Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson spoke recently about the need to protect American military advantages, but appears unconcerned by Chinese spying on naval exercises.
Adm. Richardson said the ability of the U.S. military to deter conventional conflict is eroding as the result of foreign nations’ advances in intelligence-gathering and command and control of their forces.
“The trends here are really alarming, staggering,” he told a conference the Center for Strategic and International Studies on countering coercion in Asian seas.
Advances in space communications and surveillance and other high-technology capabilities are shifting the era of competition for precision-guided weapons to “an era of competition for decision superiority” — what the admiral called the OODA loop: observe, orient, decide and act. Satellite and sensor advances now allow foreign adversaries to observe in ways they were unable to do in the past, and that has leveled the playing field with U.S. forces, he said.
Massive amounts of data are raising new worries about deception — that foreign states will manipulate data to create false decisions and actions by military commanders.
Adm. Richardson offered a sports analogy: “So you’re preparing your team for a game across the cross-town rival on Saturday. What does it mean when you invite that cross-town rival to come and watch all your practices? I mean, how do you prepare for that game? It’s got to be a fundamental shift. But I think that that’s where we’re headed.”
However, the admiral apparently does not intend to apply this analogy to the United States’ chief rival in Asia: China.
Asked by Inside the Ring if the comments about not inviting your rival to watch your practices meant China would barred from joining the upcoming international naval exercise, Rim of the Pacific 2018, Adm. Richardson’s spokesman demurred.
“He was not advocating for or against inviting the opposition to attend our practices,” Cmdr. Chris Servello said. “What he was saying is that it’s inevitable that our training will be more and more closely observed as sensors proliferate. We won’t have a choice, they’ll be watching.”
Cmdr. Servello said inviting China to participate in RIMPAC, as the biannual exercises are called, is “a totally different issue” and he then insisted the U.S. relationship with China is complex, without explaining why.
“We can craft international exercises like RIMPAC, the world’s largest multilateral maritime exercise, and it is a venue for wider inclusion, not narrower, to reinforce where we agree and reduce risk where we don’t,” he said. “All the while, we can be smart about what gets openly revealed.”
Days after the comment, the Navy announced China would be invited back to RIMPAC next year when navies from 25 other nations will take part. The exercises are held in Pacific waters near Hawaii and southern California.
China in the past has abused its participation in the exercises by sending intelligence-gathering ships to spy and learn what it can about sensitive U.S. and allied naval maneuver warfare capabilities it may encounter in the future.
Russian exercises eyed
As political Washington remains focused on conspiracy theories related to the Trump administration’s ties to Moscow, U.S. intelligence agencies are closely monitoring Russian military forces preparing for upcoming war games.
The war games set for this September called Zapad 2017 (“West 2017”) are especially rattling nerves in Eastern Europe, where allies fear the exercises could be used as a pretext for the next phase of Russian military aggression.
Zapad exercises have been held annually since the 1970s and have included tests of both advanced conventional and new strategic nuclear weapons. Troop levels have reached 150,000.
The exercises are showcases for Western intelligence services to gauge growing Russian military capabilities. In recent years, the exercises have involved the use of both cyber warfare operations as well as information warfare operations — influence and political operations.
U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports say the upcoming Zapad war games will take place in Belarus and western Russia — including Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania where Moscow recently deployed nuclear-capable Iskander short-range missiles.
The pending exercises also come amid European jitters following President Trump’s visit to Europe last week. During the trip, he scolded NATO allies for not paying more toward their own defense. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the visit that Europe must do more for its own defenses.
The administration is requesting an increase in funding this year for the European Reassurance Initiative of $4.8 billion for troops, equipment and exercises aimed to strengthen deterrence against a Russian attack.
Polish Col. Tomasz K. Kowalik, with the Polish Defense Ministry, and Dominik P. Jankowski, with Poland’s Foreign Ministry, recently stated that Russian has ordered over 4,000 rail cars to move troops for Zapad.
“Based on this data, it is not difficult to calculate that the planned train wagons could deploy up to two Russian armored/mechanized divisions (around 30,000 military personnel) to Belarusian territory,” they wrote recently in the National Interest.
The two Polish officials then warned that with the missiles and troops already in Kaliningrad, “Russia, if it so decides, can — at a minimum — easily exert significant pressure on its neighbors with little or no warning.”
Moscow may be preparing for a new military drive against the West, they added.
“Having created such a military build-up under the pretext of such exercise, Russia could launch a limited or provocative military hybrid operation to see what happens and further test the waters on NATO’s eastern flank, or in Ukraine, where the Russo-Ukrainian conflict remains in full swing,” Col. Kowalik and Mr. Jankowski wrote.
Missile defenses unable to strike shifting targets
The successful test of a long-range anti-ballistic missile interceptor against a target missile on Tuesday was a step forward in bolstering the limited U.S. strategic defenses against the growing threat of missiles from North Korea and Iran. The kill vehicle or last stage of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), as the long-range interceptors are called, struck a simulated intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warhead in space over the northern Pacific near Alaska.
“The intercept of a complex, threat-representative ICBM target is an incredible accomplishment for the GMD system and a critical milestone for this program,” said Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. Jim Syring. “This system is vitally important to the defense of our homeland, and this test demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat.”
However, military experts say current GMD missile defense system, made up of satellite sensors, targeting sensors and 44 GMDs in California and Alaska, remains vulnerable to a new and emerging threat: high-speed maneuvering strike vehicles.
The entire U.S. missile defense system relies on targeting warheads that travel in predictable flight paths. Once those warheads begin maneuvering, U.S. defenses currently are incapable of hitting them unless the missiles can be attacked shortly after launch.
For diplomatic reasons, successive administrations have avoided all mention of using current missile defenses against missiles fired from China and Russia. The reason is both nations’ missile arsenals could overwhelm the limited defenses.
President Trump, however, has vowed to develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system and that has raised hopes of expanding the current systems to counter Russian and Chinese missiles, something both nations apparently are anticipating.
China has conducted six tests of a maneuvering high-speed strike vehicle, known as DF-ZF, capable of defeating U.S. missile defenses. Russia is also working on hypersonic missiles — those with speeds up to 7,000 miles per hour and the ability to maneuver to avoid interceptors.
Concerned about the gap, Congress recently required the Missile Defense Agency to set up a special office dedicated to countering hypersonic missile threats.
“North Korea and Iran are increasing their missile technology at an alarming rate even as Russia and China continue developing capabilities designed to exploit the gaps and seams in our missile defense architecture,” said Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican and one of Congress’ most vocal supporters of missile defense, who sponsored the legislation requiring a hypersonic missile defense program.
“Now is the time to invest in missile defense,” he said in response to the recent test.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.