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.
OR: You’ve cited cruise ships as a potential target for terrorists — can you expand on your concerns there?
Stavridis: I think that terrorists would try one of two scenarios. One would be to use a barge while a cruise ship’s in port: bring it alongside much as they drive a truck bomb into a busy marketplace in Beirut on a suicide mission. Such an attack could conceivably sink one of these enormous 5,000-person passenger cruise liners. That’s one scenario. Somewhat like the USS Cole was attacked in Yemen some years ago.
A second, more complex scenario would be to take over a cruise liner and take hostages. Cruise liners have pretty minimal security on board. It’s not non-existent, but they hardly have SEAL teams on board to protect them. I think it would be relatively easy to construct a way in which you get a terrorist team on board a ship. You could wreak absolute havoc, create a hostage situation and really play out a very horrific scenario that you could imagine the dark end of. So this is a terrorist threat at sea, not a state-on-state threat at sea. But I think it’s a significant one that we haven’t devoted enough time and energy to thinking about and how we would counter it.
OR: Do you see such an attack as a plausibility, a probability, or an inevitability?
Stavridis: I’d say at the moment it’s a plausibility. It’s often said that 9/11 was not a failure of intelligence, but a failure of imagination. I think that we are not sufficiently putting ourselves in the shoes of the terrorists and thinking about what they are thinking about. Right now, they are fixated on continuing to go after aviation. I’m not sure why they are. We’ve hardened those targets considerably. It’s hard to get into an airport. It’s hard to get on a plane with a weapon. Why they’re not more interested in the maritime world, where it’s relatively easier, I don’t know. But I think that if I’m thinking about it, they will probably begin to think about it. So I’d say it’s a plausibility verging toward a probability at this point.
OR: What is your take on the future of NATO after Trump?
Stavridis: Let me start with giving you several reasons why I think the NATO alliance is a good return on investment for America. We spend $600 billion a year on defense. The Europeans spend between $300 and $400 billion a year on defense. That’s more than Russia and China combined. So they, collectively, have the second-largest defensive budget in the world. We want them on our side.
Secondly, their geographic position — they are on the western edge of the Eurasian continent — is highly, highly strategic. People used to say, “Oh, we don’t need those Cold War bases in Europe any more.” Wrong. Those are the forward operating stations of the 21st century, allowing the United States to project power into the Levant to defend Israel, into the near Middle East, into Afghanistan. Those bases are absolutely critical.
Then there’s the economy. Europe, collectively — I mean the non-U.S. NATO allies — have a GDP of around $17 trillion, the same as the United States. Again, it’s the largest collective economy in the world. We want them on our team.
They share our values. Where else on the planet are we going to find a pool of partners who believe as fervently in democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression as we do? Who every day stand with us? The only time the NATO alliance has actually conducted an Article 5 operation — that’s the “an attack on one is an attack on all” clause — was when the United States was attacked on 9/11. So I think there’s a huge positive return on investment from the European partners.
They, however, have been spending somewhat less than the two percent of GDP goal. This is what President Trump, I think correctly, criticizes NATO for. So what would make this alliance perfect, instead of being very, very good, would be if the Europeans would up their defense spending from their current 1.6% or 1.7% to a full two percent of their GDP. They are trending toward more defense spending. I give President Trump credit for having energized that with his, shall we say, blunt talk. But the bottom line is that if this alliance didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it. We’d desperately want it if it didn’t already exist. We’d be very foolish to denigrate it or walk away from it.
OR: Do you think it was a mistake NATO expanded eastward to the extent that it did?
Stavridis: This is going to be a terrific geopolitical question to ponder. I think that the short answer is no. I don’t think we made a mistake. Let’s go down the path of if we had not done that. I think by now Russia would have created a very strong sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. They would have recreated a kind of Warsaw Pact-lite. And those nations currently inside the NATO umbrella would be inside a Russian umbrella. I don’t think that’s a better world.
Despite the fact that it’s frustrating to Russia, I think that NATO does not threaten Russia. I’ve been the Supreme Allied Commander. I’ve read and literally written the war plans at NATO. I can tell you as a fact that we don’t have a single offensive war plan directed against the Russian Federation, whatever they think. So I would say what we need to do is put ourselves in the shoes of the Russians and work very hard to convince Russia that we’re not encircling them. It might feel that way. But let’s work together, let’s create zones of cooperation.
I do think that it might be questionable whether it’s good strategy for NATO to expand any further. But I think that that initial round of expansion was appropriate. Let’s recall the circumstances. Each of those nations came to NATO and begged to join. It’s not as though NATO tanks went rolling into Czechoslovakia the way Soviet tanks went rolling in in 1968. Nobody forced those nations to join NATO. They begged to join NATO. That’s a very different proposition than a narrative that says NATO expanded its territory by dominating these unwilling nations. That’s really not the case.
The strongest supporters of NATO are those Eastern European countries. And if I had been under a Soviet boot for 40 years, I’d feel pretty strongly about being in NATO, as well.
OR: Do you think that the President has damaged our relationships with our NATO allies?
Stavridis: It’s the right question to ask. Here’s what I would say. When President Trump was saying things like, “NATO’s obsolete, I may not defend allies if they’re not paying their dues, I may walk out of NATO” — I think if he’d followed that policy direction, that would have deeply damaged our relationships. Subsequently, he went to the NATO summit. It was a mixed review. He was very critical of the allies. He didn’t articulate support for Article 5. I think that did not enhance the US position in NATO.
But since then, he has articulated support for Article 5. I think he’s come around on NATO and I think that’s a credit very much to Secretary of Defense Mattis and to some degree Secretary of State Tillerson for helping him understand the positive return on investment in the alliance. So it’s not as bad as it could be and I think it’s trending in the right direction.
OR: What are the major strategic threats that NATO as an institution faces?
Stavridis: I think NATO has three key strategic challenges. One is the resurgence of Russia and ongoing pressure around the borders of the alliance by Russian activity against NATO aircraft and NATO ships. There have been discussions by Russia of using gas as a strategic weapon against NATO countries. So I think a resurgent Russia is a NATO challenge.
Secondly, I think that there are centrifugal forces at work in Europe today. The Brexit, obviously, being the most proximate example of this. However, we’ve seen an election in France which revalidates the European project. So I think those forces, while concerning, are not at the moment existential for European unity. But I think it is a second strategic challenge.
Thirdly, there is the the entire disruption along what some have called the arc of crisis that abuts the NATO alliance: Syria, Iraq, the Levant, the waves of refugees. I think all of that collectively poses a strategic challenge for the alliance that it’s going to have to deal with, because of the concern on its borders.
I’ll give you two more that I think are worth pondering. They’re not quite at the level of those three, but one is cyber and NATO’s vulnerabilities in the cyber world. And the other is the high North, the Arctic, where we see Russia pushing very hard against the five NATO nations that line up across the Arctic Sea. So three big ones, a couple others to watch.
OR: Do you see Russia testing Article 5 in the Baltics?
Stavridis: No, I do not. I think Russia understands very clearly where the borders of the alliance are. I think they understand that NATO outspends Russia eight-to-one on defense, that the population of NATO is ten times that of Russia. I don’t see Russia making an overt attempt at a NATO border. I think it’s conceivable that Russia might try to pressurize one of the Baltic states through some level of what has been called hybrid warfare: propaganda coupled with unmarked soldiers moving surreptitiously across borders. But even that I think is highly unlikely.
I think the extent of what Russia would try militarily we’ve already seen, which is the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. I think they recognize any further misadventure along those lines would be met with a significant NATO response, and I don’t think they have a desire to test that.
If you were talking to a Polish strategic planner or the chief of defense of Latvia, you’d get a different answer. They would say they are very concerned that Russia would attempt to go at a NATO border. I, however — perhaps because I am safely across the Atlantic — do not think that that is going to be in Putin’s calculus. He’s a gambler, but he doesn’t want to play those odds.
OR: What does Turkey’s political transition into authoritarianism or seeming authoritarianism mean for NATO?
Stavridis: Turkey is indeed moving toward a very authoritarian state and it is worrisome. Certainly, the NATO charter requires that all of the members be democracies. Turkey still meets the minimums, but the trends are not in a good direction, particularly pressure on the media, on the judiciary, on the military (ironically enough), and on private citizens generally who articulate opposition to President Erdoğan. So given that, I think the alliance should do everything it can to keep Turkey in the NATO orbit.
That means lots of military exchanges. These are the tools that NATO can energize. Bringing Turkish officers into NATO staffs, sending NATO officers into Turkish military formations, conducting exercises and training in Turkey. We have a major headquarters in Izmir. That’s a very good thing. We have a missile defense mission in southern Turkey. that’s a very good thing. We should encourage Turkey when it is purchasing large weapons systems to work with NATO defense industries, not go afield with Russia or China. Both of which have been discussed. We should criticize in private, but work as closely as we can in public. And over time, hope that as President Erdoğan settles a new political structure that vests so much power in the presidency of Turkey, he will become more comfortable with reopening some of the traditional democratic mechanisms that we have seen in Turkey over the previous decades.
I want to close by saying it is a worrisome situation and it’s exacerbated by the high level of instability on the Turkish border. Which is, at the end of the day, a NATO border as well.