What’s wrong with this picture?
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that China has accelerated its timetable for taking control of Taiwan, and the Navy’s top officer said that a military campaign to achieve that outcome could begin as early as this year.
But the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April that “we are trying to modernize the force for the future operating environment—2030 and beyond.”
What’s wrong with the picture is that the Pentagon’s modernization plans are strikingly out of sync with the timeframe in which Beijing might present Washington with its biggest military challenge in decades.
By the time the joint force begins receiving a new generation of weapons designed for great-power conflict, the Taiwan show could be all over.
Last week’s comments aren’t the first time the Pentagon has heard such assessments. The previous head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, warned in 2021 that China might attack Taiwan within six years. That estimate was so widely noted in military circles that it has come to be called the “Davidson window.”
However, there is little sign that the warnings have provoked a sense of urgency within the Pentagon, at least as far as force modernization is concerned.
In fact, the Navy has repeatedly delayed plans for a new class of light amphibious warships designed to cope with threats in the China littoral, and in its 2023 budget request seeks to cancel one class of large amphibious warships while stretching out procurement of another to twice the optimum duration.
The end result of these machinations is that the Navy would possess far less amphibious lift than the minimum the Marine Corps says it must have to meet warfighting requirements. The first light amphib wouldn’t reach the force until 2028—after the Davidson window for preparing to defend Taiwan has shut.
I have previously expressed doubts about the light amphib concept, but it is the centerpiece of Marine plans for deterring and/or defeating China.
You don’t have to be an admirer of current Marine Corps plans to see the larger meaning here. In funding its shipbuilding priorities, the Navy is behaving more like a bureaucracy than the lead service charged with blunting Chinese aggression in the Western Pacific.
Consider the example of its next-generation destroyer, designated DDG(X) in naval nomenclature. The service says it needs a bigger hull than the existing Arleigh Burke class in order to host exotic weapons like high-energy lasers and hypersonic missiles. That’s debatable, but even if it were true, the plan is to fund the lead ship of the new class in 2030—again, outside the Davidson window when Chinese action against Taiwan is most likely.
Meanwhile, the service plans to reduce the size of the fleet—a force that has hovered at just below 300 warships for 20 years—to around 280 as a way of saving money for the gee-whiz weapons of the future. One way it proposes to get the ship numbers down is by retiring old amphibious vessels for which no replacement will exist. It says it wants to study what the right number of amphibs is before buying more.
Things aren’t all bad in the Navy. Submarine production is robust and the service is migrating to a more capable carrier air wing as the lead ship in the Ford class joins the fleet. But it would be a stretch to say current shipbuilding plans reflect a sense of urgency about the near-term threat that China presents in the Western Pacific.
The Heritage Foundation probably got it right when it described the U.S. Navy as “weak” in its most recent index of military power. Washington spends more than any other country on its navy, but China is building warships at a much faster pace and has the advantage of preparing for war on its own doorstep. America must deter or defeat the threat thousands of miles from home.
And then there is the Air Force, which Heritage describes as “very weak.” The air service really is at a low ebb in terms of numbers, a fact traceable to underfunding of modernization by every administration since the Soviet Union collapsed. That’s why many of its bombers and tankers are over 50 years old.
The service is now trying to catch up by modernizing every major type of aircraft it operates at the same time. But when it comes to exhibiting a sense of urgency about the China threat, the Air Force too seems a bit too sanguine.
Consider the Air Force variant of the F-35 fighter, the version that has proven popular with overseas allies and partners. The Air Force said for years it would buy 60 of the stealthy aircraft every year in the current decade, but once President Biden took office it decided that it only needed to buy 48 in 2022 and then requested a mere 33 in its proposed 2023 budget. That number is not expected to rise appreciably until the 2026, and maybe not then.
Why is the Air Force buying so few F-35s? Because it says it doesn’t want to spend too much money retrofitting the latest technology upgrades onto aircraft already in the fleet. It would rather wait until the upgrades can be installed as the fighters are being built.
Here again, we see a military service behaving like a bureaucracy rather than a community of warfighters confronting imminent danger. It only costs $2.7 million to retrofit the first increment of upgrades, called Technology Refresh 3, onto each existing F-35, and the process requires a mere 14 days of downtime.
So, to save an amount of money equivalent to 3% of the original production cost for each fighter, the Air Force plans to limit purchases of its most capable tactical aircraft. It will have to wait until 2027 to begin acquiring the full panoply of upgrades (beyond the Davidson window for influencing events in the Western Pacific), but don’t be surprised it that too becomes an excuse for depressed levels of fighter procurement later in the decade.
Meanwhile, the service proposes to retire many hundreds of aged aircraft in the years ahead to free up money for new systems that won’t reach the force anytime soon. You’d think that with the China threat looming, it might consider equipping some of those older aircraft (like the B-1 bomber) with long-range antiship missiles, but so far its head appears to be elsewhere.
Of course, all of these decisions are driven by the availability of funding, so if poor choices are made then the blame ultimately lies with Congress and the White House. But Air Force and Navy leaders aren’t straining to warn Washington’s political leaders how current plans could lead to American defeat in a war with China.