April 26, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis

Deep Dish: The US Navy and the South China Sea

The US Navy will not be deterred, explains Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis. While China builds up in the South China Sea, the Navy expands its capability to enforce maritime norms across the seas. In this week's Deep Dish, Lewis dives into the US Navy's latest steps to challenge its near-peer rivals.



Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're talking with Vice Admiral Andrew Lewis of the U.S. Navy, who is deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans, and strategy. Welcome, Admiral Lewis.

Andrew Lewis: Thank you. It's great to be here.

Brian Hanson: Admiral Lewis, today you're going to be speaking with the Council on the issue of the South China Seas. I think that's a really important issue that often doesn't get as much press coverage as it really deserves. The headlines are about things going on in the Middle East, things going on in North Korea, which are definitely important challenges, but what's unfolding in the South China Sea is hugely important. It's less dramatic at any one moment for the U.S. and the world.

First, I want to get a sense for you and your background. I noticed that you went to the U.S. Naval Academy for your undergraduate, so as a young man, you were interested in the U.S. Navy. What was your motivation? Why did this career path appeal to you back when you were a young'un?

Andrew Lewis: It's pretty simple. When I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I wanted to go to a four-year school, and my family couldn't afford to send me to a four-year school right away. I was destined to go to junior college and then perhaps to a state school. I wanted to serve the country, and I wanted to play sports in college. Both of those lined up at the Naval Academy. Actually, I first got accepted into the Coast Guard Academy, but then accepted to go to the Naval Academy.

Brian Hanson: I'm curious. What sport did you play?

Andrew Lewis: I was a wrestler with four years at the Naval Academy.

Brian Hanson: Then, you have continued your service in the Navy since the mid '80s on. I'm curious. What's been your motivation? What has kept you engaged and serving in the Navy?

Andrew Lewis: The reason I stayed in the Navy was I got to a point where I was really tired out. I'd been gone a lot, but I stayed in because of the interaction with the sailors that I was serving alongside, primarily the senior enlisted and the mid-grade enlisted, who were doing the incredible hard work. It's just a real motivator to serve alongside them, and something that I've continued on for 20 years beyond that point.

Brian Hanson: Greater Chicago, I think maybe not all our listeners are aware of this, but greater Chicago is the home to the Navy's only boot camp, the Great Lakes Naval Station, just up north of the city. Some of my colleagues here at the Council have had the opportunity to go up there for the boot camp graduation ceremony, which is a very moving and powerful event. I was wondering if you had any advice to people who, like you, young folks, young men, young women, who might be interested in careers in the Navy. What advice would you have for them?

Andrew Lewis: I would first and foremost try to go observe what goes on at Marine Corps boot camp, or Marine Corps basic training, or the Army, or whatever the case may be, and get a feel for that. Look at the incredible opportunities that the military offers. I think the military is a true meritocracy. It's a place that the American dream is very much alive.

Brian Hanson: One of our Facebook group, Michael, was interested when he heard you were coming on the show, and looked at your title as deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans, and strategy. He said, "Could we unpack that? What does that actually mean?" So, what are your roles and responsibilities in this job?

Andrew Lewis: Simply put, I'm the operations officer for the chief of naval operations. I'm responsible for everything from current readiness to future readiness, future plans, and execution of those, and the part that the Navy does in policy and strategy writing, as well as international engagement, and building partnerships with other militaries, other navies, but also with industry, with academia, and with think tanks to get the power of the American society behind the military.

Brian Hanson: This has been an interesting year in terms of issues of strategy with the military. Of course, the White House and the Department of Defense has issued new statements about U.S. strategy with a focus on the rise of great power competition. With this new emphasis for our strategy, what are the implications for the Navy? What does that mean in terms of capacity that you need to build or the way missions might change? What are the implications?

Andrew Lewis: We have a new National Security Strategy, which was signed by the President in December, and then a National Defense Strategy signed by Secretary Mattis in February. The Navy is in the process of writing a Navy component to the National Defense Strategy aligned under that, but very simply, what the Navy needs to be doing is building a fleet that is building more naval power.

There's six elements to naval power. There's a bigger fleet, just more capacity, more ships. It's actually in law now, about 355 ships that we're building toward. A more capable navy. A more networked navy, being able to talk to one another and defend those networks so as to be able to take advantage throughout the whole battlespace. A talented navy. Our people are a great advantage that we have over any adversary in the future. An agile navy, which is essentially how we operate in the future, in this context of a great power competition, where there's more and more contested battlespace. Then finally, readiness, basically being ready to fight at the high end. That's where we need to be.

Brian Hanson: There have been news stories about concerns about readiness and whether or not there are the resources for the services to be ready to be deployed and used in line with our strategies. Are there any particular areas that you think that, with these additional resources, will be areas of focus for improving readiness?

Andrew Lewis: No question. Some of the areas, for example, that we are getting our ships through the maintenance in a more predictable manner. One of the real disadvantages we've been having over the last number of years is the lack of predictable funding as you go through this fairly complex process to maintain ships. The same on the aircraft side. We can't start work because we don't have the money to do so. That really puts a hole in readiness. That's going to be an area in which we're going to focus very much on the material readiness.

Brian Hanson: When it comes to uses of the Navy, one of the things that we read about is ensuring freedom of navigation, ensuring the sea lanes are open. Certainly, when we think about or hear about concerns in the South China Sea, this is frequently an issue there. Can you talk a little bit about what does the Navy do? How does it protect the merchant fleet, and what are the capabilities that the Navy has that aren't easily replaced just simply on the commercial side in merchant fleets?

Andrew Lewis: The Navy operates in accordance with international norms, which is free use of the global commons, i.e. international waters, outside of 12 nautical miles. If there is an aspiring regional power who is trying to illegally make international water space their sovereign water space, then we're giving up that space to free trade and commerce. That's not something that we're going to do. That's why we have a navy. That's why all countries have navies, and all free countries are interested in joining forces in doing that.

Brian Hanson: When we think about that in terms of the South China Sea, why is the South China Sea so important? Why is this set of issues so critical for that part of the world?

Andrew Lewis: In the South China Sea, there is some natural land features and some features that have been built up artificially. The Chinese are trying to push out and make that space in the South China Sea essentially their own waters, specifically the Paracel Islands, and then to the east, the Scarborough Reef, and then to the south from there, the Spratley Islands. The Spratley Islands is really where the nexus of this comes together, with claims from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia, where they all have claims to these various islands and these artificial areas that the Chinese have built up. It's clearly military, what they're doing. They're building runways. They're putting in storage. They're building air defense sites. They're for military use.

Brian Hanson: I can imagine some people saying that China is essentially a trading power. It's concerned about goods being able to flow through these waters. So, does it really matter whether it's the U.S. Navy or whether it's Chinese capacity that oversees the flow of commercial traffic through this part of the world? How would you respond to somebody who made an argument like that?

Andrew Lewis: I would first of all ask the Vietnamese, or the Filipinos, or Singaporeans, or any number of other countries, Australians, New Zealand, what they think of that. From a standpoint of what is international law adhered to, that is not the case anywhere else in the world. It's not acceptable by international norms.

Brian Hanson: Do we have a set of cooperative relationships with countries in that part of the world around these issues?

Andrew Lewis: We have treaties with several of the countries, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand among others.

Brian Hanson: As I mentioned up top, you're going to be on a panel here at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs talking about the South China Seas. What do you think are the most important messages for Americans to understand about that part of the world and the role of the Navy?

Andrew Lewis: Presence, and ensuring the sea lanes of communication remain open to free trade and commerce. That's why we have a navy. That's why we're there. It's a unique area of the world. Just anecdotally, I'll give you something. We like to tell sea stories, so I'll tell you a sea story.

In 1995, I was in an aircraft carrier coming back to deployment, the USS Independence. We were coming back from the Middle East, and we delayed off of the east of Taiwan, because this was the first time the Chinese were launching missiles across the Taiwan Straits. Then we pulled back into port. We were actually home ported in Yokosuka, Japan, a couple weeks later. At the time, we really thought nothing about the Chinese militarily. They were kind of a backwater navy, didn't really have much.

If you fast forward 20 years, see what the Chinese Navy looks like today. It's a very capable surface fleet. It has a number of submarines with potentially nuclear weapons. They've got an aircraft carrier, another one on the way, and they're arguably a regional power, and aspirationally, a global power in the maritime. That's why we're in this great power competition with China. We intend to deter, compete, and ultimately win that competition. It's not going to be a quick race.

Brian Hanson: You point out the escalation in Chinese capabilities and in their ambitions in the region. With the new strategy for the United States, and creating more military capability, more in that region, the Chinese building up these islands and placing military capabilities on them, is there in this an increased chance of an incidental conflict, something that starts small and then escalates into something more significant in a way that may not have been there 30 years ago, or 20 years ago, from talking? You had mentioned your story.

Andrew Lewis: Our amount of patrolling in the South China Sea has remained consistent over the last 20 or 30 years. We have had a steady presence there, as we do in many places throughout the world. The difference is the Chinese activity. By virtue of the fact that there's more ships in close proximity, that does present that risk potentially, but professional mariners are professional mariners. The vast majority of our interactions with the Chinese are professional and safe. We very clearly operate in accordance with the rules of the road in the maritime, and the Chinese do, by and large, as well. They have no reason to want to make it unsafe or have a miscalculation there, either. That doesn't mean we're going to remove ourselves from that area of friction, if you like.

Brian Hanson: As the Chinese increase their capabilities and their presence in the region, does that change the nature of our mission or the types of capabilities we need to be able to have in the South China Sea?

Andrew Lewis: Yes, it does. We have been developing capability broadly, generically. We are now shifting our capability development more toward a threat.

Brian Hanson: One of the other issues in the Pacific is tension with North Korea. What is the role of the U.S. Navy in a context like this, where we have periods of rising and falling tensions, and also where we're looking to engage the North Koreans on a series of really important issues? What are the kinds of things that the Navy can do to support that effort?

Andrew Lewis: This goes back to what navies do and what the Navy brings to a national defense and to national security. Because the Navy operates in a global commons, because we are patrolling globally all the time, our behavior doesn't change much on any of those things. We provide access, and we're there, we're present, and we're capable. If the worst were to occur, we can respond. Beyond that, our behavior isn't really any different. That's how we operate as a navy.

Brian Hanson: As we close, one question that I want to ask you is, in your view, what is the most important thing that the American people should know about the U.S. Navy?

Andrew Lewis: This is an easy one. I'm going to do it with another sea story, since we're physically here near where the Navy's sole boot camp is, and where every U.S. sailor that enlists go through those doors and goes through his or her [inaudible 00:14:45] training before they go off to the fleet. We serve in the Navy with our enlisted people. That's what I think the American people need to know about their Navy, their Army, their Marine Corps, their Air Force, their Coast Guard, is those enlisted people that come from Chicago, New York, San Francisco, wheat farms in Iowa, whatever the case may be. They are serving enthusiastically with discipline, with a sense of service, and it's an area where the American dream is very much alive, and that you should do whatever you can to support them.

Brian Hanson: Terrific. Thank you so much, Vice Admiral Lewis, for being on the show today. I appreciate the opportunity for the conversation and to get your perspectives on what are really critically important issues.

Andrew Lewis: Thanks.

Brian Hanson: Thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. If you have questions about anything you heard, please feel free to ask them in our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them, and are not the institutional views of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you liked the show, let us know by tapping on the subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find us under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. If you think you know someone who would enjoy this episode, tap the share button and send it to them, as well.

This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio and Amilo Golic. Our audio engineer is Joe Palermo. I'm Brian Hanson. We'll be back soon with 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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