Esper: U.S. Navy's Top Priority is Competition from Russia and China

The Russian destroyer Admiral Vinogradov, left, overtakes and makes an "unsafe and unprofessional" close approach to USS Chancellorsville, Philippine Sea, June 7, 2019 (USN)

Published Sep 4, 2019 3:14 PM by Navy Live

On August 27, Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper told students and faculty of the U.S. Naval War College that after 18 years of conflict in the Middle East, the Defense Department is reorienting itself to focus on the competition posed by China and Russia.

“Many of you spent most of your career fighting irregular warfare,” Esper said. “But times have changed. We are now in an era of great-power competition. Our strategic competitors are Russia and China.”

The question for the Department of Defense, Esper said, is how to address that competition. “I see the greatest challenge that I have, that the department faces, is how do we balance the present versus the future?” Esper said. “How do we offset near-term readiness versus future modernization?”

He told the Naval War College audience that as senior military leaders of the future, they must have this context in mind. It will affect nearly all aspects of the U.S. armed forces, including training, equipment and placement of troops around the world, he said.

A strong network of like-minded allies and partners is also critical, Esper noted, speaking to a Naval War College class that includes military officers from more than 60 nations.

Esper said he traveled to the Indo-Pacific region earlier this month, noting that the area is “our priority theater.” The secretary said he spoke to officials from nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Mongolia who are troubled by China’s aggressive behavior but are hesitant to confront its rising economic and political power.

“I can’t tell you how many anecdotes where I had foreign leaders tell me about China’s behavior in forums, in conferences and other engagements, one-on-one and or in a multilateral setting, that is particularly troubling,” Esper said. “China’s Belt and Road Initiative is gaining it significant leverage in the region, and our challenge is to work with our allies and partners to compete.”

If the United States expects to lead that competition, Esper said, it must be present in the region. “Not everywhere, but we have to be in the key locations. This means looking at how we expand our basing locations, investing more time and resources in certain regions we haven’t been to in the past,” he said. “It also means we have to continue to fly, to sail and to operate wherever international rules allow to preserve freedom of navigation for both military and commercial operations, whether it’s the Strait of Hormuz or whether it’s the Malacca Strait.”

Esper said the world is only getting more complex, and the challenge before the U.S. armed forces is to be ready. “I need all of you to help ready the joint force, to deter conflict and, if necessary, to fight and win," he said.