Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

China Eyes Pacific Supremacy With New Carrier

It’s not your father’s Chinese navy anymore.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
J-15 fighter jets are on China’s sole operational aircraft carrier.
J-15 fighter jets are on China’s sole operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, during a drill at sea on April 24, 2018. AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Jack and Robbie here again, writing this newsletter while seriously considering a major career change after seeing this job posting for “director of taco relations.” (Don’t tell our editors.) 

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: China vies for Pacific supremacy with aircraft carrier buildup, Biden catches up on NatSec staffing, and the White House gets ready to evacuate Afghan translators.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Jack and Robbie here again, writing this newsletter while seriously considering a major career change after seeing this job posting for “director of taco relations.” (Don’t tell our editors.) 

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: China vies for Pacific supremacy with aircraft carrier buildup, Biden catches up on NatSec staffing, and the White House gets ready to evacuate Afghan translators.

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Carrier Clash

At the Jiangyan shipyard near Shanghai, the Chinese navy is busy building up its next crown jewel. The Type 003 Carrier—boring name aside—showcases China’s growing naval ambitions and poses one of the greatest new challenges to U.S. naval supremacy in the Asia-Pacific. 

China isn’t saying much about its new carrier, but satellite imagery analyzed by experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies this week shows it is making “considerable progress” on the carrier, with its flight deck, superstructure, and sponsons “nearly complete.” 

The carrier, about 318 meters in length, will be the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) most technologically advanced and largest yet—and the largest non-U.S. carrier to be constructed in decades. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command estimates China could have four carriers by 2025, with potentially one more to come by 2030. It’s a sign China, already the world’s largest shipbuilder, wants to use that industrial might to supercharge its massive navy. 

What the new carrier means. “The trend is that China is attempting to build a blue water navy, and that’s what this third carrier and plan beyond that represents,” said Eric Sayers, an expert with the American Enterprise Institute and former advisor to the commander of U.S. Pacific Command. “That’s not for its near seas. … That’s more for projecting power into the Indo-Pacific and beyond.” 

China’s carrier upgrades and other investments in its navy have some experts worried Beijing could be getting more capable of showdowns with U.S. carrier strike groups in the region or launching a military assault on Taiwan, which top military officials have predicted could come within the next six years. 

PLAN of attack. “I think they’re going to become more confrontational,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and former U.S. Defense Department official. “With their carriers, they may think that they’re going to be able to establish sea control for long enough that they can pull off an amphibious assault.” 

Tensions between Washington and Beijing have ratcheted up as China bristles at the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) near disputed island chains in the South China Sea. In the latest round of the two superpowers’ naval chest-thumping, China claimed it “drove away” a U.S. destroyer sailing near the disputed Paracel Islands—claims the Pentagon has dismissed as “false.”

Sayers said China is, in effect, building up two navies simultaneously: one for its “near seas” and, increasingly, a blue water navy capable of operating in open oceans. “What the carriers represent is a growing confidence that they have the industrial capacity and the capability to deter the U.S. Navy in the near seas, or at least match them to some degree, but they can also invest in direct resources toward far seas power projection capability,” he said. 

Catching up. The United States is already falling behind in the quantitative race with China—although naval experts caution the number alone doesn’t tell the whole story. China is estimated to have had 360 battleforce ships by the end of 2020, compared to the U.S. Navy’s 297 ships. Some of U.S. President Joe Biden’s picks for top Pentagon posts have voiced support for getting the United States to a 355-ship Navy, but Biden’s budget doesn’t seem to match those plans.

Then there’s the matter of what’s on the carrier itself. U.S. carriers have had catapult launch capabilities on board for decades, giving its Navy the ability to generate massive “sorties” (Pentagon speak for bombing runs). 

But for China, it’s a big deal. Developing carriers with larger flight decks and catapult and resting gear platforms like the Type 003, which should be ready to go by 2022, gives Beijing the ability to throw more heavily armed fighter jets into combat at flight speed—a sign Beijing could challenge the dominance of U.S. flattops in the region. 

Keeping U.S. naval planners up at night. The carriers’ significance is not lost on experts in Washington. “They’re moving beyond having aircraft carriers as just prestige platforms, and they’re moving to something much more complex,” Hendrix said. “They’re moving to a power projection platform that can throw ordinance a longer distance.” 

“It’s certainly enough to keep the U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander awake at night,” Sayers added. “It’s not the PLA Navy of yesteryear.”


Give Us Your Best Summer Reading Recs

Hey SitRep readers: We’re putting together a summer reading list for NatSec wonks and want your ideas.

Your favorite nonfiction, fiction, graphic novels, spy thrillers, 900-page academic tomes on international relations theory—if you loved reading it and think other SitRep readers would too, send it our way.

We’ll curate the suggestions as best we can and report back in the next few weeks for our inaugural SitRep summer reading list!

Okay, now back to our regularly scheduled programming.


Let’s Get Personnel

The revolving door in Washington is whirring a lot faster this week. Here’s a look at what’s going on:

Michael Brown, Biden’s pick to become the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, took himself out of the running on Wednesday, Inside Defense first reported. Brown faced an inspector general probe that said he used federal hiring tools to hire friends at the Defense Innovation Unit when he led it. 

Biden announced Jeff Flake, a former Arizona Republican senator, as his nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey.

Among other nominees the White House announced this week: Gabe Camarillo to be undersecretary of the Army, Alan Estevez to be undersecretary for industry and security at the Commerce Department, Kent Logsdon to be the ambassador to Moldova, and Atul Gawande to be assistant administrator of the Bureau for Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Biden’s team has withdrawn their expected pick for the Treasury Department’s top international posting, Heidi Crebo-Rediker, according to Bloomberg.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s deputy national security advisor, Matthew Pottinger, has joined the hawkish think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 

Min Mitchell has been named the new executive editor at Radio Free Asia.

The Pentagon’s former top policy official under Trump, John Rood, is heading to Momentus Space, a Silicon Valley space exploration company, to be its chief executive officer, Reuters reported. The move comes one day after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed federal charges against the firm for making misleading statements about its technology ahead of a planned merger. 

Jack reported in May that the Biden administration was concerned the Russian-founded company could make off with U.S. space secrets. 


Join us for a live (virtual) event on July 26!

SitRep Live: Can Europe Make Nice With a Post-Trump America?: Join us on July 26 at 11 a.m. EST for a live event with our executive editor, Amelia Lester.

We’ll talk shop about the state of transatlantic relations (is the post-Trump honeymoon phase over?) and give subscribers the inside scoop about key sticking points between the White House and European capitals. And, as always, field smart questions from our SitRep readers. 


Weekly Dossier 

What stories should be at the top of the NatSec news cycle. 

Promises made; promises kept? The Biden administration announced this week it would evacuate thousands of interpreters and other Afghans who assisted U.S. troops in third world countries—or even at military bases in the United States—as they await U.S. visas. It comes as the Taliban continue their offensives to gain control of the country amid the U.S. withdrawal. 

Zelensky visit. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to visit Washington, likely in early to mid-August, U.S. and European officials confirmed to SitRep. Among the top agenda items for the expected meeting: Russia’s military buildup in the Black Sea region, Ukraine’s anti-corruption reform agenda, and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. 

War on war powers. A bipartisan campaign in Congress to claw back the president’s war power authorities is gaining steam, Robbie reported

Merkel’s swan song. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is making her last visit to Washington as Germany’s leader. Washington and Berlin have significant disagreements over the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project and European skepticism over Washington’s push to confront China on the global stage.

All about AI. This week, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin previewed a plan for the Pentagon to pour $1.5 billion into its artificial intelligence hub—the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center—in the next five years. 


Snapshot 

French jets fly over the Louvre Pyramid during the annual Bastille Day military parade.

French jets fly over the Louvre Pyramid during the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Élysées avenue in Paris on July 14. Lucas Barioulet/AFP via Getty Images


Put On Your Radar

July 16: U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen speaks at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on securing U.S. visas for Afghans who supported the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.

July 17: Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and the United States begin a joint military exercise called “Three Swords 2021.”

July 20: Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor to former U.S. President Barack Obama, speaks at the Atlantic Council.


What We’re Reading

In case you didn’t know, the Association of the U.S. Army publishes graphic novels detailing the exploits of Medal of Honor recipients that are well worth the read. The latest issue is on Mitchell Red Cloud Jr., a U.S. Army infantryman during the Korean War who held off a Chinese attack to prevent his company from being overrun. Thanks to Haley Britzky for the story, who first brought this to our attention. 


Quote of the week

“They may try, but they’re not going to fucking succeed. … You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with the guns.”

—Gen. Mark Milley, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voicing fears to colleagues and deputies that Trump would attempt a coup after his election loss, according to a new book on Trump’s final year in office. (Milley and his office have not publicly addressed the claims made in this book.) 


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Side hustle. Lebanon’s army is so cash-strapped it is selling rides on its military helicopters to help bankroll their maintenance, Reuters reported. 

Unintended consequences. Some of the former Colombian ex-soldiers implicated in the assassination of Haiti’s president last week received U.S. military training, the Pentagon confirmed

Quite a racquet. An oldie but goodie that resurfaced on Twitter this week: a (fake) viral video of tennis champion Novak Djokovic playing a round against an Abrams tank.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration of a captain's hat with a 1980s era Pepsi logo and USSR and U.S. flag pins.

The Doomed Voyage of Pepsi’s Soviet Navy

A three-decade dream of communist markets ended in the scrapyard.

Demonstrators with CASA in Action and Service Employees International Union 32BJ march against the Trump administration’s immigration policies in Washington on May 1, 2017.

Unionization Can End America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Allowing workers to organize would protect and empower undocumented immigrants critical to the U.S. economy.

The downtown district of Wilmington, Delaware, is seen on Aug. 19, 2016.

How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

Kleptocrats, criminals, and con artists have all parked their illicit gains in the state.