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Admiral John Richardson on China, Russia, and the Future of the US Navy

Admiral John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, explains China's growing global ambitions and Russia's troublesome actions in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic.
Navy's aircraft carrier, Ronald Reagan in the Philippine Sea
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U.S. Navy

The chief of naval operations recently visited the Council and spoke with Deep Dish host Brian Hanson about China's growing global ambitions and Russia's troublesome actions in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. Richardson also explained what the US Navy needs now to retain its supremacy in the years ahead.

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 discussing how the United States Navy is orienting itself toward long-term great power competition and adapting to meet rapidly evolving challenges in the modern security environment. Joining me in the studio and returning to Deep Dish is Admiral John Richardson, who is the Chief of Naval Operations for the US Navy. As some of our listeners may be aware, the Chief of Naval Operations is the highest ranking officer in the Navy. Welcome, Admiral Richardson, it's great to have you back on Deep Dish.

Adm. John Richardson: Brian, it's great to be here. Thank you.

Brian Hanson: I know that you just got back from China and that you had a number of high level meetings in China including with your counterpart, Vice Admiral Shen Jinlong of the PLA Navy. You call these discussions constructive and candid on Twitter. Can you share a little bit about what you talked about and what were the important outcomes of that discussion?

Adm. John Richardson: Well, first, let me just say it's great to be here again. During my trip to China, we had great discussions with some pretty senior leaders. You mentioned Admiral Shen Jinlong, my counterpart. Also, I've met with General Li Zuocheng who is sort of the chairman of their Joint Chief of Staff also on the Central Military Committee. We visited a research institute, we visited their command college, we visited the Eastern Theater Command. So we had a chance to talk to some very, very senior leaders in the PLA. Throughout, we emphasized a couple of points. One being, these types of conversations are very important. It's important that even if we have differences that it's important to understand each other's intent, to try and get a deeper understanding of each other's thinking. Then also, the aim of our conversation should always be in risk reduction so that we can ... As we pursue common interests, as we manage differences, we want to do so in a way of minimal risk so that we don't have a miscalculation or something flare up. So tried to make those points at each stop. Then in terms of the frankness to identify those areas where we clearly have some differences and we need to be honest about working through those.

Brian Hanson: In the news we read about some of the challenges of a more assertive China, of activities like constructing islands and putting weapon systems on those islands, claiming jurisdiction over large parts of the South China Sea. The recently adopted US National Defense Strategy has emphasized the growing importance of great power conflict. When it comes to China, from a Navy's point of view, what do you see in the Chinese vision of what they're trying to accomplish and how that competes with the mission and the tasks of the US Navy?

Adm. John Richardson: Yeah. Brian, if I could just address one aspect of it. The National Defense Strategy talks about great power competition, not great power conflict. In fact, as we exercise that competition, it would be a major aim to try and do so in a way that avoids conflict, particularly with a nation as strong as China.

Brian Hanson: Important point. Absolutely.

Adm. John Richardson: So I just want to start with that. Because it's sort of a central element of how we do manage our relationship with this growing nation. In many ways, we shouldn't be surprised that as China has continued to grow, their economy is growing very fast, lifting a lot of people out of poverty. At some point, that economic trajectory is going to take them off shore. It happened to us at the end of the 1800s. We sort of went offshore and became a global nation looking for global markets. They're doing the same thing. The important part of our discussion is that while we can't be surprised or even fault them for doing that, we want to all participate in this global economy in a way that's fair for everybody, that respect sovereignty, that is based on reciprocal fairness and a reciprocal arrangements, that is based on a consistency between words and actions. So in this way, we can sort of exercise this competition without ever getting to a point of conflict. So that's really the center of gravity for our discussions.

Brian Hanson: I know that in those discussions, one of the things that was raised by some of your Chinese counterparts was the Chinese interest and China's position vis-Ă -vis Taiwan. The defense ministry after your meeting put out a pretty strongly worded summary of the message that was conveyed about Taiwan being an integral part of China. Obviously, this is a message they have ... Position they've taken for quite some time.

Adm. John Richardson: It is a core interest of China.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, a core interest of China for the exact language and that they also sent a strong message about China not allowing any outside interference when it comes to Taiwan. You put this out very strongly, very publicly. I'm curious to get a sense of how you responded in that conversation and what your perspective is on that issue.

Adm. John Richardson: As I said to my counterparts during my visit, if there was one word that would thematically characterize everything that I was delivering, it would be consistency. So I was pointing out with respect to the United States exercise in this relationship, our actions are consistent with our words. We have been consistently present in that part of the world because we as a Pacific nation also have national interest in the South China Sea and in Asia. Our economy depends a tremendous amount on abiding by those rules and norms that govern the free flow of goods over the oceans and the access to markets. So with respect to Taiwan, I made that point as well. That we have a position towards Taiwan that's consistent with some documents that we all agree with the People's Republic of China and that our position with respect to Taiwan has not changed. It is consistent, it remains consistent, and that we would oppose any kind of unilateral action on either side of the straight that would disrupt that equilibrium right now.

Brian Hanson: We've talked about some areas where there are competition and in strongly different interests. In any relationship, there typically are also shared interests. I imagine your conversations in China also covered some of those where there were actually outcomes that both the US and China may want to pursue together. What are some of those outcomes and do they provide a pathway for managing the relationship in a way that can avoid conflict over the differences?

Adm. John Richardson: Well, I'll tell you, you make an excellent point. That we certainly want to make sure that we're continuing to progress together those areas where we have common interests, balance out the discussion so that it doesn't become completely focused on those areas of differences. So I would say an area of common interest is that we both share an interest in becoming increasingly prosperous so that we can raise the standard of living for our populations. This is kind of a fundamental interest of governments. So I would say that this is a great common interest, which gets us back to that system of rules and behaviors that allow for us both to do that in a way that doesn't become restrictive, unilateral or certainly come to a point of conflict. Another area which I stressed is that I think we both, in fact, the entire world has an interest in making sure that we can get to a denuclearized Korean peninsula. So we've, both the United States and China, signed the UN Security Council resolutions with respect to that dynamic. We are both engaged in what might be called a pressure campaign to make sure that economically and militarily, we are supporting with every molecule of our body a diplomatic solution to that problem. So this is an area where we converged on common interests and then discussed how we can both get after that more effectively.

Brian Hanson: So I want to shift the conversation to another country that was identified in great power competition with the United States, namely Russia. Of course, there was a recent clash between the Russian Navy and the Ukrainian Navy, and as a matter of fact to our listeners, there's a really good Deep Dish episode in which one of our guests is the Navy executive fellow who's here in residence at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Tony Chavez. I encourage you to go listen to that to hear about that specific incident. But Admiral Richardson, what I'd love to have you do for us is, can you help us understand the bigger picture with respect to what Russia is trying to achieve. And in terms of naval power, how does Russia's vision and goals, how do they compete with that of the United States from a naval perspective?

Adm. John Richardson: This is also where I would go back to just discuss sort of rules of behavior. I'll defer to the Deep Dish episode with commander Chavez to give you much deeper insight into the Russia-Ukraine situation that just emerged. But I think it's just another example where Russia has shown that on an international scale, it's very hard to trust them to abide by these rules. So for them to unilaterally make a move like they did in international waters against the Ukrainian Navy, this is the type of behavior that just completely destabilizes the system. It's just the most recent in a string of these types of episodes. We have responded to this rising challenge from Russia in the United States Navy by making sure that we've got a consistent presence in that part of the world. In fact, an increasing presence. This is an area where maybe we're not as consistent as other areas. We're actually increasing our presence there in the Mediterranean just to make sure that people understand our allies, partners in the region understand that we're committed to stability in that part of the world. We recently stood up the second fleet and Norfolk, Virginia and that is a fleet that is focused eastward from Norfolk into the North Atlantic to manage sort of high-end maritime operations there. I'm talking at the Carrier Strike Group level and up. Very complex. Also, that command is dual-headed as a NATO command, a Joint Force Command in Norfolk so that we remain ... We've got skin in that game with respect to supporting the NATO alliance. So these are some of the ways that we've been responding to this.

Brian Hanson: Then I'd like to move us more generally beyond these great power competition issues, more generally to the tools that the Navy needs in order to carry out its mission in order to have dominance in the work that it does. I understand, I've had chance to read a new document that you authored A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Version 2.0. Can you talk about the important central elements of that design and its purposes.

Adm. John Richardson: Well, as you said, is version 2. So version 1 was issued in 2016. Although I had the privilege to sign it, it represents the best thinking of really a lot of naval leadership. So there's a lot of collaboration that went into that. Most of the best ideas in that document or not mine, and so we've had a chance to talk. You realize the extent, the limitations of my intellect. So you know that the ideas in there were done by somebody else. But it talks about the ... I would say, a continuous spectrum of competition. So you've heard this articulated in phrases like gray zone competition, articulated with phrases like competition below the level of conflict. Really we're having a hard time getting our minds around this. As we put out in this document, it's really kind of a continuous spectrum from sort of low-end military presence even, all the way up the most intense level of kind of high-end major war. How we move up and down that spectrum, I think is going to be the great challenge of the future. We've got to restore agility in terms of doing that. Then we've got to make sure that at the high-end, that we maintain the capability and the capacity to have the final word that we can control the high-end of conflict and de-escalate on our terms as quickly as possible. Then the third major idea, I suppose, is that this is going to be a long-term thing. We've got to do this in a way that's sustainable. We can't run above the red line and hope that this will be a short-term thing. We've got to make sure that we do so in a sustainable way because this is going to be a long-term competition.

Brian Hanson: So one of the things that I thought was particularly interesting in the report, talked about achieving high velocity outcomes, which included items like acquiring the kinds of platforms that are needed in today's warfare. Included things like artificial intelligence and being able to maintain a competitive edge in certain weapons systems. Can you talk about why there's so much energy behind these particular issues and what they mean for the navy and navy competition?

Adm. John Richardson: I'll tell you what, what you mentioned, this idea of high velocity. Things are moving very fast. Technology is changing very quickly and there are a lot of dynamics that are changing very quickly, including some pretty traditional things that happen at sea. Shipping, for instance, changing very quickly. To be relevant in this competition, you're going to have to have the agility to move at that speed. That includes not only thinking upgrade technologies, but actually getting them to the production line and then moving them out to the operating forces. If we can't do that at relevant speed, we're just going to fall further and further behind in terms of material capability. Eventually, you reach a point where you're so far behind that the cleverness of our sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines and they are tremendously smart people, it won't be enough to overcome the material disadvantage. So this is an urgent problem for the United States to make sure that we can not only conceptualize these technologies, and we'll do that better than anybody. But we need to get them approved, funded, move through the system quickly so that we can compete at speed. Particularly for some of those technologies you mentioned, artificial intelligence, sort of the technologies of the information age. You don't have to be first by much in terms of time, but it's decisive when you're first. So you don't want to be second in this business and we've got to make sure we're first.

Brian Hanson: Is this an issue that goes beyond the navy and other services are also emphasizing similar plan?

Adm. John Richardson: Absolutely. Acting Secretary Shanahan and his team, they're onto this. We're trying to get this system to move with a sense of urgency, a sense of speed that is relevant. It's a fundamental issue.

Brian Hanson: One of the things that's happened since we were last together on Deep Dish is that there was actually an appropriation passed for the armed services. I know that, that was a concern, has been a concern for all the services when it comes to readiness and having the resources and flexibility to be able to address readiness issues. This is an issue that also is covered in the press, is how ready is the US military. For the state of the navy at this point, what emphasis is the navy putting on readiness and where do we stand?

Adm. John Richardson: I would say recovering readiness is our top priority. So if we have our first dollars are spent towards readiness, we've got to make sure that we're ready to do the business safely and effectively today as our top priority. I will say, you mentioned the budget and that's very helpful. So we're very mindful and grateful of the help that Congress had in terms of helping us all to get that budget passed on time. I would say that, particularly for naval forces, which rely on ... We're a capital intensive force. We build a lot of ships, we repair ships, aircraft, some pretty big things. All of that very high-end industrial capacity thrives on predictability. So if we can do some scheduling and fund to that schedule, costs come down, predictability goes up, risk comes down. We can have confidence in the cost and schedule figures that we budget for. So we are thriving with that predictable, adequate, appropriation and funding and we'll continue to advocate for that because we could backslide. So I would say that readiness is on the mend. We're making definite progress with the help of the budgets that we've had. It took us a while, a decade or so to get into this, we're going to get out quicker than that, but it's still work to be done.

Brian Hanson: So one of the biggest determinants for success of any organization is the people. I know that this morning you had an opportunity to right here in Illinois, go see a training class graduate from bootcamp. I was wondering if you could share with us what steps the navy is taking to expand its recruits? Are you finding the types of people and the quality of people that are needed in order for the navy to be successful, particularly as we go into things we've talked about new, great power competition, rapidly changing environments and operational systems?

Adm. John Richardson: Yeah. Brian, you've hit on a really key area, because really none of this happens without had the right people. The Navy is growing and we're bringing people in as fast as the system will permit. So that puts a great recruiting challenge on our system. I've got to kind of give a shout out to all of our recruiters. In fact, earlier this week before I came up here to Chicago, I had a chance to meet our recruiters of the year and just what an outstanding group of people to bring the right folks into the navy. We talk about great power competition but the competition for talent is as hot as any competition I've got. So the fact that we're able to meet our recruiting goals today, and do so in a way that sort of much more technologically sophisticated using online types of techniques, it's a much different approach than kind of your classic storefront recruiting in the mall that you might imagine. It's actually very sophisticated and they're doing a great job.

Brian Hanson: So as we close, I know that the navy is going to turn 250 years old in 2025. By then, you probably ... You certainly not have your current position. But what are you most eager to have the navy achieve between now and that 250 anniversary?

Adm. John Richardson: Well, I'll tell you what, if I fast forward myself to 2025 and I look back on 2019, I would hope that 2019 serves as an inflection point in many areas. One is that we do have an inflection in terms of the speed with which we can move technology forward to the hands of our sailors and the other services, soldiers, airmen, the marines, coast guardsmen. So I hope that we crack this nut in terms of rapid acquisition. I hope that 2019 can be a very productive year in terms of reconciling or mitigating some of our differences with these great powers. So that we can see 2019 as a year where we both realized that this current system is truly to the benefit of everybody. It's a very fair playing field and allows everybody to prosper in a way that is competitive but doesn't lead to conflict. Then I would look back on 2019 and hope that to the point of view to your perspective on people that it is a year where the navy was seen even more so as an organization that behaves in a manner that's consistent with its values. So when we think about why are these young people who are so talented and could go anywhere in the world, literally, why do they raise their right hand and make an oath to join the United States Navy? I've got to think that our value proposition has something to do with that. That we are an organization that is dedicated to a noble cause and that our behaviors in every way are consistent with those values. I would hope that 2019 is a year where we can make progress in making the navy as safe a navy as possible for all of our sailors. A navy that is the best partner for all of our allies and a navy that might be the worst nightmare for our enemies.

Brian Hanson: Thank you, Admiral Richardson for coming back to Deep Dish and providing an update on important developments in the US Navy and how it's preparing for a new strategic environment and new forms of competition. It's good to have you back.

Adm. John Richardson: Brian, it's always great to be on Deep Dish. Thanks.

Brian Hanson: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish. If you like the show, do me a favor and tap on the subscribe button so that you can get each and every new episode as it comes out. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. If you think you know someone who would enjoy today's episode, please take a moment and tap the share button and send it to them as well. As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who express them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is Andy Czarnecki. Our research associate is Kevin Clifford. I'm Brian Hanson and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

About the Experts
Vice President, Studies
Brian Hanson is the Vice President of Studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He oversees the Council's research operations and hosts the Council's weekly podcast, Deep Dish on Global Affairs.
Admiral John Richardson
Headshot of Admiral John Richardson
Admiral John Richardson is the Chief of Naval Operations for the US Navy.
Headshot of Admiral John Richardson