WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy has to be able to confront great powers in areas short of open warfare, the service’s top officer said Wednesday at the second annual Defense News Conference.

China and Russia have employed tactics to harass neighbors and challenge the U.S. Navy, from the former’s island building projects in the South China Sea to the latter’s harassment of U.S. forces at sea, which it has used to score political points with its population.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told the crowd that competition with other great powers has to be seen on a spectrum and that the Navy must compete in all realms to stay ahead.

“This competition is [defined] by a spectrum,” Richardson said. “You’ve heard terms like ‘gray war,’ ‘competition below the level of conflict’: All of these sorts of phrases try to grasp at this very smooth spectrum, from competition all the way to conflict. Our response to that going forward is going to be key to ensure that we are not only competitive but ahead. It’s not sufficient to be competitive, we want to be winning.”

The Navy has to be competitive in all its warfare domains to achieve the objectives laid out in the recent National Defense Strategy, spearheaded by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, that moves the military away from low-end counterterror operations and refocuses on high-end conflict.

“For our Navy to achieve the objectives of the National Defense Strategy, we have to embrace every avenue to regain a competitive advantage to improve our agility to move up and down that spectrum. And to advance in particular our high-end capabilities so that we can always ensure that we can ensure that we can control deescalation. We are going to have to do this from the seafloor to space and in the information domain.”

The Navy has at times been stymied by China’s low-end tactics. For example, the country has used its Coast Guard rather than its Navy to enforce its maritime claims; thus, when the U.S. shows up in the vicinity with a destroyer or cruiser, China points to the U.S. as the aggressor.

In order for the U.S. Navy to remain competitive, it must focus on maintaining fighting readiness and avoid the kind of overextension that creating a yawning readiness hole as the service fulfilled escalating combatant commander requirements with an ever-shrinking force.

“We have to be mindful that this is a long-term competition, thinking theoretically more like an infinite game rather than a finite game,” Richardson said. “So this brings into the fore issues like sustainability. The idea of doing all of this without overextending ourselves. Overextension is going to be a self-defeating thing if we don’t mind that.”

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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