“It certainly is a threat U.S. forces will need to take into account,” Bryan Clark, a former U.S. Navy submarine officer and current senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “It is large enough to carry a megaton-class nuclear weapon, although the 100 MT weapon they advertise may be too heavy. Torpedoes are generally negatively buoyant due to the weight of the engine and warhead and the lack of space for ballast tanks like a submarine would have. A really heavy warhead in this vehicle would make it difficult to control in depth without going very fast and using control surfaces to stay at depth—like an airplane. I don’t see control surfaces that would enable that approach here.”
Eric Edelman, who was the Pentagon’s top policy official during the George W. Bush administration, said one way would be to continue using U.S. special operations forces and air power to advise and back up the same Kurdish and Arab militias alongside which they’re already fighting — only now with an aim toward empowering them against attacks from Iranian-backed forces. “You have to have your own forces there behind them so they have leverage in any political negotiation,” he said.
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimated that total costs for the two payloads and four geo satellites, plus ground support, come to approximately $13.6 billion. Each satellite with spares and accessories is estimated to cost $1.7 billion. The Pentagon requested $1.3 billion in 2018 for SBIRS — $862 million more than was appropriated in 2017.
When we talk about gray zone coercion, or gray zone aggression, we are talking about coercion that is more intense than run-of-the-mill diplomacy but less explicit and overt than a full-on military conflict. Gray zone aggressors tend to be revisionist powers; they are actors with some grievance about the current international system. But they don't wish to pay the costs of overt aggression and full-on war, whether those costs are economic sanctions, confrontation with the U.S. alliance system, or others. And so they pursue coercion in a low-key, calibrated way. A good example is Chinese island building and expansionism in the South China Sea. China is using its power in an assertive fashion to bend the regional order to its liking, by using tools ranging from fishing boats to its maritime militia to economic coercion of its neighbors. But it is remaining well below the threshold of open war.
A Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study released last year (and summarized in War on the Rocks) entitled Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy showed conclusively, that a navy the size of that advocated by the president in his campaign (350 ships) is warranted only if the Navy returns to Europe in force, with routine presence in both the Mediterranean and the approaches to Northern Europe. This document would have been a useful place to lay the groundwork for that return.
Is China destined to dominate the Asia-Pacific? Among U.S. allies and partners in the region, there seems to be a growing doubt that America can win the ongoing competition for influence with China, and that they must begin preparing for a regional order headed by Beijing. The challenge for America, then, is to ensure that this feeling of strategic fatalism doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy.