Watch: America’s maritime leaders discuss U.S. naval forces in the Asia-Pacific region

“We’ve always been a Pacific power,” said Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus during a Brookings event last week. “The U.S. Navy has been a Pacific force for seventy years. In fact you could make a great argument that Asia is doing as well economically as it is because of the U.S. Navy, because we kept the sea lanes open for everybody for seven decades now.”

Secretary Mabus’ remarks came at an event hosted by the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings. In the event, Secretary Mabus was joined by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson and Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps General Robert Neller to discuss future maritime strategies, concepts, and technologies, with particular emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region. Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon, co-director of the center, moderated the discussion. Listen to full audio here:

In 2011, President Obama announced a strategic “rebalance” of U.S. resources, including U.S. military forces, to the Asia-Pacific region. Also called the “pivot to Asia,” continued progress toward the rebalance was a central element in the conversation at Brookings with the leaders of America’s maritime forces.

How many ships in Pacific?

Secretary Mabus, in the context of discussing the rebalance with Asia-Pacific military and civilian leaders, continued that “the visible symbols of that rebalance—the answer to the question: Are you serious about this? … Are you going to be here? Is this a passing fancy, or are you going to be here?—are those naval assets and are those sailors and Marines that come with them.”

A question often asked is how many naval forces are and will operate in the Asia-Pacific region under the rebalance strategy. Secretary Mabus detailed the number of U.S. Navy ships over time, and explained how it has been and will continue to grow, but emphasized that “the size of the fleet that you are going to have depends on decisions made a decade before.” Watch:

Rebalance to Asia-Pacific is a whole government response

Adm. Richardson expanded the discussion of ship numbers to emphasize that the rebalance includes “a whole government response.” Watch:

Richardson also addressed the specific issue of naval force composition, including the “urgent issue” in the number of attack submarines and the state of the national security industrial base that builds ships and subs.

U.S. Marine Corps is a Pacific force

General Neller referenced the fact that at this time in 1945, U.S. Marines were fighting to secure control of Iwo Jima from Japanese forces. Thus, the rebalance to the Pacific is just “back to the future” for the Marine Corps in his view. “Historically the modern Marine Corps is a Pacific force,” he said. Watch:

“We’re part of the fleet,” General Neller added. “We operate as part of the fleet; we’re part of the naval force. We’re best employed coming from the sea, using the sea as maneuver space. It’s good to be back in the Pacific. And there is a lot to do.

Get technology to the fleet faster

O’Hanlon directed the conversation to technology issues, including cyber, robotics, and directed energy weapons. Secretary Mabus answered that the most important issue in technology development and deployment is getting new technology more quickly to the people who use it. “Regardless of what the technology is,” he said, “how do we get it [to the fleet] quicker?” Watch:

Both Adm. Richardson and Gen. Neller agreed on the importance of increasing the pace at which new technology is delivered to those who use it.

Keep sea lanes open in South China Sea

During Q&A, a reporter posed a question to Gen. Neller about China’s increased military activity on islands in the South China Sea. The reporter asked, “At what point does this go from a freedom of navigation issue to a military problem?” General Neller asserted that “we are going to maintain our rights of passage through international waters.” Watch:

To learn more about the event, visit the event’s web page.