China is an impressive military adversary that is consistently improving and meeting its targets years in advance, putting the US Navy under pressure to respond effectively to the mounting challenge, a top US admiral said on Thursday. “We certainly have a lot of respect for them given their ability to learn and evolve,” Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of US naval operations, said at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in a discussion of the US Navy’s future. “In their phenomenal growth in the military dimension, but also in the economic dimension, not just regionally but globally, they’ve exceeded every deadline they’ve ever set for themselves.” His comments came as US-China relations hit new lows and tensions rise over the Pentagon’s “freedom of navigation” voyages in the contested Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. Gilday said that Beijing’s goals under President Xi Jinping of becoming a regional military power by 2035 and a global one by 2050 are ahead of schedule, with the earlier one likely to be achieved by 2027. “We take that ’27 timeline that President Xi has talked about very seriously.” How do we fit into the whole-of-government approach to deterring China? Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of US naval operations In preparing for any US-China confrontation, Gilday continued, the US Navy must make some tough trade-offs in a constrained budgetary environment. This includes killing outdated shipbuilding programmes and focusing on acquiring resources that make the service “ready to fight tonight” as well as five years in the future while integrating with the rest of the Pentagon operations: air force, army, marines, cyber and space forces. “How do we fit into the whole-of-government approach to deterring China?” he asked. “The epicentre, of course is the Indo-Pacific but it’s a global threat,” involving space, cyber, the economy and allies. The navy’s many priorities to counter China and other threats, he said, include incorporating artificial intelligence, hypersonic weaponry and unmanned vessels into the navy and marines. Unmanned technology is advancing so rapidly that numerous small, disposable unmanned vessels could supplant the function of large traditional ships, he said. Recent tests have racked up 41,000 nautical miles of autonomous travel involving four vessels sailing from the US Gulf Coast to California, with just the Panama Canal transit controlled by humans. Heading out into the ocean will be more challenging, he noted. “Quite frankly, that’s going to be a journey for us.” Another modernisation programme is Project Overmatch, involving data cloud advances aboard vessels – an initiative the navy has not discussed much. “We’ve been very deliberate about keeping a low profile,” Rear Admiral Doug Small, the project’s commander, explained at a conference in February. “Our competitors steal everything, and frankly they’re not ashamed of it.” Would new rules halt the ‘increasing militarisation’ of South China Sea? On Thursday, Gilday said that ships will depend primarily on their own clouds so they can continue operating in battle if cut off from larger regional cloud databases in Hawaii or elsewhere. Another priority is securing the budget to build new ships to replace ageing vessels. The USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, launched in 1975, is now the oldest aircraft carrier in the world, with its nine sister carriers not far behind. The US defence budget is US$782 billion for fiscal 2022, up 5.6 per cent from the previous year. The total requested fiscal 2023 defence budget is US$813 billion. Maintenance is another challenge, with some 75 per cent of ships returning to service later than expected. While there’s a temptation to seek more and larger vessels, they need the manpower, repair and maintenance capacity to support them, Gilday said. Turning to recent events, Gilday said it was still not clear what happened with the sinking of the Moskva, Russia’s Baltic Sea flagship, apparently by Ukrainian truck-mounted Neptune missiles, and what lessons the US Navy can draw regarding China and Taiwan. Questions include whether the vessel was unaware of the danger or saw it but was unable to defend itself, he said. Covid-19 had forced some naval vessels to stay at sea for inordinately long periods – the Nimitz went 341 days without a port call, its longest since the Vietnam war – given the risk of contagion on shore. This not only affected crew mental health, addressed with increased therapists, nutritionists and others, he said, but also strained supply lines. The People’s Liberation Army navy and other services are expanding rapidly, embarking on an ambitious shipbuilding programme that has made China’s navy the world’s largest, though many of the vessels are old and outdated. The US Navy sent a guided-missile destroyer through the strait on Tuesday – the fourth US warship to do so this year – which the Pentagon described as a “routine transit” and China condemned as provocative. China is “our most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge for the Department”, ahead of Russia, the US Defence Department said in its National Defence Strategy report last month. And distrust of China continues to grow. A Pew survey released on Thursday found that 82 per cent of Americans have an unfavourable view of China, up six percentage points since 2021, with similar recent survey results seen in Japan, South Korea and Europe. Americans say China’s relationship with Russia is serious concern, poll finds The White House said this week that US President Joe Biden will travel to Japan and South Korea to underscore the administration’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. As part of the trip, he will also meet with the leaders of the Quad grouping of Australia, Japan and India. Gilday said that nearly as important as a newer, more modern fleet was to smooth out the pipeline to avoid having several ships delivered in one year followed by a long gap of new vessels; such bottlenecks impair efficiency, crew training, support services and planning. Ideally, he said the navy would be able to commission three destroyers and two frigates annually and one supply ship every two years toward the end of the next decade. “That kind of stability and predictability is good for the navy. It’s good for the nation. It’s certainly good for the industrial base,” he added.