AMTI Director Mira Rapp Hooper interviews former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead on the evolving role of military exercises in the Asia Pacific.

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Interview Transcript

Mira Rapp Hooper: Hello everyone, I’m Mira Rapp Hooper, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and I’m very pleased to be here today with Admiral Gary Roughead. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Admiral Gary Roughead: Mira it’s a true pleasure to be here with you and talking about something I think is extremely important.

MRH: Admiral Roughead is the former chief of naval operations in addition to an AMTI contributor and he’s agreed to join me today to have a conversation about military exercises in E Asia. I’d like to start out today by asking you to sort of tease out for us the sort of underlying purposes of military exercises and of course there can be many. We can think of combined military exercises as helping to bolster the relationship between allies. We can think of them as a state like the United States demonstrating its presence reinforcing deterrence through military exercises and we can even think of exercises as serving a role between potential adversaries, helping to reduce tensions between them. So could you just tell us a bit in general terms about how each of these three dynamics are playing out in East Asia.

AGR: Well I think you’ve captured it very nicely as to what the purposes of the exercises are. But as you know in Asia Pacific region we do hundreds of exercises and we use the term combined because that brings that countries together. Most often in Asia they tend to be bilateral exercises meaning two countries that are exercising in particular areas. We in the United States like to do more multilateral exercises, bringing more parties into the process. As you said they serve many functions, they demonstrate our presence, they demonstrate our commitment to the security and prosperity of the region, they enable political relationships to evolve with the military underpinning, a security underpinning. But they also are great for our people to be able to practice their skills, but to be able to do it with (in my case the Navy) sailors of other countries. And you build the relationships that are extraordinarily important. All too often we focus on the exercise proper, when the ships get together at sea and you do various evolutions. But these exercises are really months in the planning and the activities that take place between the planners from the United States and the other country or other countries really begin to develop relationships that are lasting that they are there to be used or to be reenergized for example if there’s a disaster that strikes the region it is not uncommon, for example, when we have an event an earthquake or a tsunami or a typhoon and we know that we’re going to be working with the other countries, the first place we go to is your contact list of the planners that you’ve worked with on other exercises. So the value of these exercises that we run are significant and they’re very, very valuable and again not just the exercise itself but the planning process, the discussions that take place, the relationships that build, really important for our role in the region and they contribute greatly to the security of the region.

MRH: When you think about how exercises in the region are evolving I’m curious for your thoughts on how China’s role in exercises may be shifting. In particular, has the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army changed their views (in so far as you can tell) towards combined exercises in the region? And how is the relationship between the U.S. and China been shifting when it comes to military exercises?

AGR: Well I think the PLA has changed their views a bit. What we’ve seen recently for example, a major development, was the participation of the PLA Navy in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise. We’ve seen recently a humanitarian exercise in Hawaii with PLA forces that are there. But it seems to me still to be a bit lopsided. In other words, the PLA is participating in exercises that we’re hosting, and I think that’s a very positive thing but I believe that in order for there to be a significant change in the way that the PLA and the U.S. military will exercise and get into a more normal or a more routine process is that I really do believe that the PLA needs to host some exercises in and around China. I also believe that it’s important for the PLA to begin to move into more multilateral exercises. As you know RIMPAC is perhaps one of the largest multilateral exercises in the world. It clearly is the largest naval exercise in the world. And when I’ve talked to some of my PLA interlocutors about doing something similar in China I was always told “Well we don’t do multilateral exercises.” But I think that it’s time that the PLA really needs to begin to think differently about how they want to play the role in the region and begin to do a bit more hosting of these exercises in and around China.

MRH: Can you tell us a bit more about why the PLA leadership might have traditionally not been engaging in multilateral exercises? And what sorts of changes might be required to shift them more in that direction?

AGR: Well I think that one, multilateral exercises are far more complex, they take into account not only different militaries but also in the region you have to take into account the different politics that may exist among the different countries. I think the bilateral is much easier it is something that they have been doing for a long time and I’m hopeful that we’ll see a change but I think a lot of it is the way it has always been done but it’s also much easier to work bilateral “affects” if you will without bringing in all the other countries. I do believe and we’ve seen so many times and I alluded to why these exercises are important that when you come together in response to an event whether it’s a humanitarian issue, some climate event that may take place, you tend to come together multi-nationally and it really does pay to have practiced in that type of scheme of venue and I think that China really needs to begin to move down that path.

MRH: Shifting to other U.S. friends and allies in the region, I wonder if you could share with us your thoughts on what India’s evolving role in military exercises in the region is likely to look like?

AGR: Well I think that India will be much more active in military exercises in what I would call the Indo-Pacific because clearly their primary interest is really the Indian Ocean the sea lanes that are in the Indian Ocean and the approaches to that ocean whether it’s coming out of the Straits of Hormuz or the Straits of Malacca. Malabar is a longstanding exercise that we’ve conducted with the Indian Navy and we’ve included the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force and I think Malabar, particularly when you bring together the U.S., India and Japan you’re bringing together three of the most capable naval forces in the region. The Indian Navy is very professional, very competent, they operate significant technology in their navy. Japan – very much the same. And then when you bring in Australia, that just adds to it and you’re really playing at a level that’s pretty sophisticated when you’re working with those navies. And I would add in opportunities for Singapore. Small navy but extraordinarily competent, extraordinarily professional and very comfortable with working out of the region. As you may know the Singaporeans have contributed significantly with some of the coalition task forces in the north Arabian Sea and in the Gulf. I think that there’s tremendous potential to really step up the level of exercises among India, Australia, the U.S. and as I said Japan and Singapore as well. So I think that you will begin to see more exercise activity, more complex exercise activity. Because as you may know the Indians also operate aircraft carriers, they’re very competent submariners. SO I think you’re going to start to see some of that play out in the coming years.

MRH: AMTI and many major media outlets in the world have recently been paying some very close attention to China’s building activities in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Should we expect to see an increase in military exercises in the South China Sea in the coming years? And if so, would you anticipate that these would be exercises that involve more countries, that are longer in duration, that are targeting specific locations that they may not have operated around before? What is your vision of the role that combined exercises might play in managing the tensions in the South China Sea?

AGR: I think that the exercises can go a long way to managing tensions. That said, I’m not sure that we’re going to see a rapid rise in the level of activities, because as you well know, there are other disputes that are in play in the South China Sea. And so operating in that area is always quite sensitive; and so I think that will be tempering the pace perhaps, that the exercises will move forward. I also believe that we will see perhaps China just exercising more unilaterally in the South China Sea, which will be very discomforting for the countries in the region. But I really do think that as they have built out capabilities in the South China Sea, and the infrastructure improvements that have been made, that have given what before were very, very small islands or islets in the region; they’ve now provided an opportunity to employ some fairly significant military capability from them. So I think the first thing we will see is more Chinese unilateral activity and assertion of their views with regard to the South China Sea. I think that that will cause other countries to want to exercise and participate, but in the background will be some of these underlying sensitivities among the countries in the region. So I think that’s probably how we’ll see it play out.

MRH: Can you talk a bit about how resourcing affects the future of military exercises in the Pacific and elsewhere?

AGR: I think, you know, it’s a very real fact that has to be considered; and it’s easy to say ‘well let’s go do an exercise with Country X or Country Y’, but there are really several factors that come into play in an exercise. One is the political relationships that exist, and are the countries comfortable operating militarily with one other. Then, there is the question of military compatibility. Because the region has such a range of countries with varying levels of military technology and experience, you have to take a look at that. But then, you really come down to the fact that do you have the forces that can be put toward that exercise, or are they off doing other things, are they back in a maintenance period. And then just the money that you spend on fuel, and ammunition, and all the food and support that goes out into a maritime exercise. So you have to consider that, and you really have to consider it not just from the standpoint of the US, because it’s very easy as our ships move through the area, because of our permanent presence there, to exercise quite frequently. But we have to keep in mind that for some countries, the cost of an exercise can be a fairly significant part of their budget; and so the pace with which exercises play out really have to take into account resources, and in the case of the US it’s no different. Our men and women who are forward deployed in the region are very busy, and they’re also having to deal with many of the same things that I’ve talked about. As you look at this exercise planning process, that sometimes begins a year or two years in advance, depending on the complexity of the exercise, you have to have an assurance that those resources are going to be there; and in the case of the United States, with some of the uncertainties surrounding our budget, with the uncertainties surrounding the budget control act, and sequestration; when you start to look that far out, when you don’t have that certainty, it makes it a little difficult to plan. So resources are important, predictability is key, because the last thing you want to do is to cancel out at the last minute after people have put a lot of effort and money into preparing for these exercises. So resources are always pretty significant for all the countries that are participating.

MRH: Admiral Roughead thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your wisdom.

AGR: My pleasure, thank you very much.

About Gary Roughead

Admiral Roughead is an Annenberg Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.  Prior to retiring from the U.S. Navy he was the U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations and a member of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

About AMTI Leadership

Dr. Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Executive Advisor to AMTI. Gregory Poling is Director of AMTI and Fellow with the Asia Program at CSIS. Learn more about the core AMTI leadership.