ahead. We must retain our overmatch. And, we will keep building modern ships to ensure we remain the world's greatest Navy," he said.
To compete in a 21st century, high-end fight, America will need a future fleet that optimizes the following operational attributes:
Distributed lethality and awareness;
Survivability in a high intensity conflict;
Adaptability for a complex world;
Ability to project power to control the seas and demonstrate presence; and
Capability to deliver precision effects at very long ranges.
This future naval force will be more balanced in its ability to deliver lethal effects from the air, from the sea and from under the sea. This fleet will be made up of more and smaller surface combatants; optionally manned, unmanned and autonomous surface and subsurface vehicles; unmanned carrier-based aircraft of all types; a larger and more capable submarine force; and a modern strategic deterrent, Esper said.
This fleet must be affordable and must be manned by a highly skilled and ready workforce and supported by a robust shipyard and industrial base, he added.
Esper said that earlier this year, he asked the deputy secretary of defense to lead a Future Naval Force Study tasked with assessing a wider and more ambitious range of future fleet options.
The Navy, Marine Corps, Joint Staff, Office of the Secretary of Defense and outside advisors conducted a comprehensive, cost and threat-informed review and analysis, he said.
First, they examined the current fleet. Second, they explored future force options needed to retain dominance in 2045 given China's likely modernization plans. And, third, they war-gamed these options, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of each combination of ships against different future mission sets, Esper said.
This week, Esper said he met with those involved in this study to discuss their findings.
"The results are a game-changer that reflect a good deal of serious work and effort based on facts and data. This study will serve as our guidepost as we decide on, program and build our future fleet and conduct follow-on assessments in select areas," he said.
"In short, it will be a balanced force of over 355 ships — both manned and unmanned — and will be built in a relevant timeframe and budget-informed manner. And 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," he said.
To achieve this outcome, the department will increase funding for shipbuilding and the readiness that sustains this force, he said.
As an example, earlier this year, the Navy granted a $795 million contract to purchase the first ship of a new class of guided missile frigates — with an option to purchase nine more totaling nearly $5.6 billion. This is the first new, major shipbuilding program the Navy has sought in more than a decade, Esper pointed out.
Also, the Navy is making good progress on unmanned surface vessels and unmanned undersea vehicles, Esper mentioned. Earlier this month, for example, the autonomous, unmanned surface vessel Sea Hunter prototype completed operations with the destroyer USS Russell, demonstrating various aspects of manned and unmanned teaming. "These efforts are the next step in realizing our future fleet, one in which unmanned systems 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."
Also, the Navy and Marine Corps will employ novel concepts such as distributed maritime operations and littoral operations in a contested environment, which will modernize the way we fight as they enable our future joint warfighting doctrine, Esper said.