In 1949, as Americans began to recognize the peace they had fought for in World War II was being threatened by Stalin and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), a small group of senior Navy officers openly challenged Department of Defense civilian leaders, the Army, and the Air Force over the strategy for defeating a Soviet invasion of Europe. The immediate issue was principally the prioritization and allocation of budget resources.
This challenge was called “The Revolt of the Admirals.” The “revolt” was an effort to oppose the Air Force’s preferred wartime strategy of relying on strategic bombing, specifically the B-36 heavy bomber, to deliver nuclear weapons against Soviet targets and thus deter or halt a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. These Navy officers openly challenged the decision of the secretary of defense, whom they viewed as biased against the Navy, to cancel the U.S. Navy’s first “supercarrier,” the USS United States (CVA-58). These principled Navy officers believed this decision was not only harmful to the Navy’s morale but, more importantly, was also detrimental to U.S. national security.
This history matters because, in May, the Congressional Research Service published an updated edition of its report, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress.” Most importantly, this report again included the matrix labeled “Numbers of Certain Types of Chinese and U.S. Ships Since 2005,” herein known as “The Matrix.”
What “The Matrix” reveals is a glaringly obvious strategic trend line—where the U.S. Navy is declining, while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is rising. Over the course of the past 18 years, the U.S. Navy went from having a 76-warship advantage to today having a 133-combatant deficiency, based on similar ship and submarine comparison.
Today, the PLA Navy is the largest in the world, as has been concurrently documented, for the first time, two years ago in the annual Defense Department report to Congress on military and security developments involving China.
This advantage is not just in numbers of warships and submarines, but it also includes raw tonnage, where the PLA Navy has commissioned more tonnage than the U.S. Navy for most of the past decade. Add in platforms like the PLA Navy’s 12,000-ton Renhai-class cruisers with its 112 vertical launch tubes for over-the-horizon weapons like the 300-kilometer ranged YJ-18 supersonic, anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM), and it is not a stretch to say that the PLA Navy now has achieved qualitative parity, if not superiority in the ASCM arena, with the U.S. Navy.
We provide an analysis of how the United States and the uniformed members of the Department of Defense allowed this to happen. We ask how the U.S. Navy flag officer corps went from having a “revolt” over principled disagreements about our national security strategy and budget allocation in 1949 to a U.S. Navy today that is arguably outgunned by the PLA Navy.
While we have presented an examination of similar failures to warn and prepare for the rise of the PRC in the intelligence community, national security strategists, and even ultimately to successive presidential administrations, it is also worth noting the failure of our uniformed officials, especially our U.S. Navy admirals, to “fight” for their service’s unique equities and capabilities as it relates to the rise of the PLA Navy.
In terms of the U.S. Navy flag officers, there are three main reasons for this failure to understand “The Matrix” and to fight for building a Navy that could deter China’s naval expansion and aggression.
First is the culture of the flag officer corps, which can be best described as “go along to get along.” Long gone are the days when scrupulous flag officers like an Admiral Arleigh Burke, one of the original members of the “Revolt of the Admirals” as a captain, or an Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear navy, were promoted to positions of seniority and responsibility within the U.S. Navy. They possessed a singular focus on the Soviet threat and the U.S. Navy’s ability to meet its missions in the face of potent Soviet naval and land-based power. This placed a great demand upon naval officers, NCOs, and men, and those who could not meet that demand were separated from the service.
What has replaced this era of principled service is a system of tutelage where officers are groomed for selection to flag rank based upon their obsequiousness and deference to the flag officers over them, rather than to oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the principles for which it stands. This certainly does not reflect all officers. But the fact that for 20 years, not a single U.S. Navy admiral spoke out, in public, against the slide that was occurring to the U.S. Navy, while the Chinese navy was concurrently growing faster than any navy since World War II. That is in direct contrast to the Cold War, when admirals were acutely conscious of the growth of the Soviet Navy and conveyed that alarm in appropriate forums such as congressional testimony. Although Admirals Michael Gilday and Charles Richard, among others, have spoken about the China threat and the danger posed by that navy, their predecessors did not possess a focus on China’s navy and its growing danger, year after year, to U.S. national security interests. Naval shipbuilding and personnel have not been tested by the unending and prodigious demands of Cold War stresses, and so it is not known if today’s Navy will meet them.
Second, as we have discussed previously, is the impact of the “Kissinger School of Engagement,” which argued that engagement with the PRC would normalize their behavior within the existing system of international norms that was created out of the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War. Not only were civilian analysts in the national security system susceptible to this philosophy of engagement, but stunningly so too has been a generation or more of U.S. Navy admirals. Whether going on “60 Minutes” to publicize their attempts to get their PLA counterparts to speak with them or in inviting the Chinese Navy to an exercise in the Rim-of-the-Pacific (RIMPAC) in Hawaii, our admirals have demonstrated they put more faith in unconstrained engagement than they appear to take when it comes to fighting for the world’s biggest and most powerful navy.
Third, and finally, there is the “frog in the pot” syndrome. In addition to the pernicious impact of going along to get along, the Chinese Communist Party has been very skillful in the timing and tempo of their military expansionism. Starting with Jiang Zemin’s efforts to modernize the PLA, Hu Jintao’s directives to the PLA to have the capability to take Taiwan by 2020, and on to Xi Jinping’s overt operations like seizing Scarborough Shoal in 2012 to firing ballistic missiles around Taiwan in 2022, these actions were all done in a way so as to not compel the U.S. Department of Defense into taking the actions necessary to mitigate the effects of this dramatic shift in the correlation of military forces in the Western Pacific. Much like a frog that will stay in a pot of water, even as the temperature is raised one degree at a time until it is boiled to death, so too have U.S. Navy admirals been numbed into inactivity against China as it seemed there was always a greater priority in the Middle East or Europe.
The collective impact of these three areas of failure has left America’s national security today at great risk in the Indo-Pacific. If there will be conflict with the PRC, it will be on, over, and below the high seas, from Okinawa to Guam to Honolulu, all the way to the West Coast. Today America’s national security, in the face of the teeth and talons of the Chinese Dragon, requires its own “Revolt of the Admirals” to explain how the U.S. Navy arrived at this position of weakness against the enemy and a change of the culture of U.S. naval flag officers so that the enemy may be confronted and defeated, not engaged.