U.S. armed services need to develop potentially expensive new capabilities to offset China's rapidly growing capacity to counter America's military advantage in the Western Pacific, but face a "constrained fiscal environment" that will require difficult choices in the future.
Those were the conflicting views presented by two key senators and a panel of defense experts at a Capitol Hill forum Tuesday.
The forum, sponsored by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based defense think tank, focused on the AirSea Battle concept that is being developed in an Air Force-Navy study. The two services' leaders launched the study in reaction to the rising concerns that China's extensive military buildup emphasizes "anti-access, area-denial" capabilities that would prevent U.S. forces from intervening in a future conflict over Taiwan.
Senate Armed Services Air-Land Subcommittee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said the new concept was important because China wants to be capable of not just overcoming U.S. air and naval superiorities, "but making them irrelevant." He cited Beijing's arsenal of hundreds of missiles able to hit U.S. bases and carriers far away and its weapons to disable the communications and spy satellites the United States depends on.
To prevent tensions from escalating into conflict, America must make it clear to its allies and to China "that we are committed to maintaining our capabilities in the Western Pacific," Lieberman said.
But, he added, this commitment will be hindered by the nation's "constrained fiscal environment." Lieberman quoted recent warnings from Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the large post-9/11 increase in defense spending could not be sustained.
"Those are not hollow words," Lieberman said, noting that they come when the Navy is struggling to build the fleet and strike fighter force it needs.
"Like it or not, there are difficult decisions we'll have to make," he said.
Air-Land Subcommittee ranking member John Thune, R-S.D., shared those concerns, noting that while the military has been focusing on relatively low-tech battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a significant high-tech battle emerging to counter China's capabilities.
A key weapon to do that, he said, is the new long-range strike capability that the Air Force is seeking. With a B-1B bomber wing at Ellsworth Air Force Base in his state, Thune has made long-range strike his major defense issue.
A detailed study on the AirSea Battle concept released by CSBA on Tuesday also cited as a priority better long-range strike capabilities, which could include conventionally armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Another priority would be to counter China's vast missile arsenal by "blinding" its ability to target U.S. carriers at long range. That could require destroying China's spy satellites.
Those are highly controversial ideas, strongly opposed by organizations against militarizing space and by Russian officials and arms control advocates who fear the launch of a conventionally armed ICBM could trigger a nuclear retaliation.