Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and of Southern Command, currently head of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and author of The Leader’s Bookshelf paid a return visit to the program this morning as news of China’s launch of its first built-from-scratch aircraft carrier made news:
HH: Rarely do I have a guest one week for the first time where everybody, everybody says bring that man back. And so Admiral James Stavridis, who is the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, and 37 years in the United States Navy, including as head of Southern Command and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, is back. I neglected to mention last week he’s also the author of an incredible book, The Leader’s Bookshelf, which has been mentioned to me by about 25 people. I have read the Accidental Admiral, but I didn’t know about The Leader’s Bookshelf until last week. What is this all about, Admiral, The Leader’s Bookshelf?
JS: We thought that no one has time to read lots and lots of leadership books, so my co-author and I surveyed about 200 senior officers and asked them what are your favorite books. So we’ve crowdsourced great books on leadership. There are 50 books on The Leader’s Bookshelf in the book, Hugh, and for each of them, there’s a synopsis, there’s leadership lessons. It’s a wonderful survey of leadership through reading novels, fiction, plays, poetry, history, biography. It’s a nice compendium, and it’s a, deserves a place on everyone’s bookshelf, I think.
HH: Then we’re going to get a copy of that, and we’ll do a deep dive on The Leader’s Bookshelf. Last week, the day after you were on, Admiral McRaven came on to talk about his new book, Make the Bed. And he said whatever Jim Stavridis tells you to do, you do it. So I’ve got to read the book, and so it’s a definite…and it’s blurbed by Stanley McChrystal, who came to the studio once and spent three hours with me in the most transfixing three hours I think I’ve ever had in the studio talking about his book, Team of Teams, and his memoir. So I’m glad when the military guys go out and actually write the book. Usually, you’re too busy to set out and do books. You’ve got lots of boards to sit on, etc. So I appreciate you taking the time to do that book, and we will get The Leader’s Bookshelf, and we’ll come back and talk about that. But I have news of the day to discuss with you, number one being China has launched its first home-built aircraft carrier. Now from the perspective of someone who had to deal with their submarines, you were telling me you were an anti-submarine officer in your first assignment, what do you make of China building aircraft carriers?
JS: First of all, it’s a tribute to what the U.S. has been able to do projecting power with its aircraft carriers for 50 years, really, since the end of the Second World War. We’ve been the dominant actor in that space. China’s been watching. Secondly, it is their attempt to provide real sea control and power projection in their littoral waters around China in the South China Sea. And thirdly, it’s a natural evolution for them in terms of the advancing capability of their military. They want to demonstrate that. When you put those three things together, not surprising, and we ought to be mindful that there’ll be more carriers where this first one comes from.
HH: They have their old one that they rebuilt off the Soviet hull, so this is number two. What are their pilot capacity? I don’t believe there’s any navy in the world that can do nighttime carrier operations except ours. Do they aim for that, do you think?
JS: They absolutely aim for that. And their jets are, I call them 70% of the capability of the U.S. fifth-generation fighters, which is what we’re operating on the decks of our nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. That’s another big limitation for them. This is not a nuclear carrier, so it’s going to need to be refueled. It’ll have limitations logistically. But in terms of the ability to project power around China’s littoral, and above all, Hugh, they want to dominate the South China Sea, because they claim it as territorial seas. It’s a perfect platform for that.
HH: The Spectator Index provides my second data point for you today. The United States has 71 submarines under the water. China has 61. Japan has 18. India has 14. I assume, I know our submarines are superior in every way, shape and form to theirs, but nevertheless, 61 is a lot of submarines.
JS: Yeah, I think it was Lenin who said quantity has a quality all its own, and that’s true. What we need to understand about their boats, Hugh, is kind of the same point I just made on the carriers. They’re largely, many of them are diesel-powered, so they’re good for in and around the shorelines. Again, that’s South China Sea, and here, the East China Sea, operating against the Japanese submarines. They certainly overmatch Japan. That’s their primary theater threat. But no, our nukes can really handle the load. By the way, we’ve a nuclear actor submarine that’s just popped into the Koran scenario, USS Michigan.
HH: I reported on that yesterday, because it’s at Busan, and I explained it’s the, it doesn’t carry they Trident missile. It carries the Tomahawk missiles, I believe.
HH: What does that, what set message does that send in your book, Admiral Stavridis?
JS: Well, this is a powerful signal. This is a former nuclear strike submarine which has been converted to fire the land-attack version of the Tomahawk missiles, the same ones, Hugh, that we just unloaded into Syria. It carries over 150 of those. It’s completely undetectable. That’s what those boats were built to do, to be you can’t find them. And it means that it brings 150-plus Tomahawks up close and personal to Kim Jung Un. It’s a powerful signal.
HH: Yesterday, the North Koreans were conducting long range artillery drills, and we began to deploy the THAAD. And I, this is all kind of a dance of escalation. How, last week, you were concerned. Has your concern level gone up or down in the week since we spoke?
JS: I think it’s right where it was, Hugh. The addition of the THAAD is a purely defensive weapon. It stands for Theater High-Altitude Air Defense. It is like the Aegis system on our Aegis destroyers at sea, and it’s designed to knock down incoming missiles, and so highly accurate, highly capable. It’s got, it is purely defensive, however, so I don’t see that as escalatory. I do see the addition of Michigan to the mix as raising the tension somewhat. So I think this is sort of proceeding according to form, and I still believe we’re not going to end up in a hot war in the next 30, 60, 90 days. This is more 18 months to three years out when the ballistic missile capability crosses with the miniaturization of the nuclear capability. Those two things, those two streams, are coming together not for about 18-24 months. That’s when crunch time really hits.
HH: I’ve already repeated to a number of people your quoting of Ghostbusters, don’t let the streams cross. And I think that will, it is a great way to get into people’s head what we’re worried about…
HH: …miniaturization and inter-continental ballistic missile capacity. Let me turn you, then, to go to 30,000 feet in the three minutes we have left, Admiral. Jim Talent, former Senator Talent, has a piece at the National Review, the Corner, We Need More Ships. My colleague, Robert O’Brien, co-authored with Jerry Hendrix, retired captain of the U.S. Navy at CNAS, a piece in Politico last week on how to get to 350 ships. What do you think is the number? And how quickly do we have to get on paper a plan to get to that number?
JS: The number is in fact about 350. Jerry Hendrix has been studying this for a long time. Pretty much everybody who looks at ship numbers will tell you 340-360, so let’s call it 350. We’ve got to get a plan on paper immediately. Why? Because ships take a long time to build. The ships you’re sailing in today were built 20-30 years ago, so you fall off that distant cliff if you can’t start construction rapidly, and we don’t have a huge industrial base to build these ships. So we need to get a plan, we need to commit. This is something the Trump administration has already committed to. I think it’ll be job one for the new Secretary of the Navy, presumably Richard Spencer, who’s been nominated for that position.
HH: Now that 350 ship number, and in the articles I’ve referenced, they all have different ship mixes, and there are a lot of good plans. But they need to fix on one, don’t they, and say this is the plan and here are the shipyards, and here’s the mix?
JS: They absolutely do. And the real traits base in this conversation is something called the littoral combat ships, which are relatively low cost vessels that have been built to operate in and around the shoreline. A lot of people think those ships are not the right ones. We need to go back to the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer like the Barry that I commanded. I tend to fall in that latter category. But your point is salient. We have to make a series of decisions. And as we say in the Navy, we’ve got to start cutting steel.
HH: Now Admiral, if the President were to convene a group of people, say you’re among them, or you’re on the sideline in that room, would the Navy resist that if the President said here’s my commission, they’re going to come up with the mix, and then the Navy’s going to implement? Or does the Navy want to come up with that plan?
JS: I think the Navy would actually welcome a well-structured outside look. We’ve done this several times in our history, brought in boards to give that kind of outside look, outside advice. The Navy can then move and execute and have that kind of powerful voice behind its efforts. I think overall, the Navy would be supportive of that.
HH: And in terms of the replacement of the Ohio-Class with the Columbia-class, that’s part of the mix, but it is so freaking expensive. Does the budget need to create a separate and maintain a separate line for that, the backbone of our nuclear deterrent?
JS: It absolutely does. That’s a national responsibility, and that should not be constructed on the backs of Navy shipbuilding. If you do that, you’re going to choke off the destroyers, the cruisers, the lower less expensive but highly important ships back to quantity has a quality all its own. If you’re going to build these hyper-expensive ballistic missile boats, which you must, then you’ve got to find other resources to build that quantity number. That’s why the ballistic missiles should be in a separate account as a national responsibility, Hugh.
HH: Admiral Stavridis, always a pleasure. The Leader’s Bookshelf will be the subject of our next conversation absent some crisis in the interim. I look forward to reading it. Thanks for spending some time with me this morning, as always, a great pleasure.
End of interview.