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On October 6, former US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy joined the Atlantic Council to discuss, ahead of China’s Twentieth Communist Party Congress, how the United States should invest in military capabilities in the short term to deter China in the 2020s. Below, edited for length and clarity, is her conversation with Clementine Starling, the deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: We’ve heard CIA Deputy Director David Cohen report recently that Xi Jinping has directed the People’s Liberation Army to be ready to take Taiwan by 2027. A lot of what we’ve been preparing for in the United States is, really, deterrence in the 2030s. So this 2027 timeframe is, obviously, a lot shorter than we’ve been really preparing for. So no one can predict when we are likely to see conflict in the Indo-Pacific and, hopefully, we won’t.
On this timeframe question and the urgency of deterring China, is the United States prepared today to deter China? Are our allies, and, if not, how do we improve deterrence?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: I think the urgency around deterring China’s aggression against Taiwan has really been heightened recently for a number of reasons. I think it’s important to note that Xi Jinping would prefer to reunify Taiwan with the mainland using nonmilitary means. He’d prefer not to risk a war with the United States.
He’d prefer to use political coercion, economic envelopment, other means of pressure, and, for the moment, he certainly has his hands full with his failed COVID policy, frankly; economic downturn in China, which has slowed the growth of the economy, which is always a very threatening thing for the Chinese Communist Party; he’s got the Twentieth Party Congress coming up, which is a moment for consolidating his power and putting new people in place around him.
I think this is not something he’s focused on at the moment. But I do think that the Chinese aggressive overreaction to Nancy Pelosi’s visit there, basically, opened rehearsal of a blockade of Taiwan: Their use of the crisis to set a new normal of a much more aggressive posture of constantly violating Taiwanese airspace, coming across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, and so forth. All of that is a little bit of a warning shot for us to wake us up.
And then you noted that he seems to have now directed the People’s Liberation Aarmy to be ready by 2027 and we’ve seen him call to accelerate the development and fielding of a number of critical systems, particularly longer-range munitions.
And so I think it’s possible that Xi, seeing our investments focused on the 2030s, could say, well, yes, I’d prefer to resolve this without resorting to force, but if I have to use force maybe there’s a window in which it’s better to use force before the Americans and their allies have fully set the region with the right posture and capability mix because I’ll have a better chance of success sooner than later.
And so that, I think, that’s what’s really contributed to this greater sense of urgency. And dealing with that nearer-term prospect requires a set of actions that are somewhat different than what the Pentagon is focused on and sort of fall into a gap or a seam between the longer-term preparations of the service chiefs and the services and the very near-term operational focus of the combatant commands.
But if you look at the two-to-five or two-to-seven-year window, there’s no one in charge of that window and so that’s where I think we need to focus and really ask ourselves what can we do in that window to meaningfully enhance deterrence so that we undermine Xi’s confidence in using force and we avoid the conflict if at all possible.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: You talked about the acceleration in military modernization that we’re seeing in China at the moment, and China invested $225 billion in military modernization in 2022 alone, which is an uptick of 7.3 percent on 2021 spending. So what are the capabilities, the force structure changes, that we’re seeing in China that most worry you and what could those changes potentially indicate for suggesting what a more likely scenario in Taiwan might look like?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: I think there are a couple of categories.
One is this most recent directive to accelerate the development of longer-range systems. The Chinese are trying to develop a set of capabilities that can really hold US forces at risk, not only in the first island chain and even to the second island chain, but even maybe beyond and so trying to push out the threat ring, if you will, and, therefore, force US forces to be based at longer ranges, to operate in a larger contested environment, to be at risk at much greater ranges than has previously been the case. So I think that’s one thing.
The other is anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare. I mean, this is a maritime environment. One of the most critical elements of our force structure and responding to a Taiwan crisis will be our naval forces and the fact that the Chinese are doubling down on capabilities that will try to either hold those forces at risk kinetically or disrupt their operations through electronic warfare, cyber, and so forth. I think those are areas that are troubling, and we need to develop some responses to.
I don’t mean to suggest we don’t have responses; we have lots of responses. But we need to enhance our toolkit.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: So you’ve talked about the significant challenge but also the necessity for the Department of Defense to really dramatically accelerate and scale the fielding of new capabilities. But we all know that kind of there are systemic challenges that exist for the rapid acceleration. The US budget and acquisition system is, obviously, set up to design and build and, really, deploy these systems over decades, not years, so this timeframe question that we’re coming to: How can the US accelerate the development and adoption of new technologies and the concepts really needed in the short term?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: I think there’s sort of three key things that we need to do.
One is it’s sort of the Apollo 13 problem of “Houston, we have a problem,” and they focused on what do we have in hand that we could use in new ways to address the operational problems that we’re having.
I think we need to have that kind of effort on an urgent basis where we look at not buying new things but how do you take existing munitions, put them on different platforms, augment them with some additional capability, use them in a new way that gets a new result. That’s, really, it’s more about creative thinking and putting things together in new ways and new operational concepts to get a different outcome. That’s bucket one.
Bucket two is leveraging commercial systems and accelerating and scaling our adoption of innovative commercial systems. These are off the shelf. We don’t need to spend years writing a military requirement and then more years putting out a bid and more years procuring them. We can take these systems—for example, commercial drone swarms—figure out how to integrate them into our own existing military capabilities in a way that dramatically complicates Chinese attack planning and would dramatically reduce their effectiveness.
And then the third is there are lots of things we have in production. We need to do a survey and take a look, is there anything that if with more resources and more focus we could actually accelerate the fielding timelines or accelerate the scaling of production. There may be some systems in that basket as well.
So this is something we need to do comprehensively and sort of pull out all the stops to see what’s possible.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: You’ve reflected in the past on the value of dual-use technology and looking at the war in Ukraine we’ve seen the heavy reliance on dual-use technology such as commercial satellites, autonomous drones, even kind of cellular communications having a really significant impact on the battlefield. So as we think about what Taiwan needs in terms of modernization and enhancing its self-defense capabilities, is the answer more of an emphasis on these dual-use capabilities and how do we integrate that with more exquisite capabilities that Taiwan and others need also?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: I think it’s a mix. I think the first thing is Taiwan needs a multi-layered defense plan that really leverages asymmetric approaches. They’re never going to match the quantity and just the sheer mass of Chinese capabilities, but they can, certainly, make themselves more of a porcupine and really challenge the Chinese plans and also buy time. The critical thing is buying time for the international community to respond.
So things like sea mines, things like anti-ship and anti-submarine weapons, things like drones that can complicate the execution of operations, things like mobile, air, and missile defenses. The list goes on and there’s been a good amount written about this.
Most of that is going to be defense hardware. Some of it could be augmented with readily available commercial technologies, and the key, though, is marrying that together with new operational concepts and training and exercising so this is fully baked into the DNA of the Taiwanese military.
One of the things that people forget is that in the seven years between Crimea and the Russian invasion in February NATO members had intensive training and assisting efforts with Ukraine to help reorient their whole approach to defending against Russia, and that those years of developing new concepts and training on them and exercising them is part of what has led to the success of Ukraine on the battlefield against the expectations of most.
So we need to be doing that kind of work with Taiwan. That is just as important as the provision of the additional equipment they will need.
The one other thing I’ll note that’s a difference Ukraine has very favorable geography in terms of bordering NATO frontline states and allowing us to have open supply lines in the midst of conflict.
Taiwan is an island. It will be an island that is surrounded by Chinese forces. We have to do a lot more upfront precrisis to stockpile the systems they will need to fend off the Chinese and buy time should it come to that, and we can’t expect to do that once a crisis has started.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: You talked about the security assistance efforts to Ukraine, and I think there aren’t tons of shiny examples of security assistance working really well and maybe part of that is because we haven’t really seen it challenged, tested. But I think what experts have really drawn out from the Ukraine crisis is that a lot of the security assistance programs’ efforts of the United States and European allies was really focused on building up the basics of the Ukrainian military, like, very much focusing on command and control, civil-military relations, and less on the flash bang of kind of training in high-tech systems. Is that a lesson that we could be drawing and applying to the way we approach security assistance with Taiwan and other countries?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Absolutely. I think training the people, developing the concepts, developing leadership down to the field level, robust command and control, the ability to integrate intelligence and have intelligence-driven operations, these are the fundamentals, and you can have lots of shiny objects and an arsenal of all kinds of sophisticated equipment but if you don’t have a force that’s really trained and ready to use that equipment you’re going to have poor results, and I think this is an area where we absolutely need to focus with Taiwan.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: I think we’ve seen a lot of comparisons or people are posing questions of what have we learned from the Russia-Ukraine war, what are the assumptions that we went into the war expecting to see. Like, I think a lot of people expected to see a much more highly technological war and, in some respects, this war has been not that. What are some of the lessons that we are at risk of potentially over learning or applying to different contexts and scenarios like in the Indo-Pacific that, perhaps, don’t apply?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Well, I think everybody was surprised at the degree of the poor performance of the Russian military, from failure to be able to conduct combined arms operations, failure to have strong leadership and command and control in the battlefield, failure to be able to support their forces in the field with logistics and sustainment. The list goes on and I think there’s a temptation because the Chinese military is untested from a combat perspective to sort of say, well, maybe they’re just as feckless as the Russian forces were.
I think that would be a mistake. I don’t think we should say they’re ten feet tall, but they have their own problems and their own challenges, and they are untested. But they’ve also made tremendous strides in the professionalization of the force, particularly over the last decade, and I don’t think we should underestimate them.
I also think that another key lesson has been the strength of the Ukrainian resistance that, I think, surprised everyone, particularly the Russians. I think the Chinese have taken note of that and they’re now studying the question of will the Taiwanese people resist, what if they did resist, what would that mean for our ability to actually take control of the island. And I think it’s an open question and that is something where, again, our assistance needs to not just be military equipment, but to the extent Taiwan needs to develop the organizational infrastructure to enable an effective resistance by the society and sort of plug that into a coherent national plan, again, that’s an area where I know they’ve asked for assistance and I believe that the United States is providing some of that.
But that’s another area we can’t just assume that another society would stand up and resist in a way that has been as effective as what’s happened in Ukraine.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: I think on that point the will of the people is a very important part to resilience and any porcupine defense strategy or concept. So I think it’s interesting as we reflect on kind of this timeframe issue from the perspective of Xi Jinping he has made very, very clear that reunifying China with Taiwan is a legacy issue. But the longer that things go on, I think there is more of a trend within Taiwan to see themselves as being very separate from China.
How do you think Xi Jinping is thinking about the tradeoff between letting so much time go by that, perhaps, there is less support within Taiwan for reunification as younger generations become more and more focused on independence with the need to build up capabilities that the People’s Liberation Army would need in order to, potentially, execute unification.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Yeah. No, I think that this is a central challenge for Beijing, that every year that goes by, there are fewer and fewer members of Taiwanese society who have any interest in being part of the mainland and so I don’t think the political and economic coercion measures that Xi has used or may use in the future are likely to work and I do think that the use of force would be a huge gamble for Xi.
He would be putting his entire position of power on the line because if, in fact, its unprovoked aggression against Taiwan, the US and its allies respond, the international community condemns China, pushes back against China, sanctions China, this could be a very costly and uncertain and possibly failed effort by Xi.
And so I do think that that argues for a different way of thinking about this: Can China think about allowing Taiwan to coexist in a different way for an indefinite period of time rather than trying to force its will on the island because I think that, again, the more time that goes by the more resistance and the higher costs they’re going to face in trying to force the issue.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: So the Department of Defense kind of announced these fourteen critical technology areas for modernization and so it’s a wide-spanning list from kind of quantum to biotech to trusted artificial intelligence.
As we kind of reflect on the potential gaps between what the United States kind of has today to deter China and what it needs to, what do you think those kind of short-term technological big bets should really be?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Well, I like to focus on, start with what are the operational problems that we have to solve to be effective in deterring and, if necessary, defeating Chinese aggression. And so I would start, first and foremost, with how do we build a resilient, self-fueling network of networks that give us robust manned control of communications, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance—C4ISR—in a contested environment, meaning an environment where we’re going to have electronic warfare, cyberattacks, all kinds of kinetic attacks on our systems and, yet, the network of networks is able, like an electrical grid, to reroute traffic and keep the lights on, basically, for our commanders in the field.
So that’s priority number one. So every technology that can enable that should be high on the list.
I think a second near-term opportunity, as I’ve suggested before, is opportunities for human-machine teaming and a lot of people kind of create a false tradeoff, I think, between we’re either going to divest of all of our legacy systems and we create all these new capabilities—we’re going to do one or the other and the answer is that’s wrong. It’s we are going to have a, largely, legacy force for the foreseeable future. That’s just a fact.
The challenge is and the opportunity is how do you marry those platforms with new technologies and capabilities—some defense, some commercial—that are emerging that gives them meaningfully different capabilities. Maybe it buys back range. Maybe it allows us to hold parts of the Chinese force at risk that we couldn’t hold at risk before.
But in that regard, I think very mature defense technologies that are already coming online and commercial technologies that are available off the shelf, particularly unmanned systems that can be operated by a manned platform, because one of the biggest problems we have trying to deter or fight in China’s backyard is they will always have the quantitative advantage. And so leveraging critical systems that can buy us some greater mass in the near term and really complicate the adversary’s chances of success, I think those are both two examples—obviously, not the whole list, but two examples of priority areas where we could make some significant progress in the near term if we focused on it.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: So if 2027 is kind of the pacing marker—right now we’re going through the process of preparing for congressional budget markups—so what do we need to seed in terms of potential language into the 2024 budget markup so that certain capabilities are budgeted for for 2025?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: I would like to see, number one, someone put in charge of this effort in this interim period. As I mentioned before, the service chiefs have the 2030 and beyond perspective. The COCOM has the next two or three years perspective. There’s no one focused on this problem every day, accountable to the secretary every day, for making progress in this area. So authorize someone to be in charge.
Congress needs to give the department greater flexibility for reprogramming resources to get after some of these urgent shortfalls—one example, munition stocks. Anytime there’s any kind of budget pressure, the services will cut munitions buys in order to keep more new platforms in the budget.
That is going to put us in a world of hurt if it comes to actually having to deter or respond to China. And so restocking our munitions, prepositioning, making sure any posture changes that are needed to set the theater.
We really need to be focused on setting the theater for deterrence in that timeframe, and I would love to see Congress give the department both flexibility to move money to do that and also some additional funding to support that.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: I think that’s a very helpful laundry list of things for the administration to be considering, for Congress to be considering.
We have a question from Lieutenant General Michael Groen here. He is a kind of distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council. He says, we are watching as Ukrainian soldiers destroy Russian armored formations with precision shoulder-launched munitions and we’ve seen how unmanned systems can provide small big kills. What do these battlefield trends imply for US defense capabilities and investments, going forward?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: So I think we need to replenish our own stocks of those systems and, certainly, expand some of our stocks of some of the UAV systems, which, frankly, we don’t have in number in our force.
There’s a real industrial base challenge here. Some of the, for example, the Stinger line, the Javelin line, some of these really critical weapon systems are no longer in active production and so we’ve got to figure out, do we try to fund the reopening of those? Do we try to bring forward the next generation that we’re investing in for the future? How do we replenish those systems that we’ve rightly given to Ukraine but is very important for us to replenish our own stocks as well and, oh, by the way, have enough to share with a country like Taiwan.
So I do think in seeing some of the Ukrainian success with integrating some of these systems into their operations and allowing them to be very successful, I’m hoping that planners across the services are looking at some of those lessons and saying, OK, how could we apply that, whether it’s in the European theater in a future situation or the Indo-Pacific theater in a very different situation vis-à-vis Taiwan.
But I’m hoping that we are taking some of those lessons and starting to experiment with new concepts enabled by those technologies.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: OK. So we have another great question here by Michael Spirtas, who’s from RAND. He highlights that the scale of US military aid to Ukraine is very large—it’s $18 billion to $25 billion that has been sent—whereas, in comparison, the State Department has proposed selling $1.1 billion to Taiwan and another initiative that calls for 6.5 billion [dollars]. That’s dwarfed by what has been kind of given to support Ukraine.
So he asks, even if both of those initiatives come to fruition they are just a fraction of what would likely be required to successfully arm Taiwan. How can we incentivize Congress and the Pentagon to take the steps necessary to aid Taiwan?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: I think one of the things that would really help build congressional support for additional assistance and, frankly, build support and trying to get other allies to contribute is a very compelling concept, a fulsome concept of here’s what asymmetric layered defense looks like and this is what we think would give Taiwan the ability to meaningfully contribute to deterrence and also buy time should that deterrence fail and sort of have a holistic approach.
I think if that broader picture were in place and each of the requests kind of made sense as how it would contribute that would go a long way. I do want to give credit to the department. They’ve been spending a lot of time going up to the Hill, showing the members classified war games of what a China-Taiwan conflict could look like to try to create some sense of urgency and some sense that we need to lean forward into this deterrence challenge, and so they’ve been kind of setting the table for this.
Now I think we need to help the Taiwanese come up with a compelling concept that could then be resourced in a comprehensive and coherent way, not just by the United States but by the Taiwanese themselves and then other allies and partners who might want to contribute.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: OK. Speaking of Congress, we have a question here from Russell Brooks from the House of Representatives. He asks: Regarding budgets is it time to provide unequal funding to the services? The Indo-Pacific is a maritime theater, so should we emphasize funding to the Navy and the Marines to counter the pacing threat from China?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: I agree with the premises. We shouldn’t be dividing the pie a third, a third, and a third; or a quarter, quarter, quarter. And now with the Space Force, what are the new fractions? We need to be funding services based on the capabilities they bring to bear against the specific challenges that we face. And, obviously, in the Indo-Pacific, it is a maritime theater where air and naval forces will be predominant. Doesn’t mean that ground forces will be irrelevant, but they will play relatively less of a role.
However, as Russia has reminded us, we need to also invest in making sure that we can deter and respond to aggression in the European theater where ground forces have a very substantial role to play. So we’ve got to focus on a balance.
I don’t think the answer is coming up with an arbitrary fraction. It really is deriving the budget and the resource allocation from the operational needs of deterrence and defeating aggression in these theaters.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: So we have a question from Matt Kroenig, who’s the acting director of the Scowcroft Center here at the Atlantic Council and he says, you’ve now famously said that to deter China we need the ability to sink the Chinese navy in seventy-two hours. Is that the right standard? Can you elaborate on how best we can reach that goal?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: That’s not exactly what I said—but it kind of is.
I was making the point that we want to have a number of arrows in our quiver so that if we really think that Xi Jinping is contemplating aggression against Taiwan unprovoked that we have a number of options to give him pause. One of those options would be to be able to truthfully say are you sure you want to do this. We do have the capacity by putting long-range precision strike munitions on our strategic bombers who can stand off to actually hold at risk any ships in your fleet that are coming across to Taiwan.
And so, basically, are you willing to, potentially, lose a good portion of your navy in the next three days for the sake of attacking Taiwan. It’s really a way of introducing risk into his calculus and causing him to decide, well, maybe not today.
And so it was just one example that came out of a particular experiment where the Strategic Capabilities Office put Navy munitions called LRASMs on Air Force bombers and showed that you could dramatically improve our capability to hold Chinese naval forces at risk.
Now, the interesting follow-on to that is, OK, well, that’s exciting. That’s interesting—maybe we want that tool in our toolkit. So, unfortunately, nobody’s actually funded the purchase of the necessary munitions nor the necessary modifications to the aircraft nor the exercising of the capability.
So it remains theoretically possible but it’s not actually being funded and fielded as a ready capability. But it’s not a magic bullet. It is one example of the kind of thinking that I’m talking about. You take two, the Navy munition and Air Force platform, you put it in together in new way. You get a different result. That’s the kind of thinking and experimentation we need to be doing urgently to meaningfully enhance deterrence.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: Just because you’re raising this and I have not yet asked you about the administration’s new concept of integrated deterrence, which is meant to be kind of getting at some of this of how do we integrate kind of all tools of US national power to really improve our deterrence posture and to do so with allies and partners.
I’d love to hear you kind of reflect on what you think kind of the opportunity for integrated deterrence could be. I mean, it’s a large concept and I think in some ways some folks have asked how is that different from the way we’ve been approaching deterrence in the past.
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Yeah. No, I think integrated deterrence is the right idea and I think, frankly, the focus of the National Defense Strategy, although we haven’t seen the full unclassified document yet, it is absolutely in the right direction.
So integrated deterrence talks about integrating all instruments of national power, integrating allies, integrating and making sure that we can deter across domains whether it’s undersea, on the sea, on land, in the air, in space, in cyberspace.
So, conceptually, it’s absolutely the right way to go. I think the challenge is now how do you implement that in a way that is relevant to the timelines we’re facing and to the challenges that we’re facing, and that’s really where the rubber meets the road is, how do you meaningfully enhance deterrence in this timeframe.
I think another key element of this is the whole question of conceal and reveal. We are a very open book as a transparent democracy, which is generally a good thing. But it also means that potential adversaries and competitors are very aware of what’s in our defense budget.
They watch our experiments. They watch our exercises. They watch our training. They have a sense of what we’re capable of. But there are some things that we’ve managed to keep secret or quiet. There are things that are in development that have not been revealed.
But I think a strategic approach that says of the things that they don’t know that we have when and how should we reveal those to get the maximum deterrent effect and to create maximum doubt and loss of confidence on the part of Chinese decision makers, I think that is a strategic question that needs to be part of the strategy as well.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: And so a lot of what we were kind of talking about and would really need to be kind of preparing for is joint warfare, and joint warfare is hard until you really test it and try to integrate your forces in certain ways. We don’t have tons of good examples of truly testing integration of our joint force.
So what can we do? You mentioned experimentation, the need for kind of creative thinking, maybe novel operational concepts. What can we be doing through operational experimentation and simulations and things today to really test a truly kind of joint combined and multi-domain type of warfare?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Yeah. Well, again, I applaud the department. Particularly, the deputy secretary has put together an experimentation program to encourage this kind of work. The problem is that for people who are applying now with concepts the money doesn’t come until 2024 just because of the slowness of the department, a budgeting process.
So I think we need to be more on an emergency footing. You think about the kind of experimentation that the Navy did with carrier-based aviation in the run up to World War II. Big Navy didn’t like it. Big Navy still thought the name of the game was battleships. But they tolerated it and they let some of their best people spend time on figuring out what carrier aviation would look like and how it could contribute. And thank God they did.
So I think what I’d like to see within each of the services is not only toleration but a real resourcing and protection of taking some of their best and brightest, putting them in a room, and saying: Here are the available tools you can deal with. Here are the operational problems you’re trying to solve, and the only requirement is you do it in a way that breaks current doctrine. And see what they come up with and, really, reward and incentivize that behavior. And have the services bring some of that work forward and then start experimenting, obviously, first at the service level and then at a joint level to see which of these concepts really works, what could be matured and brought into reality within the next five to seven years. That’s the kind of urgent work that is critical.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: We have a question here from Harlan Ullman, who’s a senior advisor here at the Atlantic Council, and he reflects on kind of the number of war games that have taken place, really, kind of assessing a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and he says, China has many alternative routes of attack beyond just an amphibious assault by sea, including seizing small islands, leveraging its economic power, cyberattacks.
He asks, why are US defense planners focusing on a conventional attack scenario, which could easily be prevented through a porcupine defense of Taiwan, and far less on alternative unconventional forms of attacks by China?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: It’s a really good point. We need to look at a range of scenarios because invasion may not be the preferred scenario. It may be blockade. It may be seizing islands. It may be other gray zone tactics that would be more difficult for us to deal with unless we really put our minds to it now.
And so I think you’re raising a really important cautionary point, that we don’t want to prepare for a point solution for one scenario. We need to look at the range of possibilities of how China could coerce Taiwan and really prepare for the broad range and that has to include a whole of government approach because a lot of the response options, a lot of the critical instruments, will not be military in nature. So a really, really important point to keep in mind.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: We have a question here from Douglas Carr from the National Review and he says, legacy Navy ships are likely not ideally suited to a Taiwan battle, that by 2027 they’re all we’ve got. Should we spend more defense money to maintain the present fleet numbers or focus on building an advanced force more tailored to a Taiwan contingency?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: This is the key question, and the truth is we do need to evolve the fleet for the future but in the meantime recognize, as you say, that if this happens in 2027, we go to war with the force that we have—the famous Donald Rumsfeld quote.
And so, therefore, that’s why I’m so focused on, OK, take those platforms. What are the additional capabilities you can put on them? How do we operate them in new ways, operate across joint service lines to have leverage capabilities and a more joint configuration to get a meaningfully different result. That is the challenge.
And so in the near term it’s about integrating those additional capabilities and adopting new concepts. In the longer term it is about evolving the capabilities of the force of the future because we, obviously, need a more robust force for the more contested environments in the future.
These are very tough tradeoff decisions and this is exactly where the budget fights are happening of how exactly do we make those tradeoffs.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: So I’ve not yet asked you any nuclear questions and I’d be remiss not to. So China has really embarked on an unprecedented buildup of its nuclear arsenal and it also seems to be making pretty significant shifts to its nuclear strategy. And, obviously, the United States’ nuclear posture has really been focused on bipolarity with Russia for a long time.
So this reality of, perhaps, nuclear tripolarity dealing with Russia and China as nuclear threats at the same time, what are the challenges that tripolarity poses that bipolarity doesn’t and how do we set ourselves up, especially as the United States is thinking about its nuclear posture, to be able to deter two significant adversaries with growing nuclear arsenals and capabilities?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: So I think the challenge is we now need to not only have a sufficient deterrent to deter Russia but also to deter China. Many people have raised the possibility of trilateral arms control.
I do not think that is in the cards because I don’t think China sees itself as a nuclear power that’s reached parity, and so I don’t think they have any interest in arms control or mutual constraints at this point, and any constraints that we accept with Russia we have to also view in the context of what does it mean for our deterrence vis-à-vis China.
So it makes the calculus of what is enough, what’s adequate as a deterrent for us—it makes it a much more complex multi-variable equation. It also means that we have to really think about how we reassure our allies that in this context that extended deterrence is still viable and so that they don’t have to go nuclear themselves. And this is also true because of North Korea’s aspiration and, we think, nearing the capability of being able to mate a nuclear warhead to an intercontinental ballistic missile.
So the nuclear arena is really very dynamic at the moment and it is changing in ways that are unprecedented, and I think there’s a lot of fresh conceptual work for places like the Atlantic Council to help planners at STRATCOM and elsewhere sort of think through these challenges, particularly when you have two nuclear competitors who have a very different approach doctrinally and are not interested in arms control or constraint or risk reduction at the moment.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: The United States faces a strategic simultaneity problem, as some people have coined it, having to position itself in terms of capability development, force posture, working with allies and partners to deter two adversaries and to potentially fight them at the same time. So all of that, I think, behooves probably a need for more of a reliance on our allies and partners to be able to balance the threats that we face.
So where can allies complement US efforts and where are there, potentially, glaring capability gaps where our allies can plug in? [Look toward] the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy. Those are two big strategic documents that not only our adversaries but our allies look at to understand where US defense planning is going. Are there ways that we could be thinking about doing, really, total defense planning with our allies and partners in a different way, given they have a stake in their insecurity and the security of the Indo-Pacific and Europe?
And the reality is, is that the United States cannot do everything on its own all at once. And so do you have any kind of wisdom for us on how we should be approaching that strategic simultaneity problem and integrating allies and partners more effectively into our defense planning?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: Well, first of all, I think the strategy is right to think about deterrence in more than one region at a time. We are a global power with global interests and we’ve got to be able to deter aggression in more than one place at one time.
I do think allies are critical. In Europe, we have the most developed alliance structure with NATO. I think Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has, ironically, produced more alliance cohesion and determination and political commitment to spend more on defense than anything we’ve seen in years.
So Putin has succeeded in galvanizing NATO and the NATO member states, and so I think that presents a new opportunity for the alliance to come together and do some shared planning to say, OK, given the additional resources that are about to be committed how do we get the most out of every single dollar that is spent; how do we make sure that the sum of what NATO has as an alliance is greater than the parts. And I think that means a lot of transparency, coordination, shared planning, and a little bit of a division of labor in that not everybody has to have every capability in equal measure.
There are some countries that are going to do better really focusing on what they can contribute in some areas, and others will focus on other areas and, collectively, we can stitch that together into something that’s stronger as NATO. So I think that NATO has a huge opportunity here, going forward.
On Asia, it’s different. We don’t have a NATO structure nor do I think we ever will. It’s really a hub and spoke system of bilateral alliances and partnerships and so, first and foremost, the contributions of basing and whether it’s permanent basing or, more likely, occasional visits, places where the US forces can visit, where we can stockpile, where we can preposition, where we can exercise, that’s really, really important to our posture, and then looking on a bilateral basis of where can they invest in capabilities that really contribute not only to their own national defense but also their ability to contribute to collective defense should a Taiwan scenario or something else arise, and I think those are exactly the conversations that are happening with Australia, Japan, with Korea, and other partners in the region.
We can’t succeed without our allies is the bottom line. But it’s a source of tremendous strategic advantage. Now is the time to kind of bring them inside the tent and really be very collaborative in our planning for how we’re going to make sure we get the most out of our defense spending, definitely.
CLEMENTINE G. STARLING: So, to close this out, I did want to give you the opportunity to provide any kind of concluding thoughts that you have. We have a lot of the policymaking community and folks in the media and from Congress tuning in to this event.
So if you were to leave our audience with any kind of one parting thought or priority for what we can be doing in the near term to enhance the United States’ deterrence what would you leave our audience with?
MICHÈLE FLOURNOY: I think this is a time where we need to try to transcend some of our political polarization and realize that this is, truly, a national security moment. It is a moment where decades from now we’ll look back and see that the tectonic plates of geopolitics were shifting underneath us and the world is realigning.
It is a moment where if we want to deter a conflict that is the most likely candidate for becoming World War III we need to make some different investments now and we need to transcend our politics to make sure that we have a very strong hand, a better hand than China but we need to be allowed to play it as best we can to get to the deterrence outcome that we’re looking for because no one wants a war with China.
It would be devastating for all concerned, even the winners, and, certainly, for the global economy and for the security and prosperity of Americans and our friends and allies. So the stakes are really, really high and it’s just a moment where we really need some transcendent leadership to focus on what needs to be done to prevent a conflict of this nature.
Watch the full event
Wed, Oct 12, 2022
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