- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Jan. 5, President Obama unveiled a new defense strategy in general terms, de-emphasizing nation-building land wars such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan in favor of a strategic shift that focuses on East Asia and the Western Pacific. This budget-driven strategy has shortcomings and will result in increased risk for our nation.

The Obama administration and Congress agreed last year on $450 billion in military budget cuts through 2021. This was on top of $350 billion in weapons programs already cut. The military services face the potential of another cut of $500 billion to $600 billion starting next January under “sequestration.” Needless to say, such cuts would be devastating to our military. As past administrations have done, Obama officials are trying to capitalize on an illusory “peace dividend,” which history has shown to be shortsighted.

The strategy glosses over the fact that while Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East are still in a state of flux, Islamists have clearly achieved control through the democratic process. Furthermore, there is no resolution to Iran’s drive to achieve a nuclear weapon capability. Iran’s latest threats to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz cannot be dismissed and must be factored into any threat equation. Nonetheless, a plan to address China’s unprecedented, rapid military expansion affecting the strategic balance in the Western Pacific is a necessity.

Since 2002, China has been using our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to promote its own long-term objectives. Clearly, one of their objectives is to weaken our alliances with Japan and South Korea as well as our mutual defense treaty with the Philippines and our mandate to protect Taiwan. China in the near-term wants to dominate the Pacific out to the first island chain, which includes Taiwan and Japan and, eventually, the second island chain, which includes Guam. Such aggressive action by China had led some analysts to believe nations in the Western Pacific are slowly being “Finlandized.” They have a point.

China’s rapid military buildup goes well beyond what they claim to be necessary for defense of the homeland. As part of its naval expansion program, China conducted the first sea trial of its aircraft carrier, which it purchased from Ukraine in August and probably will not be operational for another two years. By 2020, however, China could have a constant presence of three to four carriers in the Western Pacific.

China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) is clearly designed to target our aircraft carriers and other major ships. Furthermore, there are alarming indications that China may be equipping a new submarine class with ASBMs, which raises the potential for major U.S. ships to be “bracketed” with both land- and sea-launched ASBMs. This capability is part of their anti-access/anti-denial strategy, which is designed to prevent the United States from coming to the aid of Taiwan and other allies in a crisis situation.

Statements by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy during her visit to China in December that we do not consider China an “adversary” do a disservice to U.S. objectives. Of course, China has become an adversary by its own conduct and threatening military expansion program, which clearly targets the U.S. Navy. The Chinese should be told in unambiguous terms they are on a dangerous course that could lead them into unchartered waters.

As a stopgap measure, the Navy is developing long-range drones to launch from carriers, but this will not be sufficient for “forcible entry” in any direct conflict. Unfortunately, the restarted DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers do not have the capability to counter China’s new ASBMs. The Advanced Missile Defense Radar is key to providing such a capability, but its initial operational capability is estimated to be 2021 or 2022. The Navy plans for it to be incorporated in the preferred surface combatant for the future, the upgraded DDG-51 Flight III hull. Notwithstanding a recent Government Accountability Office report, which severely questioned the limited analysis used by the Navy for selecting the DDG-51 hull for the future, the fleet needs a ballistic missile defense capability now.

Putting aside the future hull’s design, the ship that currently has the basic capability to counter an ASBM threat - be it launched from land or a submarine - is the Zumwalt-class destroyer. Using more than $11 billion in research and development, it was built from the keel up to be stealthy and is the only hull designed with the space, weight, cooling and power margins sufficient to grow efficiently into a ship providing a simultaneous ballistic and cruise missile defense capability in any environment. Its dual band radar will need to be restored with modified computer codes to support ballistic missile defense. Its missile launch system will also need to be modified to accommodate the SM-3 missile.

Regretfully, a decision has been made to limit the production of this 21st century surface combatant to only three ships, because of cost considerations. The Navy has embarked on a questionable shipbuilding program, the Littoral Combat Ship, which is fitted with mission modules that have yet to be successfully developed. With current and future budget cuts, the Navy cannot afford to waste taxpayer dollars on a ship that essentially has no real war-fighting capability. The Littoral Combat Ship program should be canceled as soon as contractually feasible. The funds saved should be invested in modifying the current three Zumwalt-class destroyers to provide the necessary “gap filler” ballistic missile defense capability. There are less expensive, proven designs that could meet the Navy’s need for low-end, multirole ships.

Retired Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.