On Oct. 21, the incoming commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Robert F. Willard, made a little-noticed but astonishing accusation to reporters in Seoul:
“I would contend that in the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity every year. They’ve grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities.”
Very politely, the head of PACOM has accused the American intelligence community (IC) and, by extension, its political leadership, of failure to estimate correctly the capabilities and capacity of a nuclear-armed dictatorship with a history of hostility against all of its neighbors and the United States. According to the admiral, this failure has gone on for 10 years.
This sort of public bomb-throwing is very rare in Washington, especially on China issues. An informal survey of China specialists couldn’t come up with a similar instance of a major official accusing the IC of 10 years of incompetency. At least not in public. To put it in perspective, suppose the head of the CIA told a pool of reporters, on the record, the following: “Every year for the past 10 years or so, the United States Navy has mistaken China’s military capabilities and capacity.” The Navy would be highly offended, as it should be, and its friends in Congress would be demanding investigations.
As Adm. Willard’s accusation has percolated through the China-watching community, the first question that inevitably comes up is, “Was this cleared by the Obama administration or was he flying solo?” Anyone who knows isn’t talking. What is known is that the admiral has a deserved reputation of competency and a low threshold for tolerating fools.
Then the larger question comes up: What does Adm. Willard know now that gives him the confidence to say 10 years of intelligence reporting on the Chinese military is wrong? Do we have a new source of intelligence on the People’s Liberation Army that throws what we thought we knew out the window?
And how big a failure is he implying? Have the IC’s estimates been off by 10 percent? Twenty-five percent? More? He didn’t say. “Capability and capacity” implies something more than mere numbers, so he may be indicating that the PLA’s secret Assassin’s Mace superweapons and tactics program may be further advanced than the IC thought. Also, thanks to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission’s new study of Chinese cyberwarfare, we are aware of increasing dangers there. So, whatever the IC’s errors have been, they probably are pretty big.
If we’re talking about a substantial failure over a significant length of time, and we clearly are, have the oversight committees of Congress been briefed? In this case, they would be the House and Senate Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees as well as the Defense Appropriations subcommittees. Potentially, millions of taxpayer dollars have gone down the drain producing very expensive misinformation.
During the 1970s and 1980s, there were rigorous disputes both inside and outside government on the size of the Soviet defense establishment. When the Soviet Union fell, we discovered that all of our estimates had been far too low by multiple factors. Fortunately, there were minimal deadly consequences from our underestimates.
Since the very early 1990s, there has been a similar debate among China specialists, again both inside and out of government and mostly in private, over the level of Chinese military capabilities and capacities. Adm. Willard has performed an important service by identifying the IC’s underestimates of Chinese military capability and capacity before it is too late.
William C. Triplett II is a former chief Republican counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.