Adm. Scott Swift, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet who was the leading candidate to become the next commander of the Pacific Command, was informed this week he will not be the nominee and instead will retire.
“I have been informed by the chief of naval operations that I will not be his nominee to replace Adm. Harris as the commander, U.S. Pacific Command,” Adm. Swift said in a statement. “In keeping with tradition and in loyalty to the Navy, I have submitted my request to retire.”
No reason was given for the decision by Adm. John Richardson, the CNO, to withdraw Adm. Swift from consideration.
Some speculation focused on the political fallout from two deadly collisions involving Pacific-based guided-missile destroyers.
Pentagon sources, however, say a major reason behind the decision to deep-six Adm. Swift’s nomination was his hard-line views on China.
The four-star admiral may have upset senior Pentagon and Navy leaders who have become increasingly politicized on the subject of seeking closer military relations with China. That cultural affinity has been attributed by some defense analysts to the influence of liberal academic advisers within the circle of Adm. Richardson and his top admirals.
The shooting down of Adm. Swift’s promotion is being viewed as a political victory for pro-China engagement proponents, both in the Pentagon and among foreign policy elites.
That outlook was challenged by current Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris, who took a much tougher posture toward China than many of his predecessors. Adm. Harris pushed back against Chinese claims in the South China Sea, calling Beijing’s attempts to covertly take over the sea by building a “Great Wall of Sand.” He also backed the Japanese in their fight against Beijing’s claims to the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
The PACOM chief also encouraged those under his command, including Adm. Swift, to adopt more realistic approaches to addressing the growing Chinese military threat in the Pacific.
Apparently Adm. Swift upset not just some Navy colleagues but also some pro-China engagement forces within the office of Defense Secretary James Mattis through his blunt comments and policies toward Beijing. Those comments include an answer to a reporter’s question in Australia last July that he would carry out orders from the president to conduct nuclear attacks on China.
After the collision involving the destroyer USS John S. McCain, Chinese state-run media said the U.S. Navy posed a danger to commercial shipping in Asia.
That reaction prompted Adm. Swift to suggest the Chinese navy should be disinvited from the large-scale U.S.-led international naval exercise known as RIMPAC when the next maneuvers are held in 2018.
Adm. Swift also wanted to send a strong signal of disapproval to China by canceling a planned visit to Hong Kong by the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan. But he was overruled by Pentagon civilian officials who still favor engagement with the Chinese military.
The admiral’s views were outlined in a speech last week in Los Angeles harshly criticizing Beijing for seeking to take control of international waters and airspace near its coasts by applying national law to international spaces.
“If states are willing to treat control of the global commons at sea as up for grabs, there is little reason for confidence that global commons within other domains like space and cyber are any more protected,” he said.
“At the heart of freedom of navigation discussions is the principle of unfettered access to the shared global spaces for all nations,” Adm. Swift said. “China is challenging that principle across all elements of national power characterized by the acronym ‘DIME’: Diplomatic, Information, Military and Economic.”
As reported in this space, Adm. Swift was the favored candidate of the White House to replace Adm. Harris, who turned down a second term as commander and was offered a position as U.S. ambassador to Australia.
A new candidate for the post is Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, commander of the Pacific Air Forces.
Dunford on Korean missile threat
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford said this week that the military is bolstering missile defenses based on the growing threats posed by North Korea.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to a second term as chairman, Gen. Dunford testified that U.S. intelligence on North Korea is sketchy but that Pyongyang will soon have the capability of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental United States.
The four-star Marine Corps general said assessments of North Korea’s new KN-20 intercontinental ballistic missile, tested twice in July, are prompting a bolstering of ground-based interceptors in Alaska and Hawaii.
“Whether it’s 3 months or 6 months or 18 months, it is soon, and we ought to conduct ourselves as though it is just a matter of time, and a matter of very short time, before North Korea has that capability,” Gen. Dunford said.
Assessing the nuclear and missile capability of the rogue state also has been made difficult because North Korea for years has been burying the weapons underground, he added, noting that “weather challenges” also have made it harder to see what the North Koreans are doing.
Competing demands for intelligence on other targets around the world also has limited assessments. “Certainly, over the last 18 months, we have increased our collection against North Korea,” Gen. Dunford said.
The Pentagon also is worried that North Korea will sell some of its nuclear arms to other nations or terrorist groups. “I’m not sure we’ve seen any transfer of nuclear technology, but we certainly have seen missile technology and a wide range of other weapon systems that they have exported, or expertise that they have exported outside of North Korea,” he said.
North Korea still faces some technical challenges, including the fact that its scientists and engineers have not fully tested a reentry vehicle and also seem to be having problems stabilizing missiles in flight, he said.
“But I view all those as engineering solutions that will be developed over time,” Gen. Dunford said. “And frankly, I think we should assume today that North Korea has that capability and has the will to use that capability.”
Sen. Deb Fischer, Nebraska Republican, asked about upgrading missile defenses and noted that the last time that occurred was 2013, when the number of interceptors was ordered increased from 30 to 44.
Asked about further upgrades, Gen. Dunford revealed that over the past eight weeks, a detailed study was done on increasing missile defenses.
“And we do think an increase is warranted,” he said, noting that the current defense authorization bill calls for adding an additional 21 interceptors.
Gen. Dunford said additional measures also are being studied, including using drone aircraft near North Korea capable of shooting down missiles shortly after launch — so-called boost phase intercepts.
“There’s been a lot of work done on boost phase,” Gen. Dunford said. “But we do not have that capability today.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, said it would “be a hell of a thing if we could put a [drone] up over the North Korean peninsula and shoot down any missile as it was taking off. I’d suggest that we need to look as aggressively as we can at that.”
Other options for new missile defenses to counter North Korean ICBMs include deploying the Aegis Ashore system, a land-based variant of the Navy’s Aegis missile defense, and adding new high-powered radar in the region.
Current missile defenses can defend against North Korean rocket attacks, although if Pyongyang adds more missiles, the threat could increase.
“Based on the current capacity of the North Koreans, the current threat, both the type of the threat and the amount of missiles that they possess, we can protect Hawaii today against an ICBM,” he said. “We can protect the continental United States against an ICBM.”
— Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.
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