A wakeup call from China: What Congress must do now
Americans received a wake-up call when China flew a spy balloon, many times the size of those in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, across the breadth of the United States. China is intent on displacing the United States and reordering the international system with the Middle Kingdom and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sitting firmly on top.
Standing between Chairman Xi Jinping and his “Chinese Dream” are three newly minted Republican House committee chairmen. Reps. Michael Gallagher (R-Wis.), Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) chair the House Select Committee on China, the House Armed Services Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, respectively. They are impressive legislators who work well across the aisle and understand the CCP threat. The three Mikes are not household names here or in Beijing, but they will be soon.
I anticipate they will immediately address four key areas where the CCP poses serious threats to the United States and where Congress can have a meaningful impact.
First, in the Indo-Pacific, China’s capabilities are outpacing the modernization of our Navy and Air Force. Our armed forces lack sufficient stockpiles of ammunition and an adequate weapons industrial base to support sustained intense combat in the Indo-Pacific theater.
We must be prepared to expend large quantities of air-, land- and sea-launched missiles against targets at sea and ashore. The missiles primarily will be somewhat stealthy cruise missiles and advanced maneuvering hypersonic missiles.
My top defense priority as President Trump’s national security adviser was to reverse the Obama years of neglect of hypersonic missiles and to get these weapons to our warfighters. We invested significant resources to advance hypersonic missile deployment across the services.
The Air Force Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) and the joint Army-Navy Conventional Prompt Strike missile have achieved significant progress in test programs. To field sufficient quantities of missiles before it is too late, Congress should direct the Department of Defense to take the unusual step of starting full rate production of these systems now — before completion of full developmental and operational test programs.
These weapons provide a unique deterrence to CCP aggression in the first island chain. Their presence — in quantity — is our best opportunity to deter a war.
Congress also should prioritize the procurement of large quantities of the Tomahawk, SM-6, LRASM and Patriot missiles, all of which are in production.
We require more warships in theater. While I would take our sailors and U.S.-built ships over those of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy any day, we risk being overwhelmed by China. As Joseph Stalin pointed out in World War II, “Quantity has a quality all of its own.” China is very good at quantity.
Given the fragility of our shipbuilding industrial base, it will take years to reach the required force level to deter China. Even the highly accelerated long-term shipbuilding plan submitted in December 2020 only reached 355 battle force vessels in 2031.
The Navy has lagged other services in implementing a Rapid Capabilities Office that can break the mold of bureaucratic acquisition processes — characterized by their inability to harness commercial innovation and unwillingness to tolerate the necessary risk to field “good-enough” systems with dispatch. In the key area of unmanned platforms, both maritime and airborne, for example, a Navy RCO could deliver meaningful capabilities within two to three years.
Congress should look to the Trump administration’s 2020 plan as a blueprint for increasing fleet size. We require new platforms but also should engage in ship life extension programs on existing platforms. “Divesting to invest” is a cliché — and a bad one at that. Its biggest fans are PLA admirals, who are watching us remove more capable ships from the fleet than they could ever sink.
The Navy must be supported by a vibrant Merchant Marine. For over 100 years, the Jones Act has given us a framework for sustaining our shipbuilding posture and it must not be abandoned now. Expanding our “Buy America” philosophy from high-tech and silicon chips to our shipbuilding industry should be a national security priority. We require a naval and merchant fleet built in America and helmed by our citizens and permanent residents.
We should be constructing three Virginia-class submarines annually, starting now. The Virginias give us key warfighting advantages over the PLA Navy, which lacks, for now, our advanced submarine technology.
Although the Ford was a difficult and expensive build, this new class of carriers is critical to projecting American air power in the Indo-Pacific. We will need longer strike capacity off their decks, but carriers remain the most powerful ships at sea. Thus, China is building as many of them as it can, as fast as it can.
The higher top line 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is a welcome development, specifically the $11 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative. It is the starting line, not the finish line. Americans are willing to bear the price of our freedom.
Second, we know China’s intentions toward Taiwan. During the recent CCP Congress, Xi reaffirmed China’s ambitions to “reunify” Taiwan with mainland China by force, if necessary. We should heed the CCP’s message that it is coming for the island democracy — and soon.
Some of our commanders understand the reality we face. Sadly, many of our elites, civilian leaders and policymakers wish the problem would just go away.
Adm. Philip Davidson testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2021 that China wanted the capability to seize Taiwan within the next six years.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said in October, “When we talk about the 2027 window, in my mind that has to be a 2023 window or potentially a 2024 window. … What we’ve seen over the past 20 years is that they have delivered on every promise they’ve made, earlier than they said they were going to deliver on it.”
Last month, Gen. Mike Minihan gave his airmen wise and urgent guidance to put their affairs in order, step up their training regimen and be ready to fight immediately.
Since leaving office, I have publicly and consistently said the “Davidson Window” could slam shut by November 2024.
We must deter the CCP from capturing the strategic island, gaining a stranglehold on the world’s advanced chip production capacity and extinguishing a beautiful democracy. American military strength is part of the equation.
Turning Taiwan into a “porcupine” is the other part. Taiwan must create an A2/AD environment aimed at China in a fashion similar to what China has aimed at our Pacific fleet.
Congress put Taiwan on the right path in September when it approved a $1.1 billion arms sale of advanced weapons systems, including Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Sidewinder tactical air missiles, and logistical support for Taiwan’s air surveillance radar.
The weapons, however, must actually be delivered to Taiwan. We have a backlog of transfers dating back to 2017. Promised sales will not deter the PLA; systems in place on the island will.
Taiwan must help itself. The announcement that it is extending its conscription commitment is welcome. For too long, Taiwan has ignored its defense needs and relied on the United States for protection. This approach is no longer tenable. Taiwan should be spending 3-4 percent of its GDP on defense today.
Third, we know from the “Made in China 2025” policy that the CCP aims to quickly surpass the United States as the global tech leader. We cannot allow this to happen.
The United States and its allies, including Israel, Australia, Japan and Europe, must lead industries such as robotics, advanced information technology, aviation and electric vehicles, as well as critical technologies like quantum computing and artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.
China may be ahead of the game in some of these areas. Thus, Congress should expand funding for R&D in cutting-edge technologies.
American innovations must be secured from CCP intellectual property theft and espionage. American universities and tech companies are prime targets of China’s malign activities. The FBI must up its game and make this file its top priority. Any U.S. university getting funding from China, doing joint research that benefits China, or hosting a Confucius Institute should be cut off from federal funding.
The CHIPS Act and the recent agreement between the U.S., Japan and the Netherlands to prevent export of advanced tech to China are important steps aimed at protecting and strengthening our tech sector supply chain. We must continue to re-shore, near-shore and “friend-shore” manufacturing of critical components like semiconductors. By cutting off Chinese access to American chip software and designs, we can slow the rate at which China achieves tech dominion using our know-how.
Regardless of our complaints about American tech companies’ free speech shortcomings, weakening these engines of innovation through antitrust legislation is short-sighted and only helps Beijing.
Instead, we must take the relatively easy measures to protect our citizens from CCP malign conduct. Banning TikTok — aptly called “digital fentanyl” — and other Chinese apps that are vacuuming up American data and geolocating our people, including our service members, should be what Winston Churchill called an “action this day” project. The world’s largest democracy, India, already has done so.
Congress and the executive branch showed how China’s effort to corner the market on a key sector could be stopped with the successful campaign against Huawei’s 5G gambit. The Free World can achieve similar results across the tech board with determination and effort.
Fourth, the fact that China has been allowed to purchase massive amounts of U.S. real estate — including nearly 200,000 acres of farmland — is shocking. Many of these so-called Chinese “investment opportunities” are adjacent to U.S. military bases.
Last year, the Chinese-owned Fufeng Group purchased 300 acres of land in North Dakota to build a milling plant. There likely will be scores of Chinese workers there. The land is just minutes from Grand Forks Air Force Base — a hub for our drone and communications technology. China could use its plant as cover to intercept sensitive military communications with passive collection equipment at the site. It would be undetectable.
There are similar concerns over the purchase of 130,000 acres of ranch land near Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, which contains critical electric grid infrastructure. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg. They are the equivalent of a Chinese spy balloon being on station permanently.
China’s voracious appetite for strategically situated U.S. real estate presents a grave national security threat. I applaud governors such as Greg Abbott (R-Texas), Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.) and Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) who are stepping up on this issue, even if the federal government has turned a blind eye heretofore.
I am confident the American people will rally in the face of the CCP’s threat to our way of life. Congress has the opportunity to lead on this issue — and I believe it will.
Robert C. O’Brien served as the 27th U.S. national security adviser. He is chairman of American Global Strategies. Follow him on Twitter @nrobertsoncobrien.
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