July 5, 2017 | By Brian Hanson

Deep Dish: The Return of Maritime Competition

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the United States Navy is facing true naval competition from other countries all over the world. With the responsibility of maintaining the maritime prosperity of the United States on their shoulders, how is the Navy continuing to address the changing landscape on the open sea? To answer this question, and many others, Admiral John Richardson joins us to discuss the logistical and academic problems facing the Navy on this week’s episode of Deep Dish.

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John Richardson: We should not be surprised that a nation that is growing as vigorously as China is, that they would turn to the seas now.

Brian Hanson: Some people worry about, with the increased precision and increaed capability of weapons, that aircraft carriers are more vulnerable and might not be able to play the same role that they have in the past. How do you view that?

John Richardson: Look around your house. Look around your neighborhood. Half of that stuff, comes to us from the sea as consumers.

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on global affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson. Today we're discussing the future of the United States navy, in an increasingly competitive security environment. I'm here today with Admiral John Richardson, who is the Chief of Naval Operations for the US Navy. Welcome Admiral. It's good to have you here.

John Richardson: Brian. Great to be here.

Brian Hanson: I wanna start off by picking up on a theme from the talk that you just gave at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. You describe the current period as the return of maritime competition. Really, one of the striking things you said was, this is a change, this is first time we've seen this kind of environment, since really the end of the cold war in the last 25 year, you know, 25 years ago. What are the key elements of this return of maritime competition?

John Richardson: Well, one is that, I think more than anytime in the last 25 years, we're going to be ... I would say contested further and further out to see, right? There are a number of our competitors if you will, building global navy's. They're operating more globally. With the advent of shore based technologies, they can now reach out farther and farther with greater precision [crosstalk 00:01:45]. Weapons, right. Long range, anti-ship, ballistic missiles let's say, just to be specific.

That also lends an element of, sort of being contested far away from shore in blue water, sea control types of missions, that we really haven't had to address for some time. We had sea control down, for the last 25 years. We're coming out of that era. We need to make sure that we address that, that challenge.

Brian Hanson: Who are some of the most important competitors, who are posing that challenge?

John Richardson: I'll tell you, there's a number of them. Each one takes a different approach to manifesting this. Certainly, China has built a very capable navy. They're operating that navy, truly globally, right? Much further a field than they used to be. Russia, again, kind of recapitalizing their navy. They've always been investing in the undersea. They continue to do that, and also expanding into sort of their surface combatants, building new ones, and then deploying them to placed, like the mediterranean and the Black Sea and numbers capabilities we haven't seen. You know, you talk about the areas in the middle east.

Boy, their geography really becomes almost tyrannical as you've got choke points, or very narrow passages, like the Bab-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz. Extremely important for the transit of global commerce through those places. Boy, very, very narrow. It doesn't take a lot of technology. You don't have to go very far in those places, to have a tremendous impact on the maritime. And so, whether it's, Iranian aggression and influence in that area, as a nation or through other proxies, just a number of challenges there as well.

Brian Hanson: One of the countries you touched on was China. We've all followed the stories of the South China Sea and the island building project that China has engaged in there. What is your sense of how the threat is changing in the South China Seas, and how are responding to that?

John Richardson: Well, certainly, first I'd like to say that, as a nation like China grows, grows economically, just like we did as a nation. At some point, you want to turn to the seas, to international commerce to continue to prosper. We should not be surprised that a nation that is growing as vigorously, as China is, that they would turn to the seas now, to continue to prosper. It's a very, I think, natural progression and something that we shouldn't be too surprised about.

Now, as you think about their activity in the South China Sea, particularly the reclamation of these land masses, islands if you wanna call them that, and the attendant maritime claims. With the ... I would say, uncertainty, you know, in terms of what is the intended purpose of these, it all starts to just become a destabilizing factor. We, on the other hand, want to make sure that we provide what would be a very stabilizing influence in the region, maintaining our presence there, like we have over the last 70 years.

We maintain that presence, not in response to any particular thing, but really to continue to advocate for the international rules and norms that had been the foundation for maritime prosperity for the last 70 years, including China and you know, so many other nations in that region. And so, we've been there for 70 years. We're gonna continue to be there. We're gonna advocate for those norms that allow everybody to compete and prosper. We'll see how that dynamic changes. If there are sort, of excessive claims made then, we're gonna continue to come back to that, sort of rules-based order, that allows everybody to have that slice of the pie.

Brian Hanson: Couple weeks ago I had Gideon Rachman on this show, who talked about his new book, Easternization. One of the points that he made was similar to a point that you made about, it's natural for China to be as it becomes economically more powerful and playing a bigger role, and more dependent on imports and exports, much like we did.

They're increasingly interested in securing commercial traffic and making sure that goods can flow and that they can assure they're flowing. Many of those goods flow through some, of the areas that basically, the United States has been the key guarantor of safe passage to. Would we expect to see China out of a very natural self interest in wanting to share that responsibility and be involved in those areas. Is that something that can be accommodated as we move forward?

John Richardson: You mean, a shared approach to security ...

Brian Hanson: Yeah.

John Richardson: Shared with ...

Brian Hanson: Shared with the United States for example, if we're talking about South China Sea for example.

John Richardson: Yeah. Well, I think that, that is all possible, right? In fact, it would almost be a desired outcome, that we could come to an agreement, in terms of how we're gonna secure these maritime traffic lanes, again, to allow access for everybody. I look forward to a line of diplomacy, that leads in that direction. We're not quite there yet, until we are. Even as we, perhaps bring something like that about, the security element ...

This is very Mahanian in, it's roots, right, Mahanian at the strategic level. You have a navy to secure access to markets and those sorts of things. We wanna make sure that there's no doubt about us being able to protect our national interests, if we need to, and not be too reliant on some other force, power, dimension to do that, right? That's sort of first and foremost some, of the fundamental responsibilities of the United States Navy.

Brian Hanson: You talked about an increasing and potential vulnerabilities as other countries acquire weapons systems that affect our navy's. One of the classic images of US force projection is the aircraft carriers, all right, the aircraft carrier battle groups. At the same time, air craft carriers are these very large, big, potentially vulnerable targets. Some people worry about, with the increased precision and increased capability of weapons that air craft carriers are more vulnerable and might not be able to play the same role that they have in the past. How do you view that?

John Richardson: Well, I will tell you that there is no denying that some of these long range, precise technologies, missiles, have emerged and this is something that has to be addressed. We have addressed that. A lot of times they talk about this as sort of, a one sided or ... Advances on one side, and we're just kind of hanging out, staying static. It's not the case at all. I wrote a piece not too long ago about anti-access area denial, A2A, saying it's really not a very helpful term, right? It's like going to the doctor and finding out ... He comes out and tells you, "Well, you're sick." It's like, "Okay. That's why I'm here. I was hoping for a little, bit more useful detail."

Each one of those areas that I mentioned, brings with it, its own approach to A2AD if you will. To be meaningful, you've got to get into the details of each one of those systems, which requires a pretty complicated string of events, to stitch together, to detect, to transmit, target, shoot, all of those things. If you think about that chain of events, where could vulnerabilities emerge? And then, the carrier is moving, right?

This is not a static airfield, like an airport. You bring all of those things together. We feel, I feel strongly that the aircraft carrier ... You know, the approach to employment might change a little, bit as we unravel those reconnaissance strike networks, if you will. At the end of the day, the first question, the nations, leadership still ask is where's the nearest carrier?

Brian Hanson: One of the discussions that has been very active, particularly vis a vis the navy is, is the navy the right size to meet current, the current threats and demand on the navy. I know you've been involved in studying this issue and planning forward. How do you view that?

John Richardson: We made that one of our major academic endeavors of the last year, inside the navy. We put our best thinkers on it, to take a look at the evolving threat environment, the evolving economic environment. What that may mean for our responsibilities as a navy to protect American from attack, to promote our interests around the world, our prosperity. As my staff will tell ya, I like a lot of people, check on my homework. I invited other people to take on that same question, encouraged them in fact to do that. We got a great consensus around the conclusion that more navy was required.

Right now, we're in the neighborhood of 280 ships in the battle fleet, haven't really been that small, since before World War I. It wasn't sort of, not a surprise that these, really capable, experienced, savvy thinkers came in and said, "We could use a navy, kind of in the mid 300's in terms of platforms, 350." That was the number that President Trump used and advocates for. In terms of the size of the navy, the number of platforms, something in the mid 300's seems to be a consensus forming around that number.

As I said in the discussion, the numbers in and of themselves are necessary maybe, but not sufficient. We've got to advance the capability of those platforms. Some of those platforms may be unmanned for instance. They may be autonomous. They'll count towards the battle fleet. They'll be very capable. If we don't explore those emerging technologies, we're gonna build a big navy that's irrelevant and unable to fight in the modern environment. It's necessary, but not sufficient to build more platforms. What we really wanna do is build those platforms that embody the technology, that will allow them to be victorious and maintain our maritime superiority into the future.

Brian Hanson: As we close, what is one last thing that you think the general public needs to better understand about the US Navy?

John Richardson: Well, when I get a chance to talk to audiences like your audience, very educated, savvy, in-tune with world events, I like to point out that, as I've said, the United States is a maritime nation. We get a tremendous amount, well over half of our trade comes to and from the United States by sea. Look around your house. Look around your neighborhood. Half of that stuff comes to us from the sea as consumers.

Similarly, so many of our jobs are tied to an economy that leaves our shores on ships and goes overseas for other folks to buy our exports. That is what your navy protects. Your navy is out there. We got 100 ships on any given day, forward deployed, protecting those sea lanes, protecting our prosperity, protecting our ability to get those goods, protecting those jobs that contribute to the global economy, and then securing our shores. Think about what your navy does for ya. Make it a little more vivid into your life. I think the case then, starts to make itself.

Brian Hanson: Well, thank you Admiral Richardson for being here and helping our audience have a better understanding on exactly what is that role of the US navy.

John Richardson: Thanks Brian. It was great to be here.

Brian Hanson: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. Please note, the opinions you heard today are those of the people expressed them, and not the institutional positions of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you liked the show, please take a moment and give us a review.

You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs and iTunes, Overcast, or wherever you listen to podcasts, as well as on the Council's website at, thechicagocouncil.org. Deep Dish on Global Affairs is produced by Evan Fazio with research help from John [inaudible 00:15:28] and Grant Whitaker, who also edited this episode. I'm Brian Hanson. We'll be back soon, for another slice of Deep Dish.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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