Full Speed Ahead

An Interview with Adm. James Stavridis

Adm. James Stavridis is a decorated Navy veteran and the former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe at NATO. He is also one of the foremost thinkers about the centrality of sea power in geopolitics. Here, he discusses the big blue-water problems facing the U.S., why our contributions to NATO get us incredible value from our closest allies, and the next big threat in asymmetric warfare: terror attacks directed against cruise ships.

Atlanticsentinel. James Stavridis on NATO and Trump

Octavian Report: In your new book, Sea Power, you talk about the central role sea power should play in geostrategy -- can you expand on your thinking there?

Adm. James Stavridis:  There are three components to the book. One is what it's like to be in the captain's chair, what it's like to sail into the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar, what it's like to approach China at night through the South China Sea, what the Arctic feels like when you sail through it.

Second is the history. You can't really opine or understand today's geopolitics without understanding their history, particularly on the maritime side, where so many times a naval battle is a small hinge that a really big door swings on.

Third is today's geopolitics. Do the oceans matter? Does sea power matter for a nation? The fundamental thesis of the book is that it does. Take a look around the globe today. Our tactical challenges can be found so often in the maritime world. Look at the meltdown in Syria -- and the resultant millions crossing the eastern and central Mediterranean. Look at the conflict between the United States and Russia at sea, in the eastern Mediterranean, with our aircraft carriers operating there.

Or shift to the Pacific and look at Kim Jong-un. Any solution we take to the North Korea issue that involves military options is going to come from the sea. Or go south to the South China Sea and look at the building of artificial islands, which indicate the collision course of China and the United States. We're not going to fight a big land war in Asia, but we may very well be in a maritime air conflict with China. I certainly hope not. I don't predict it, but when you look at all of those crises, both tactical and strategic, you see a significant maritime footprint.

OR: Is the U.S. prepared to maintain its sea power? What is the status of its fleet, its strength, and its readiness?

Stavridis: We are the preeminent sea power in the world. That's the good news.

The bad news is our fleet shrank from 600 front-line warships under Reagan to about 350 toward the end of the Cold War. Today we're down to 275. At the same time, both China and Russia are increasing their fleet capability profoundly.

China is building a real blue-water fleet with aircraft carriers that will challenge us. Russia is rebuilding the “glory of the Soviet navy.” They are putting real emphasis on their submarine force and their long-range cruise missiles at hypersonic speed. Both of those nations are thinking about how to use cyber to attack maritime targets. We are not as strong as we once were and we are facing rising competition from two significant geopolitical actors. It's a mixed picture. We certainly can maintain our preeminence at sea, but it will require increasing the size of the fleet and putting focus on maritime security activities.

OR: Do you see that happening under the current administration?

Stavridis: Yes. I do see that happening. The first budget that the Trump administration submitted did not significantly increase fleet size, but all of the conversation that I hear, including my own conversations with Defense Secretary Mattis, as well as campaign promises and expectations in the maritime shipbuilding industry point to an increase in fleet size.

Let me make a point, though. We're not going to be able to build our way out of this deficit. We're also going to have to extend the life of our current fleet -- notably when it comes to cruisers. We're going to potentially have to take some number of ships out of mothballs, modernize them, and put them into the fleet. If we do a combination of those things, we can maintain a significant lead over both China and Russia. I think it's important that we do.

OR: You mentioned cyber threats directed against maritime targets. Can you talk about what that might look like?

Stavridis: The way you would go at this is two-fold. Our maritime activity and our navigational systems obviously are all connected on the internet and run off the GPS system. A traditional cyber attack would go through the internet, through servers, into the nodes that are actually operated by the Department of Defense.

The second thing you would do is attempt, using espionage, to have actors insert into hard drives thumb drives that can move a virus inside the protective screen of the U.S. military. This is what was allegedly done, according to press reports, to the Iranians when their centrifugal machines were destroyed in their nuclear program by a combination of U.S. and Israeli actors.

So there's two vectors. Our vulnerabilities are pretty significant because we've made an assumption that our maritime forces are hardened against this. In reality they're not.

OR: There's been talk of China having developed a “carrier-killer” missile. What's your take on that -- reality or overstatement?

Stavridis: I think China and Russia have both made significant advances in the speed, the precision, and the lethality of their cruise missiles. This often falls under the term hypersonic cruise missiles -- the speed of sound being 600 miles an hour. Our missile defenses can easily handle missiles that move at twice that, maybe two and a half times that. Allegedly, the Chinese have developed a hypersonic cruise missile that can go four times the speed of sound. That would present an extremely challenging target. In order to take that kind of missile out, the defensive AEGIS missile systems on our cruisers and destroyers would have to be geometrically positioned precisely correctly to have the longest possible look at the incoming missile. It presents a high degree of tactical challenge.

We have not seen that missile fully demonstrated. We are operating off a combination of press reports and intelligence reports. But if it exists, it is a new challenge. How do you deal with it? A, you increase the ability of our AEGIS missile defenses to handle faster cruise missiles. Those technological adaptions are in progress. B, you build a strategy: shoot the archer before the archer can shoot at you. So you have to start thinking in terms of preemptive campaigns. C, you use the inherent speed and ability of the carrier to avoid falling into that missile trap. These carriers are huge, but they are anything but slow. They can travel well over 35 knots. They can move close to a thousand miles in 24 hours. They're a difficult targeting proposition. So using a combination of those three things, I'm confident our carriers can continue to operate.