Why there’s only one choice for Trump’s Navy secretary

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The dominant geopolitical position enjoyed today by the United States is incumbent on one fact more than anything else, something we all take for granted: a dominant navy that is second to none, ensuring trade and commerce around the world flow smoothly and assuredly, even in the most contested geopolitical hotspots.

From massive oil flows moving out of the Middle East, to the cars and technological innovations leaving Asia to even passenger vessels large and small, the world’s oceans are kept safe thanks to the power and position of a U.S. Navy armed with aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines and missile defense platforms that ensure peace and stability over a domain that covers 71 percent of the world’s service.

But such dominance — a reflection of decades of smart investments, technological innovation, and world-class training and equipment — is now under constant assault due to an assortment of challenges that have mounted in scope and complexity, threatening to undo America’s claim not just as the world’s most dominant naval power but, indeed, as the only superpower.

The most obvious challenge is from nations who wish to diminish America’s power on the high seas. Countries such as China, Russia, Iran and a host of smaller powers are developing a whole of host of capabilities to deny Washington access to the areas around their coasts and beyond — or pay a heavy price in men and material.

Going by the term “anti-access/area-denial,” (A2/AD) these nations have set a goal of delaying, deterring or simply outright denying the U.S. Navy the capability to enter contested areas of the world’s oceans. The greatest A2/AD threat, presented by China in the form of what is popularly termed a “carrier-killer” missiles, may be able to attack and sink U.S. aircraft carriers and other vessels as far away as Guam.

To be fair, threats to constrict the ability of maneuver of U.S. naval forces and eliminate the ability to exercise sea control are nothing new. But compounding the problem — and the challenges the Navy faces — is that the philosophical underpinnings of how oceans are considered to be a neutral space for everyone are now being challenged.

There is no greater example of this than in Asia, where China has led the way in attacking the idea of a global ocean commons in the much discussed South China Sea. China is drawing a “nine-dash-line” around this body of water — where trillions of dollars of seaborne trade passes every year, powering almost all of the economies of Asia with vital natural resources — and claiming its own sovereign territory.

And while China’s claims to this vital sea were invalidated by an international court last summer, thanks to Beijing’s growing naval might and new fake islands increasingly outfitted with offensive military equipment, China is moving closer and closer to the day when lines on a map will become harsh reality.

{mosads}If left unchallenged, other nations will surely take notice, and expand their own national boundaries from land to sea.

There is, however, one man, who understands these challenges more than anyone else, and should be the clear choice for President Donald Trump’s new secretary of the Navy: Former Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.).

Now, I must offer a bit of a disclaimer: I do have a clear bias when it comes to Forbes. I have had the honor of working with him on many occasions, whether it has been hosting him as a moderator in multiple panel discussions we took part in together; publishing his work in The Diplomat magazine, where I served as editor in chief, or in The National Interest, where I am executive editor; having conversations with him over the years; or working closely with his staff.

This does, however, give me a unique insight to his qualifications, capabilities and why he is the only natural choice for this critical post.

For one, Forbes understands on an intimate level the challenges the U.S. Navy faces today just as well as the most senior combatant commanders and has a passion for this branch of the armed services like no other.

Simply stated, the Navy of today is too small to handle the challenges as outlined above. Our sailors are overworked, many times undertrained and increasingly ill-equipped to take on the challenges before them. Forbes, serving as chairman of the House Committee on Seapower, has tackled these issues for years, and has been an advocate for a larger, more capable navy.

And if President-elect Trump is serious in massively increasing the size of our Navy to 350 ships or more, there is no better person than Forbes, who can oversee such a project with such complexity and importance from start to finish.

Indeed, an example from the recent past best illustrates Forbes’s mastery of the complex challenges the U.S. Navy faces and his penchant for working to find solutions.

Back in 2013, debate was raging over the operational concept known as Air-Sea Battle (ASB). To put it plainly, ASB was devised to ensure that the A2/AD challenges of today did not turn into an existential threat in the near future.

However, the complexity of the concept — and hysterical accusations that such a concept’s use could start a nuclear war with China — created tremendous confusion and fear in national security circles throughout Washington and beyond. Forbes showed tremendous leadership in not only working to explain and champion the concept, but also hold a hearing in October 2013 to put to rest any underlying controversy over the issue.

Sitting at the hearing, I was impressed with his mastery of not only the most highly technical naval terms and strategy involved in the ASB concept, but also his willingness to engage with those whom he may disagree with and work to find common ground. He expended his own political capital to take the issue on when he did not have to, and he did not take the easy path: the very essence of leadership.

Forbes would also be a perfect fit if Trump is set on ensuring China’s recent bullying actions over the last few years are checked.

The congressman has been a leading figure in Washington calling out Beijing’s coercive actions throughout the Asia-Pacific, offering wise counsel on how to push back and ensue that the international order in Asia — which has led to decades of peaceful growth and stability — is not cast aside thanks to aggressive Chinese actions. Forbes would fit naturally with other Trump advisers who see Beijing as a threat to the existing international order in Asia and could offer the new president important advice.

But despite this impressive list of qualifications, it seems Forbes might not get the opportunity to take on this important assignment. If trends continue, Team Trump could soon settle on Philip Bilden as its nominee for secretary of the Navy. While Bilden, who has a strong background in Asia finance, could very well prove to be a world-class Navy secretary, Forbes is no doubt in a class of his own.

He should truly be given every consideration for this important position, and, indeed, become the next secretary of the Navy.

Harry J. Kazianis is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by President Richard Nixon. Kazianis also presently serves as fellow at both the Potomac Foundation and the Center for China Policy at the University of Nottingham (U.K.). He is the author of the book “The Tao of A2/AD: China’s Rationale for the Creation of Anti-Access.” Kazianis formerly led the foreign policy communication efforts of the Heritage Foundation, was the former editor-in-chief of The Diplomat and a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum. Follow him on Twitter @grecianformula. The views expressed are his own.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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