The Interview: Congressman J. Randy Forbes

(THE DIPLOMAT 07 MAY 13) … Zachary Keck

The Diplomat’s Zachary Keck spoke with United States Congressman J. Randy Forbes R-VA, chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and Co-Chairman of the Navy-Marine Corps Caucus.

You recently wrote a piece for Real Clear Defense that some have characterized as sort of a “foundational piece” for a “broader thesis” you are working on explaining why the nation should prioritize a robust navy. I was hoping you could give us a brief outline of what this thesis is?

Thanks for inviting me to again offer my thoughts with The Diplomat. My staff and I often refer to the website for fresh commentary on everything Asia.

For the past decade we have asked our Army and Marine Corps to play a disproportionate role fighting two land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These men and women have done everything their Nation asked of them to help keep us safe here at home. As I look out over the next decade and consider the re-rise of China and its activity in the Near-Seas, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the global economy’s dependency on commercial and energy shipping, and other flash-points for instability like the Horn of Africa, I am struck by the maritime character of these issues. That is why I believe that in the decade ahead we will ask our sea services (Navy and Marine amphibious forces) and projection forces to make their own disproportionate contribution to upholding American interests and providing for our common defense. To achieve this, it will require not just a bigger Navy but also the right force structure, including more amphibious ships, attack submarines and new payloads and capabilities that will help us conduct sea control missions and project power into A2/AD environments.

I look forward to beginning a national discussion about this subject. I also look forward to challenging the Department of Defense and the services about some of the assumptions that have driven our defense investments over the last two decades – has our Navy grown too small for the missions we ask of it? Have we allowed our sea control capabilities to atrophy? Have we over-invested in short-range tactical fighters at the expense of long-range power projection?

Under the Pentagon’s proposed FY 2014 base budget, the Navy would get the largest share out of any services at about 29.5 percent, followed by the Air Force at 27.4 percent and the Army at just under 24.6 percent. In your opinion, is this a good ratio or should certain services be getting a greater share of the budget?

Much talk about budget percentages has percolated in recent years as the defense budget has begun to decline. From my perspective, I would never argue that one service or another should receive a specific ratio of the defense budget. This approach would be antithetical to good strategic planning. Just the same, I think that allocating equal 1/3 shares of the defense budget to the Army, Navy, and Air Force also makes little strategic sense. If America is going to posture its conventional and strategic forces to maintain a competitive advantage in the decade ahead we are going to have to do a heck of a lot more than striving to achieve budget fairness.

In terms of your question, first, I would add briefly that I hesitate to talk strategy in terms of percentages. If the Air Force had 50% of the budget it would matter little if the defense budget had fallen so low we couldn’t afford Air Force priorities, let alone those of the other services, And second, I think we really should be starting to answer this budgeting question by asking what we anticipate the national security environment will look like over the next 5, 10, 20 years. From there we must ask what America’s defense priorities and objectives will be and decide what combination of military capabilities are best suited to support these ends. While strategy is about ways, means, and ends, too often we dictate an arbitrary mean, or a budget figure, as the starting point and then let that drive the ends we desire. If we believe, as I do, that the future will demand more from our Sea Services and projection forces, then we will have to strongly consider resourcing these efforts at a level commensurate with the contribution they will play. I look forward to this discussion and debate as the Department concludes its Strategic Choices and Management Review and moves ahead with the 2014 QDR.

In March it was announced that the Defense Department had invited China to participate in the RIMAC exercises in 2014. Then, last month, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey visited China in an effort to restore military-to-military ties. I’m curious to know your views on mil-to-mil ties with China. Do you see them as valuable and important as many others have claimed?

Military-to-military engagement with the PRC is important. Bottom line – building longstanding relationships between senior DoD officials or military officers and their Chinese counterparts will help keep the back lines of communication open and avoid potential miscalculation in the future.

But we should also be asking the extent to which these ties are valuable and pay dividends for the United States. Are the Chinese interested in doing joint counter-piracy missions because they share our interest in building relationships, or because they just see the training value in working with the U.S. Navy up close? I think we need to be wary of engagement with China (especially military exercises) when it is done solely for its own sake.

While I do not have a problem with China’s participate in RIMPAC 2014 as long as our allies and other regular participants have been briefed and are OK with it, I will be watching very closely to ensure their participation is consistent with the statutes of the 2000 NDAA.

In your view what is Congress’s role in the Asia Pivot or Rebalance, and is it fulfilling this role?

The rebalance, to me, is nothing more than a renewed emphasis on a now seven-decade old strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Putting a bumper sticker on it may serve a valid interagency purpose of drawing more bureaucratic attention to the issue, but I don’t find anything particularly new about the Administration’s approach. That said, I do think refocusing our time, energy, and resources back to this critical region was necessary, and came not a moment too soon as China’s growing assertiveness was beginning to dominate the discourse.

What is Congress’ role in continuing to support our long-standing policy of engagement, presence, and maintaining a favor balance of military power in the region? Very simply, continuing to do exactly that. The pillars of the regional liberal order we have sustained over the last seven decades- economic growth, stability, and the expansion and consolidation of democratic governments – should be the same ends we strive for over the next seven decades. Congress has an important role across the spectrum, including trade policy, diplomatic outreach, alliance management, and sustaining our defense posture and engagement. Given my position on the Armed Services Committee, I am focused on the balance of military power and the continuation of regional stability. In this area I have concerns, many of which have been exacerbated in the last decade by the combination of the PRC’s rapid military modernization and our own focus of resources elsewhere. While I don’t think our Asia-Pacific strategy is necessarily about China or its military growth, it is China’s military and perceived intentions that concern me the most in the security realm. Therefore, our strategy in the region could be adjusted to focus more on China if Beijing’s decision-making demands it.

Correcting this military shortfall begins with admitting it exists. We have started to do that with the development of new concepts like the Joint Operational Access Concept and setting up the AirSea Battle Office to manage that limited operational concept’s implementation. Now we must take a hard look at the platforms, payloads, training, posture, and alliance questions related to supporting these concepts and our alliance commitments. As I mentioned earlier, there may be areas where we need more capabilities, better capabilities, or different capabilities that we haven’t consider before. We are going to do the analysis and look at all of these questions over the coming year.

We should also consider the broader security question in the context of our alliances and other relationships in the region. What new can these alliances offer that contribute to regional security? How can they be updated to meet the demands of the times? What can the United States provide its partners that will help deepen our relationship for the future?

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