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Secretary of Defense Remarks at CSBA on the NDS and Future Defense Modernization Priorities

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 a credible 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.

MR. MAHNKEN:  Well, thank you.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary for those remarks and there's a lot to dig into.  And we've collected a number of questions to kind of continue the conversation, but in fact, before I get to my list here, just a question really about you being here giving this speech about the future Navy.  I mean I think, my personal view that it's a great thing when one service gets the attention of the secretary of defense, the big boss.  But you know there's also sort of a narrative out there that this -- (somehow) represents a failure as a Navy or something like that.  What message are you trying to send by really personally delivering this message about the future of the Navy?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I think as I said in my remarks, the Navy for generations has been absolutely critical to the national security and also the economic security of our country and will remain so in the future; and the challenge before us is to maintain the greatest Navy in the world and I recognize that.  I recognized that as Secretary of Defense from day one; this is why I made it a priority.  It's not news to anyone that the Navy has wrestled with the challenges of maintenance and training and readiness.

And so when I came into office I made this the priority, working with the CNO at the time and the Secretary of the Navy and so that's why it's so incredibly important to me; it's also very important to the president, it's very important to Congress and so the ability for me, for this time, attention and efforts on subjects as important as the nation's security as this is important. And so that's why I feel a personal responsibility and it should not be taken that the message is just because I'm delivering it means only I'm behind it.  That's not the case.  We work hand-in-glove with entire Navy/Marine Corps team, our OSD staff, others outside of the building as well, and the position I take and the remarks I gave today are fully supported by the Navy/Marine Corps team, my team, CAPE, the OSD staff; we believe that this is the vision for the future that will ensure that we maintain the greatest Navy in the world, and we can deliver the national security and economic security that the United States (needs) for decades to come.

MR. MAHNKEN:  Let me pick up on one of your themes in your remarks, which is balance.  And I know one of the challenges that you face on a day-to-day basis -- it's not, like, you know, weekly is -- is striking that balance between the priority that you outlined, modernization, and day-to-day requirements, and certainly when it comes to naval, of course, is Navy/Marine Corps, that's a very common consideration.  How do you think about striking that balance?  And how do you think we should think about striking that balance going forward?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, you touched upon a very important word that I emphasized a few times in my remarks that we've talked about throughout the course of the last several months within the building.  That is a balanced force, and so as we looked at the challenges ahead and as the studies were conducted, we looked at how do you balance surface, sub-surface, effects from the air, effects from the ground, and what we came up with the future force, Battle Force 2045 is a more balanced force, allows us to conduct all those missions that are critical to the Navy's success. 

And now, the other issue that you're tagging on is the one that has -- has -- has been a constant challenge and has been for me and my predecessors, who do you balance of today the readiness of today with investment in the future? 

And clearly that has been a challenge, particularly with the Navy, because the demands placed on the sea surface from the Combatant Command as they face threats and challenges in competition, whether it's in the Indo-Pacific, EUCOM, or the CENTCOM AOR. 

And so, I had the privilege of seeing this tension as a service secretary and as I -- as I fleeted up, as you will, got into the Secretary of Defense job, I brought that background as well and made a commitment to make sure that I worked closely with the Navy to help strike a better balance, one that will allow them to -- to get on a better path to readiness, but at the same time, make sure that we were doing the day-to-day business that was demanded of the Combatant Commanders.

That said, as the NDS, the National Defense Strategy tells us at the end of the day, while we have to do both, it's more important to prioritize modernization and future readiness over the demands of today. 

That's why we have identified economy of force theaters, if you will.  That is why I have conducted a series of combatant command reviews in order to optimize our forces that are serving under respective Combatant Commanders and optimize them for the mission.  So, that could do a few things, either reties them to the Indo-Pacific, our priority theater, or return them back home to retrain, to refit, to build maintenance and readiness. 

So, that is the balance that -- that is the tension that I experience every day.  I take good advice from all of my advisors, the Joint Chiefs, the Chairmen, OSD Staff, that that is the thing that we continue to work on and I think the Navy is on a good path.  But we've got to be able to do both and the plan we set forth today will allow us to maintain that near-term readiness we need, build the future fleet without creating a hollow Navy, that's the important thing.

MR. MAHNKEN:  Well thank you.  You -- in laying out Battle Force 2045, you laid out an ambitious set of things that need to happen and I think you did good job of portraying just how massive that enterprise is. 

Fleet modernization, sea-based nuclear design modernization, ship yards, new concepts, new capabilities, and you talked a little bit about the barriers, but I guess, as you think about going forward and implementing that -- you know, that vision, how do you see the priorities within -- within that vision?  The different components?

SEC. ESPER:  And so, well first and foremost, one of the most important things we had to modernize the strategic triad, and not just the sea base, but all legs of the triad, and we have invested enormous sums and put a great deal of effort into that and I update myself quarterly from the team on our progress in terms of doing that. 

So, we will, of course, maintain the strategic leg -- I'm sorry -- the -- the under sea leg of the triad, it's our most survivable one and I've -- I've been up to the ship yard to check on the progress.  And so, that will always be priority number one. 

Priority number two then is, as you look at in Battle Force 2045, I noted this is my remarks, but there was clear consensus over months of study and war-gaming and analysis that we need to build more submarines, more attack submarines. 

And if we do nothing else we should invest in attack submarines, because of the lethality that they can deliver under the sea and the survivability that they have in clear overmatch that we have when it comes to the under sea domain and submarines in particular.  So that would be first priority when you think about conventional side of the - of Battle Force 2045.  Next, you've got to look at the (inaudible) lethal effects and then we start talking about, you know, smaller surface combatants being able to - to deliver those fires.

The key thing we took about - I take from the study and from a - my own - my own work on these topics is that what's increasingly becoming more and more important is the ability to deliver long range precision fires accurately, in volume, enabled by A.I., and linked through ubiquitous sensors and - and - and networking to do that.  That's - that is - seems to be essential right now and that will increasingly - I - I believe drive how we think about warfighting in the future, and not just in the naval domain but in all domains - in - in - in air and ground domain, as well.

MR. MAHNKEN:  What - picking up on that, you talked about precision - precision fires and, you know, in your remarks you wrote - you know, you referred to history, you know, a number of times.  I think at least history shows me or tells me, it's really operational problems, operational challenges really serve as the spur of - of innovation.

I - I know the 2018 NDS has its own list of operational problems, it's classified.  The National Defense Strategy Commission, which I was a part of, had our own list that was unclassified.  More recently, there's been a - a proposal to say "well, we should adopt a goal of, you know, seeking large numbers of - of Chinese ships within the fixed, you know, short time period as a - as a driver for innovation."

I guess what - what's - what's your response to a proposal like that narrowly, but more generally, you know, the need for some concrete problems to - to drive us as we move forward?

SEC. ESPER:  Well you - you don't build a force, whether it's a air, ground, or - or - or naval force around a single scenario, if you will.  We do know we need to build a force around the high-end fight and that includes multiple scenarios.

But the Navy also has an ambitious mission set that includes peacetime activities, competition activities - you have to demonstrate presence - forward presence, the ability to control sea lanes, the ability to work with partners and allies and do those things.

So any one day, we have nearly 100 or so ships deployed doing these things.  So - so you - you don't build a force around a single scenario.  That said, we know the challenges that are before us.  One of the things that I set out to do as my top 10 list of implementing the NDS is to make sure we update our war plans and we are well on the way to doing that.  So that's one thing we're making solid progress on.

But the reviewing and updating war plans informs us of how the fight may look.  That - that also is helpful in terms of framing up the future fleet architecture.  We also know, as I mentioned, that we're going to develop a joint warfighting concept.  That will (drive) additional change.

So as we think about this, we think about how do you build a - a fleet that can do the full spectrum of operations, from peacetime engagement all the way to the high end fight, and make sure you can handle those - those difficult scenarios? 

Then you have to think through, well, what's the best way to do them?  I (inaudible) and (inaudible) how - how might that fight play out and that's where I go back to.  We looked at how do you deliver effects from the air, from the ground, from the sea, and from under the sea.  And that's what drives you to this more balanced force, this battle force 2045 that gives you the ability to deliver those effects, lethal effects consistent with the NDS, at - at a more survivable way of doing so through distributed ops, et cetera, et cetera.

So that's kind of how we - we - we look at the problem set, if you will.

MR. MAHNKEN:  Well thank you for that.  And let me - let me actually - let me - let me - let me push you on a scenario.  So, talked about China being a priority and I think one of the - one of the priority contingencies to think about when it - when it comes to China has to do with Taiwan and (inaudible) the - the military balance across the Taiwan Strait as - has been shifting.  The most recent Military Power Report illustrates that in a number of ways.

Presumably, this - you know, the - the - the future force will be more - more capable, adopting the attributes you talk about, to include, you know, the Battle Force 2045, including every - every other aspect of the joint force.

I guess the question is, you know, if we move in this direction with these changes, are - are - are we going to be able to - to prevail in a - in a - in a future - a future conflict, say in a - across the - across the Taiwan Strait?

SEC. ESPER:  Well look, I'm - I'm confident we would prevail today in any conflict and I'm confident, certainly with this proposal, that we will - we will prevail in any future conflict.  That's why we - we - that's why we continually look at the - at the capacity and capabilities of the force, not just the naval force but the, you know, Navy, Marine Corps team, the Air Force, the Space Force, I look at the ground force as obviously Army, and then we have cyber and all of the other domains that - that we look at.

So look, I'm fully confident that Battle Force 2045 will be - will enable us to - to prevail across all scenarios and - and allow us to be victorious, should deterrence fail.  But look, the key is just so much of that force is time we spend in the competition phase too.

And it's also important not to forget - and you know this from the NDS - is we - we look to our allies and partners to assist also and that's why in my remarks I said to our allies and partners, we need you - we need you to also make investments into your Armed Forces and we need you out there with us training and patrolling and - and exercising and do those things that - that are important because we recognize China's direction and we know what we need to do and that's why Battle Force 2045, we want - we want to be in a position by 2045 to prevent conflict and again, if deterrence fails, to win decisively, because their goal is to have that world class military by 2049.

MR. MAHNKEN:  Well picking up on that, on allies.  As you say, allies - key - key tenet of the National Defense Strategy, key to our success overall and the need for them to - to - to share some of the burden, to participate more fully.

I want to ask about - about kind of how we - you know, how we do that.  We have foreign military sales system.  I guess the question is, you know, in - in the future, with the types of things that you're envisioning, is there more scope for thinking about an increase in commercial acquisition programs, you know, innovative ways for us to work closely with our - with our allies, developing the capabilities that we collectively are going to need for the future?

SEC. ESPER:  Sure.  Well let me - let me work through the macro down to the micro and - and - and get to your answer here in a minute or so.  So another one of the top 10 objectives for the NDS - and by the way, I made clear that my top priority would be implementing the National Defense Strategy and we've made great progress - I - I - I laid that out this summer and we continue it every week as - as the entire leadership team, military and civilian alike, meets to update ourselves on progress being made.

One of those top 10 objectives was to develop a comprehensive strategy to - to - to build our allies and partners.  And so what we were looking at - at - in that area, if you will, was everything from key leader engagements as we go overseas, key leader engagements here in the United States.

I just left a meeting with the Bulgarian Minister of Defense, where we're talking about how do we bolster the southern flank of NATO as we look at repositioning our forces and doing other things.  So key leader engagements; how do we get more of our allies and partners into professional military education is part of the IMET program.  How do we do those things?  Training and exercises.  Another one of our top 10 objectives is to improve joint training and exercises for the joint force.  And Chairman Milley is working on that one. 

But there's also foreign military sales.  Because as we know military sales build not just interoperability but it also helps us build capacity.  It also gives us the means to reinvest and it relationships between military and armed forces.  So, there are typically two paths you go foreign military sales or direct commercial sales, both have pluses and minuses.  But on the foreign military sales piece and I talk a lot about this with my counterparts abroad, we recognize that we need to do better.

We need to build exportability into our products.  We need to improve releaseability of technologies.  We need to hasten the process by which foreign military sales are approved.  We need to do all those other things, otherwise we risk ceding the market to the Russians and Chinese.  And that's not good for all the opposite reasons.  So we recognize that, we're working hard on that.  One of the things we (inaudible) part of that objective is what I call the FMS dashboard, the foreign military sales dashboard.

So, now I'm looking every quarter at the top 25 or so foreign military sales that we are thinking - that we think are most important, most critical, to advancing the NDS and the capabilities and capacity of our allies and partners.  That's just one example of how we're trying to implement the NDS and that particular objective.  Because it is critical and it's not just about building their capability – capacity, but it's the interoperability, it's the relationships that will endure. 

One of the advantages that we have, asymmetric advantage that we have that the Russians and Chinese don't have is we have allies and partners.  You could probably name all of theirs on one hand.  But have dozens of allies and partners with shared values and shared interest and shared goals.  And we are aligned of what needs to be done out there.  We just need all of them to invest more in their defense and to build their own capability and capacity so that when the time comes they're with us in the fight.

MR. MAHNKEN:  Let me follow-up on that because, you clearly control some of the levers when it comes to FMS and commercial actions; you don't control all of them.  What are the types of reforms that would - that would make your life easier?  And would make it easier for us to work with our allies?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, like I said, you've got to build exportability upfront, otherwise you end up with a system that, you know eventually you're probably going to export it unless it's some rally high-end item.  So you might as well think about that upfront. 

And then number two, is how do we get better at releasing technology?  You know, the administration made a good move this year with regard to UAVs and how we deal with unmanned aerial systems.  Why was that?  Because we saw that other countries, countries that we prefer not to were starting to gain greater marketshare.   We went on the market or we went Western countries to own the market, our allies and partners, not Russia and China. 

So exportability, working with the Congress in terms of the process by which we - our foreign military sales are reviewed and approved.  That's a State Department-led process, and I know Secretary Pompeo feels very strongly about that and we agree on the importance of this.  So, those are just examples of what could happen.  Again I just came out of Minister of Defense meeting today, we discussed foreign military sales.

Last week I was in North Africa; all three countries we discussed foreign military sales.  I was in Kuwait and Qatar last week, as well, discussed foreign military sales.  Countries recognize that we not only provide very high quality equipment but the maintenance and everything comes with it.  But also the relationship.  That's the key thing, the relationship and interoperability it builds is critical.

So we need to find ways to hasten the process while protecting the crown jewels -- if you will -- but hasten the process so we can continue to build those allies and partners.

MR. MAHNKEN:  I think your mention of export controls and loosened export controls resonates with me.  From the very first job I had in the Pentagon last millennium, it was on the missile technology control regime, and I understand why the MTCR guidelines were created to prevent the spread of nuclear-capable systems.

But (inaudible) today’s UASs are nuclear-capable systems...

SEC. ESPER:  I worked on export controls for 20-some years as well, and it's -- you know, you probably agree, it's not necessarily post, you've got to know, you've got to optimize what -- who can you share them with, when and how, right?  Some of our closest allies clearly rise to the top, and others you can make adjustments.  And then it depends on the situation at hand.

So I think we just need to -- we shouldn't -- we just need to take an approach that asks, "What are we trying to achieve?  And what's the quickest way?  And is this a technology, you know, we can release now or what" -- you know, so there are different ways to approach it, but we've got to take -- we've got to put in a larger context of what's happening out there and not in its own silo.

MR. MAHNKEN:  Well, Mr. Secretary, I know your time is precious.  Let me just ask one more question to kind of put this into context.  Which is, you know, as you said a few minutes ago, your top priority has been implementing the NDS, and you did issue a report of how you're doing, how the department's doing.

Putting this into context, you know, during your tenure as secretary, where do you feel that you know we've done the best or are doing the best as far as addressing the top challenge posed by China?  And then conversely, where -- you know, where is the area where -- not just in regard to China, but just regarding our defense strategy overall -- that maybe hasn't gotten the attention that it probably deserves?

SEC. ESPER:  So I think with regard to China, I think about it in two ways.  One is at the -- at the political or national level, it is clear that a consensus has formed that China is behaving and acting in ways inimical to our long-term interests.  They are seeking to overturn the international rules-based order, the expected norms, if you will, of behavior.

I've cited a number of examples in my remarks.  We know that, really, China aims to dominate Asia if not at some point in time to have outsized influence globally.  So I think there is a consensus that's formed, bipartisan, across the country that we need to deal with this threat and we need to -- this challenge, and we need to address it. 

And DOD has done a number of things, State Department, all the agencies have recognized, it's become -- and needs to further become a whole-of-government approach to doing that.  And the NSC has done a good job organizing that whole-of-government approach, if you will.  So me at the political level, that's important.

At the DOD level, I will tell you, again, I think we've made incredible progress over the past 15, 16 months I've been in the job.  Another one of those top 10 items has been to focus the department on China.  So we have a China policy office now, a DASD for China. 

You know, I put out a directive that our -- we would start teaching more about China in our schoolhouses, not just at the geopolitical strategic level but down to, you know, our understanding Chinese order of battle, and things like that.

We're looking at issues such as how many Chinese speakers we have in our armed forces, and do we need more.  We're looking at - I've talked about refining our war plans, our operational plans.  We're building partners.

I've traveled more to the Indo-Pacific than anywhere, and I've met with countries ranging from, most recently, Palau to New Guinea, from you know, the Philippines to Thailand, of course our longstanding allies Japan, Korea, Australia -- but many others in between.  And so we across the government have made reaching out and building those allies and partners a priority.

And then again, even at the modernization, another one of our top 10 things, we are building systems that certainly fare very exceptionally well in the Indo-Pacific, where you face, you know, extreme distances. 

So think about you know, long-range cruise missiles, ground-based missiles, hypersonics, all those things you need, going back to what I said, I think it's the future game-changer, long-range precision weapons.  We are making those investments now to ensure that we have overmatch in the future.

The last question I think you said is, so where do we need to do better?  I -- we need to keep pressing our allies and partners to recognize China for what it is.  And we've -- we were making good progress last year, but I think China's behavior at the beginning and throughout this COVID process has really awakened many other countries to what China's malign intentions really are and their willingness to behave as a responsible country in -- on the world stage.

And so I think we need to further rally other countries to recognize China for what it is, for what their intentions are.  And not that we're seeking a conflict, but we need China to adapt its own policies and procedures.  Their view of the future world order, if you will, is one based on them, an authoritarian regime that represses human rights, restricts religious freedom, limits the press, all those things we know well.

Or we could fight and defend our own values and interests -- think about individual rights, freedom, liberty, opportunity, sovereignty, self-determination, those things.  That's what's at stake, and we need to get more of our allies and partners around the globe focused and rowing with us as we address China (inaudible).

MR. MAHNKEN:  (inaudible), Mr. Secretary.  Thanks for joining us.  You're always welcome at CSBA, it's great to have you.

And thanks to all of you who are joining us virtually for this session.  And wherever you are -- if it's a typical CSBA webinar, you're all the way from -- you know, from one part of the globe to the other -- wish you all the best.  Good afternoon, good evening, probably been good morning for some of you.  Take care, thank you.