ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The Navy’s approach to China is to deter, not to fight a war, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro told Naval Academy midshipmen on Tuesday night.
Instead, the Navy needs to work with allies to help countries China threatens and ultimately show China that it has no maritime allies, which will, in turn, discourage Beijing from an invasion of Taiwan.
Del Toro spoke to midshipmen as part of the Forrestal Lecture Series at the academy. During his speech, he previewed his upcoming strategic guidelines, with a focus on China.
But as the Navy pivots to China and the Indo-Pacific, there are lessons still to learn from the country’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Del Toro said, answering a question from a midshipman about how those strategic failures can inform the approach toward China. Senior leadership needs to look at the past 20 years to try and prevent similar mistakes from happening again.
“It’s not easy, and we’re going to spend years doing them,” Del Toro said. “And that’s helpful. It’s healthy for our nation. It’s healthy for armed services. It’s healthy for each and every one of you.”
Although the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, it does not mean that terrorism ceases to exist. It will rise up again, whether in the Middle East, in the Indo-Pacific or elsewhere, Del Toro said.
But the Navy needs to pivot to the next threat, which is China and Beijing’s goal to take Taiwan, he said.
“For the first time since the defeat of the Soviet Union, we have a strategic competitor with naval capabilities and capacities that rival and, in some areas, even surpass our own,” Del Toro said. “It’s not just the ships and the weapons that concern me. It’s what Beijing does as it strives to achieve leverage over its competitors. It uses every advantage in a corrosive, extractive and dangerously irresponsible manner.”
The United States has not changed its posture toward Taiwan, although it is constantly reviewing the policy, Del Toro said, responding to a midshipman. So far, the policy in place has been effective at keeping peace with China, although he has noticed something change over the past 10 years that warrants a look at the policy.
“So it’s incredibly important as leaders, especially civilian leaders, for us to always be revisiting the policy to make sure that we either tweak it, change it or get rid of it,” Del Toro said. “I would argue that as China continues to do the things that it does, we’re going to continue to revisit that policy to make sure that we’re pursuing a policy that serves our national security interests and the economic interests of the entire world, quite frankly.”
The United States is having discussions with Taiwan and other countries in the Indo-Pacific to figure out ways to work more closely, with the common goal of deterring China, he said.
The first priority of Del Toro’s strategic plan will be maintaining global dominance, building off of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s plan for integrated deterrence through a ready and agile force. The strategic guidelines also incorporate the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday’s navigational plan.
The second priority focuses on strengthening strategic partnerships, Del Toro said. Unlike China, the United States does not treat its allies as satellites, he said.
The Navy is looking ahead to determine the investments it needs to make to achieve its deterrence goal. Already, Del Toro and his office have submitted the Fiscal Year 2023 budget to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and is now looking at the needs for FY 2024. That includes advancements in cybersecurity, Del Toro said, although he did not share details.
“We have to fight on every front,” he said. “On space, cyber, on land, on sea, under the sea, above the sea, everywhere. It takes all of those efforts collectively for us to be successful.”
The third strategic goal is empowering people, Del Toro said. He is focused on increasing educational opportunities for the sailors in the service. His strategic plan calls for more investments in the U.S. Naval War College and the Naval Postgraduate School.
The Navy also opened the U.S. Naval Community College to allow sailors and Marines to learn while serving, which started its first pilot program in January 2021 with up to 600 enlisted service members. The second pilot program classes are expected to commence by fall 2022 with up to 5,000 students.
Del Toro placed an emphasis on continued learning, particularly for officers. In order to retain officers, the Navy needs to provide opportunities for them to develop sub-specialties through postgraduate education.
“If you’re just a pilot your whole life if you’re a surface warfare officer your whole life, or a submariner your whole life, well, it’s nice to be able to do different things when your ashore […] and a build those subspecialties that you can take with you, and then inspire a whole different set of people, you know, whether it be in the intel community or wherever your passions take you is also incredibly important,” Del Toro said.
The key to retainment is an understanding that the Navy is a return on investment that will help their future.
There also needs to be opportunities that allow sailors, Marines and officers to have experiences they cannot get elsewhere, he said. The COVID-19 pandemic affected the ability to visit other ports, one of the highlights of serving in the U.S. Navy, but Del Toro is hopeful that visits will resume as the pandemic begins to come to a manageable level.
Retaining officers starts with leadership, Del Toro said. Junior officers need to be encouraged and inspired by senior leadership so they can do the same for the sailors and Marines they lead.
That also means investments in a diverse fleet, Del Toro said. As secretary of the Navy, he wants to see recruiting done across the country and across genders, races, ethnicities and sexual orientations.
“So for as long as I’m Secretary of the Navy, I’m going to make sure that we have the right investments in place so that everybody in this country has an equal opportunity to come here to the United States Naval Academy and can serve in our Navy and Marine Corps very proudly,” Del Toro said.