Transcript: Secretary of Defense Remarks at CSBA on the NDS and Future Defense Modernization Priorities
(Source: US Department of Defense; issued Oct. 6, 2020)
CSBA PRESIDENT TOM MAHNKEN: For a quarter century now, we've been in the business of developing and promulgating new ideas about national defense, new ideas about policy and strategy, concepts and capabilities, and budgets and resources. And throughout our history, we've sought to be an independent, objective voice promoting innovative solutions to the nation's problems.

Given that focus, it's altogether appropriate that we welcome Secretary Esper here today to speak about future defense modernization priorities. So I'd like to turn the floor over to Secretary Esper for his remarks, followed by a discussion.

Secretary Esper, welcome to CSBA.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: Well, good afternoon, everyone, and thank you, Dr. Mahnken, Tom, thank you for that kind introduction and for moderating the discussion after I'm done. So it's great to be back, it's been some time, and I'm pleased that we could do this today.

So it is great again to be here at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, whose nonpartisan research has been instrumental in shaping national security decisions for more than two decades. In the years to come, we will need your expertise more than ever as we continue to implement the National Defense Strategy and adapt the United States Military to an era of great power competition.

As many of you know, we are doing so along three lines of effort. First, building a more lethal force. Second, we are strengthening alliances and partnerships. And third, we are reforming the department to redirect our time, money and manpower to our highest priorities. I'd also add a fourth line of effort. That is, taking care of our service members and their families.

As I reported last summer -- I'm sorry – as I reported this summer, at my one-year anniversary as secretary of defense, we have made solid progress on these lines of effort, which we further distilled into 10 discrete objectives. These include tasks such as focusing the department on China and designing a coordinated plan to strengthen our allies and build partners, and updating our key war plans.

It also extends to reforming the fourth estate, achieving a higher level of readiness and implementing enhanced operational concepts such as dynamic force employment.

I've spoken about some of these accomplishments previously. Today, I'd like to focus on another key objective: our plans to modernize the force, specifically our great Navy.

For more than seven decades, the United States Navy has maintained unmatched superiority on, above, beneath, and from the seas. But this wasn't always the case. After the Civil War, the United States Navy fell into decline at a stunning pace. Our nation's bloodiest war had taken its toll and weary Americans sought to redirect the country's resources elsewhere.

The size of the fleet plummeted from hundreds of vessels to less than 50, and many of the ships in commission were in disrepair. For a maritime nation, the United States was ill prepared for a naval conflict.

That is until a new generation of innovators and forward thinkers led the charge to rebuild the nation's fleet. At one end were strategic planners and theorists like Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan and his seminal work on the influence of sea power. At the other end were statesmen such as then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt.

Inspired by Mahan's writings, Roosevelt recognized the outsized impact of naval superiority in an increasingly interconnected world. As fate would have it, Roosevelt later ascended to the presidency and, along with a cadre of likeminded leaders and partners in Congress, set the Navy on course to becoming the most advanced and powerful fleet in the world.

We are at a similar historical crossroads today. Over the past several years, the department had to recover from the crippling effects of sequestration, inadequate funding, continuing resolutions, and years of budget uncertainty. We also placed insufficient attention on the high-end fight, which many believed was behind us with the Cold War's end.

The good news is that we are now on the road to recovery by first restoring the readiness of the current fleet and second, by divesting from legacy systems and lower priorities in order to modernize the force. We are now at a point where we can -- and indeed we must -- chart a new path to a future fleet that will maintain our naval superiority long into the future.

Today, cutting-edge technologies are fundamentally altering the character of warfare and expanding the geometry of the battlefield in multiple ways. In the maritime domain, artificial intelligence autonomous systems, ubiquitous sensors, and long-range precision weapons will play an increasingly leading role in a future high-end fight.

Whoever harnesses these technologies first will have a clear advantage on the high seas for years to come. Getting there ahead of everyone else demands a whole-of-nation effort. It will require innovative thinking backed by first-rate data analysis and modeling such as the work done right here at CSBA.

It will require a modern industrial base and skilled workforce with the capacity to match our future needs. And it will require the same type of bold decision-making that transformed the United States Navy from a fledgling 19th century fleet into the finest naval force in history.

The challenge before us today is clear. Near-peer rivals -- namely China and Russia -- are rapidly modernizing their militaries in an effort to erode our longstanding advantages and shift the balance of power in their favor. They want to rewrite the international rules especially in areas such as freedom of navigation and commerce and are willing to do so at the expense of others. Moreover, Beijing and Moscow seek to undermine our military edge through precision long range fires, anti-access and aerial denial systems, and other asymmetric capabilities designed to counter our strengths.

The Chinese Communist Party, in particular, intends to complete the modernization of its Armed Forces by 2035 and to field a world class military by 2049. At that time, Beijing wants to achieve parity with the United States Navy, if not exceed our capabilities in certain areas and to offset our overmatch in several others.

For instance, the PRC is investing in long range missiles and autonomous unmanned submarines it believes can be cost effective counters to conventional American naval power. Moreover, the CCP seeks control over critical waterways, such as the South China Sea, to exert veto power over the economic and security decisions of smaller nations, fundamentally undermining their sovereignty and way of life.

Equally troubling are the brazen destabilizing activities of the People's Liberation Army we are witnessing today, to include sinking a Vietnamese fishing vessel, intimidating Malaysian oil and gas development, escorting Chinese fishing fleets into Indonesia's claimed exclusive economic zone, and militarizing occupied features in direct contravention of commitments under international law.

This aggression would only grow worse should the Chinese Communist Party achieve its stated modernization goals and build a military that can fully implement its nefarious plans. We cannot let that happen. That is why earlier this year, I charged the Deputy Secretary of Defense to lead a future naval force study that would assess an ambitious range of future fleet options designed to maintain our overmatch in this new era of great power competition long into the future.

The Navy, Marine Corps, Joint Staff, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, as well as outside advisors, conducted a comprehensive, cost-constrained, and threat-informed assessment aligned with the National Defense Strategy.

First, the team examined our current naval forces. Second, they assessed China's future naval construct. Next, they explored three force options in order to evaluate a variety of platforms for the future flight - fight. And finally, they modeled and war gamed these options, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each combination of ships against different future mission sets.

The team's findings are insightful and serve as an enduring framework that will drive a major shift in how we design, build and sustain our fleet and conduct naval operations in the years and decades to come. The results will enable the department to achieve our objectives in a timely and cost effective manner, balancing tomorrow's threats with today's readiness.

In February, I made a commitment to Congress that the department would submit this year the future naval force study and the 30 year shipbuilding plan, which is informed by the findings of the study. The - though delayed by COVID, we are in the process of fulfilling that promise through proper coordination, beginning with our partners in the Office of Management and Budget. In the near future, we aim to release the 30 year plan and provide the study to Congress. But today I want to discuss the outlines of our proposed Battle Force 2045 that is derived from the future naval force study.

More work needs to be done in some specific areas and the future fleet I will describe will be further refined as joint operational plans are approved, enhanced readiness and deployment concepts are implemented, advanced technologies emerge, and a new all-domain joint warfighting doctrine, another one of our top ten NDS objectives, is adopted.

However, as we look toward the future, if we are to sustain a free and open international order in the years ahead while also guaranteeing victory in a high-end fight, should deterrence fail, we propose a future fleet that optimizes the following core operational attributes.

First, distributed lethality and awareness. Second, survivability in a high intensity conflict. Third, adaptability for a complex world. Fourth, ability to project power, control the seas, and demonstrate presence. And fifth, capability to deliver precision effects at very long ranges.

At the same time, the fleet design must meet the following non-warfighting requirements – affordable in an era of tight budgets, sustainable over the long term and operationally ready and available at higher rates.

Battle Force 2045 calls for a more balanced Navy of over 500 manned and unmanned ships.

Further, we will reach 355 traditional Battle Force ships prior to 2035, the time at which the PRC aims to fully modernize its military. And most importantly, we now have a credible path for reaching 355 plus ships in an era of fiscal constraint.

Under our proposal, Battle Force 2045 will possess the following characteristics. First, a larger and more capable submarine force. The study reached a clear consensus on the need to rapidly increase (our number) of attack submarines, the most survivable strike platform in a future great power conflict, to the range of 70 to 80 in the fleet.

If we do nothing else, the Navy must begin building three Virginia class submarines a year as soon as possible. Additionally, we intend to refuel the seventh Los Angeles class submarine and continue investing in the future attack submarine SSN(X). Meanwhile, we will continue to modernize the undersea strategic deterrent, the most survivable leg of the nuke - nuclear triad.

Second, nuclear powered carriers will remain our most visible deterrent, with the ability to project power and execute sea control missions across the globe. And to continue enhancing their survivability and lethality, we are developing the air wing of the future, capable of engaging at extended ranges.

At the same time, we continue to examine options for light carriers that support short takeoff or vertical landing aircraft. One model we are considering is the USS America [ed. class ship] that is equipped with more than a dozen F-35Bs. Light carriers provide additional presence and capacity to carry out day-to-day missions and free up supercarriers for more critical high-end fights.

While we anticipate that additional study will be required to assess the proper high-low mix of carriers, eight to 11 nuclear powered carriers - carriers will be necessary to execute a high end conflict and maintain our global presence, with up to six light carriers joining them.

Third, our future force will comprise between 140 to 240 unmanned and optionally manned surface and sub-surface vessels of all types with the potential to perform a wide range of missions from resupply and surveillance to mine laying and missile strikes these are another (key enabler) of distributed maritime operations. Moreover, they will add significant offensive and defensive capabilities to the fleet at an affordable cost in terms of both sailors and dollars.

Earlier this month, the Sea Hunter prototype complete operations with the USS Russell, demonstrating that unmanned surface vehicles are technologically feasible and operationally valuable.

Fourth, the future fleet will contained more and smaller surface combatants. Study results indicate the introduction of 60 to 70 smaller combatants into the fleet will not only increase capacity to conduct distributed maritime operations, but it will also free other critical assets for more efficient mission distribution.

As a preview of where we are headed; earlier this year the Navy awarded a $795 million contract to purchase the first ship of a new class of guided missile frigates with the option to purchase nine more totaling $5.6 billion. This is the first new major ship building program the Navy has sought in more than a decade and will support the full range of military options.

Fifth, sufficient strategic lift and logistic vessels are key to the sustainability of distributed operations. Initial estimates identify the need for 70 - 70 to 90 combat logistic ships. But further work is underway to determine if the number of logistic forecasted in this report are sufficient for the future fight. Our ship building report will also address our sea lift plans to ensure ground combat forces can get to the fight on-time and with sufficient combat power.

Sixth, it will possess unmanned ship based aircraft of all types. The Navy must develop and deploy carrier based unmanned aircraft of all types. This includes fighters, refuelers, early warning, and electronic attack aircraft. While this was not analyzed in detail in the study, we will continue to assess the proper mix and range needed to overcome tomorrow's threats.

Seventh and finally, we will integrate the Marine Corps new force design. The Marine Corps is currently in the process of implementing its force structure plan and I support the Commandant’s visions to recalibrate to great power competition. As such, we see a need for more amphibious warfare ships than previously planned, in the 50 to 60 range, but more work needs to be done in this area, as well.

The five operational attributes and three non-war fighting imperatives I listed above will drive Battle Force 45 to be a more lethal, survivable, adaptable, sustainable, modern, and larger force than we have seen in many years. It will also be more balanced. A more balanced naval force that will have a greater number of smaller surface combatants and unmanned or optionally manned ships. Along with an ample submarine force and a modern strategic deterrent.

It will also be able to deliver overwhelming fires balanced across four domains from the air, from the land, from the sea, and from under the sea. And it align with the national defense strategy as we optimize force posture and implement novel concepts that make us more agile, less predictable, and fully capable of rapidly shifting to combat operations when needed.

In the years and decades to come, the Navy and Marine Corps will serve even more prominently under Battle Force 45 as an ever present, resilient, and dominant fighting force that our adversaries dare not challenge. We will project power through long-range fires, more capable ships and next-generation aircraft, linked by advanced sensors and enabled by A.I., to stay ahead of the competitive and retain our decisive over match for decades to come.

We will employ Marines, trained and equipped for littoral warfare, synchronized with unmanned systems and networked to the advanced weapons systems and firepower of the total force and we will operate at the forward edge of American interests as the Navy and Marine Corps team have always done, providing a highly visible deterrent and positioning us to win the joint fight at a moment's notice.

Achieving Battle Force 2045 over the long run will not be easy. Parochial interests, budget uncertainties, industrial capacity, and other competing factors will contest our ambitions. As a plan for the future we would do well to learn from the past. Last week I had the opportunity to visit Malta, whose partnership with the United States dates back to the Revolutionary War. In 1804, the U.S. deployed one of its six original frigates, the U.S.S. Constitution, to Malta to combat piracy. At the time, these six frigates represented a remarkable whole-of-nation achievement for a country still in its infancy.

Through the Naval Act of 1794, Congress initiated the construction of what would soon become the Corps of the United States Navy. Instead of converting merchant vessels into warships, the final designs called for a more innovative approach, to build the six craft from the keel up, with features that would give these ships the power to dominate other frigates but also the speed to outrun larger ships of the line.

Moreover, rather than consolidate the manufacturing at one shipyard, Secretary of War Henry Knox advocated for six sites in six different states with timber and other materials sourced from throughout the union. Standing up our nation's firstly was as much an exercise in bolstering national defense as it was in promoting a diversified industrial base that drove economic growth and innovation across the country.

We intend to pursue a similar approach for Battle Force 2045. To start, we have charted an incredible path to reaching 355 ships that works within real world budget constraints. Through its own reviews and reforms, the Navy did good work these past several months, bringing up funds in the coming years for the building of new ships. The Navy must continue these initiatives; they are essential to ensuring an adequate shipbuilding account for the task ahead.

Given the serious reform efforts put forward by the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations and their commitment to continue them, I agreed to provide additional funding from across the Department of Defense enterprise, funding that was harvested from ongoing reform efforts such as combatant command reviews, Fourth Estate reforms, and other initiatives. Together, these additional funding streams will increase the shipbuilding accounts to 13 percent within the Navy's top line, matching the average percentage spent for new ships during President Reagan's build-up in the 1980s.

Additionally, we will need assistance from Congress to achieve Battle Force 45. To deliver this future fleet, we first need Congressional support for sustained, predictable, adequate and timely budgets, which means no more continuing resolutions. Second, the Department must be able to divest from legacy systems and lower-priority activities and then redirect those savings to our highest priorities.

And finally, we request statutory authority to put unused end-of-year Navy funding directly into the shipbuilding account, with appropriate congressional oversight, instead of watching it expire. The combination of these funds, reforms, and authorities will help ensure that Battle Force 2045 is adequately resourced.

Furthermore with respect to our industry and private sector partners, we understand the challenges in building a robust and healthy industrial base with modern shipyards, quality infrastructure, and highly-skilled workers. I have met with and personally spoken to many industry leaders over the past year about these issues. We believe our proposal provides predictability for the supply chain, top-to-bottom, along with the sustainable demand you need to invest in, train, and retain a (talented work force).

Likewise, we will need industry support to fulfill our vision by delivering innovation on time and on budget. Investing in game-changing technologies is another top 10 NDS objective upon which we are making solid progress. Designing a future fleet built upon these next-generation technologies and concepts is not just bold, but imperative to maintaining our advantage. The keys to delivering the cutting-edge technology, leveraged by Battle Force 45, (are early) testing, (prototyping, and) operational experimentation.

On a recent trip to California I saw firsthand how American entrepreneurs are doing just that, as they advance the development of autonomous surface and undersea vehicles. We have already witnessed successful demonstrations with the Sea Hunter as well as the extra-large, unmanned, undersea vehicle and we are planning training events to continue developing tactics, techniques, and procedures for these platforms.

We also recognize what has been the Navy's Achilles' Heel – shipyard capacity and maintenance delays. We cannot build and sustain our proposed fleet without the ability to service and repair a greater number of vessels in a more timely fashion; nor can we sacrifice shipbuilding for maintenance. The objective is to have as many ships continuously at sea as possible. To maintain a high level of readiness; we must do both. We can do both. We will continue our efforts to revitalize and expand the Navy's four shipyards while promoting partnerships with private shipyards across the country without pulling from the shipbuilding account.

To our friends right here at CSBA and across think tanks and academia, we need your innovative research, ideas, and analysis to refine Battle Force 2045 and our war-fighting concepts and to drive the decision points that will keep us ahead of the competition.

Finally, to our allies and partners around the world, we will continue to uphold the international rules-based order and norms that have benefited all of us for generations. Our Navy will continue to fly and sail and operate wherever international law allows. But as we invest more into our Armed Forces, we need you to do the same and we need you sailing alongside us for the sake of our collective security and global stability.

Over the past year I have visited with all types of U.S. Navy ships and units, from submarines and destroyers to aircraft carriers and large deck amphibious ships and including a variety of unmanned vessels as well. I can assure you that we command the best and the most capable Navy on this planet. Nations around the world look to us to preserve freedom in navigation, protect the global commons, and deter aggression from competitors and adversaries alike.

Our brave sailors and Marines will continue to do so now and long into the future so long as we deliver a future fleet that meets the needs of our great country and the demands of an increasingly complex security environment. If we can assemble the collective will and determination to see it through, I am confident that Battle Force 2045 will maintain our maritime superiority far into the future and ensure the United States Navy remains the greatest in the world for generations to come. Thank you.

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