Interview With Elbridge Colby

The Buckley Program hosted Mr. Elbridge Colby and Professor Patrick Porter on October 14th for a Firing Line Debate on US Strategy in Taiwan. Elbridge Colby is the co-founder and principal of The Marathon Initiative, a policy initiative focused on developing strategies to prepare the United States for an era of sustained great power competition. He is the author of The Strategy of Denial, and his work has appeared in outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and many more. Previously, Mr. Colby served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development from 2017-2018. In that role, he served as the lead official in the development and rollout of the Department’s preeminent strategic planning guidance, which shifted the Department of Defense’s focus to the challenges to U.S. military superiority and interests posed by China in particular. Mr. Colby is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School.

Clay Skaggs

During your job as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development, what sort of pushback did you receive within the DoD when trying to shift our strategy toward East Asia and when trying to transition toward more modern weapons systems?

Elbridge Colby

Well, quite a lot. We got pushback from the people who were focused on other regions, particularly the Middle East, and a lot of the organizations that were focused more on non-war fighting functions like presence operations and counterinsurgency which is what has been much of our military’s focus for the last couple of decades. People who were focused on other missions or were invested in those missions were in opposition – either for parochial or selfish reasons, or because they thought that the degree of focus that I was advocating for on China was excessive.

Clay Skaggs

It seems like there are two issues in modernizing the military. One is that that congresspeople have incentives to keep jobs in their district and the other is that some military officials want to keep their own forces well-funded. How do we push past those issues to modernize as fast as China is?

Mr. Colby

Yeah, that’s a great question. That’s a really tough one. I would say there are also other inherently difficult factors. For instance, there are timelines. It takes a lot of time to develop forces and concepts. You may not have the right timeline, and it can take a while to adjust. Secondly, there is uncertainty. Somebody might completely agree with me about the need to focus on China but have a very different idea of what the force should look like. This is actually a lot of the debate.

This can result in a kind of stasis that basically defaults to the status quo. For instance, there are a lot of debates about how much the United States military should invest in foreign posture in the Pacific. It’s not a debate about whether China is the primary threat. It’s a debate about how effective and how vulnerable our forward forces are. My view tends towards the one that says we need to have significant, lethal, and resilient forward forces – but there are people who say those forces are all going to be toast given the trajectory of the PLA. So, we have done almost nothing in the last ten years to strengthen our position in the Western Pacific, even though we need to. The reason isn’t Congress. Congress has put pressure on the Pentagon to do more in the Pacific. I think it has to do with admiring the problem and people having debates but not having a coherent solution against a tough problem.

There are also people who have genuine differences. There are some people who think that there will never be a war with China, so China is not a problem. Rather, Russia is more of a problem, Iran is more problem, or terrorists are more of a problem. There are also people who are kind of blinded by their experience. They spent the last 25 years in the Middle East and that is what they know, so that is what they care about.

Then there are also the parochial politics, but I do not think that is the primary factor. I think the best way we are going to get to a better place is by changing people’s fundamental understanding. That was my thinking behind the 2018 National Defense Strategy and what I’m trying to do with my book. If we change the frame in which people think, there is still going to be log rolling in Congress, but it would be within a different context. There was log rolling going on in World War II when we were building up the world’s largest navy, but people still said we needed a huge navy.

That is where I put my energy. We have made progress, but the problem is that we are dealing with a superpower who is focused and started a long time ago on this, and we are behind the curve.

Clay Skaggs

In the beginning of yesterday’s Firing Line Debate, you mentioned the survivability of our forces in the Western Pacific. You said you thought much of our conventional fleets would be vulnerable in the case of war and that we should focus on assets like submarines and long-range bombers. I’ve heard some talk of methods to increase survivability of conventional forces such as building lots of small airstrips. How do you think we can increase survivability of our legacy forces?

Mr. Colby

I’m not in favor of only focusing on long-range aircraft and submarines. They are critical, but they are too expensive and have other issues like that they take a long time to build. We need a more diversified blunt layer posture. So, we do need our legacy, conventional forces and our more vulnerable and less boutique forces to contribute even if they are not able to perfectly survive in the environment.

I mentioned ground-based conventional missiles. A conventional ground-based missile is launched from essentially a truck. It’s called a transporter erector launcher. There are other variants, but it is basically a truck that carries around a large missile or several missiles. That kind of thing really complicates Chinese targeting, but we have not done it. Another thing we could do is put longer range munitions on existing assets. I think the Air Force just did a test of a long range anti-ship missile which I believe is a Navy missile, but they put it on an Air Force plane. Great! Ok, the B-1 is not a stealthy bomber, and it cannot realistically penetrate deep into Chinese airspace, but it can possibly launch missiles that can from outside of Chinese airspace. That is the kind of thing we want to do.

The Marines are doing a really good job with this by trying to envision how a forward force that is under fire could operate effectively. If there are Marines moving around in the first and second island chains, that’s going to be tough for the Chinese. Some of them are going to get killed, no question. But I think the Marines are looking at this like it is going to be a major war. I do not say that flippantly, but realistically we are not going to achieve perfection. So, we need to have a concept of operations that involves that. We cannot rely on forces from standoff alone because there are not enough of them, and they operate from a series of fixed bases and ports which are vulnerable.

Clay Skaggs

If there were to be a war, it would be a bloody war. One thing Professor Porter brought up in the Firing Line Debate was that Americans might not care enough about Taiwan to go to war over it. Yesterday you said that the ideological clash between the US and China was not very salient when talking about strategy. However, do you think that framing this as an ideological competition could help rally the American public to support a future war? Or what are some other ways could we rally Americans?

Mr. Colby

In my book I advocate for something called the binding strategy, which is to posture our military in a way that forces the Chinese, if they want to pursue their ambitions, to act in a way that will catalyze our “righteous might,” as FDR put it after Pearl Harbor.

I’m pretty skeptical of centering our efforts around ideology. First, I think we should properly understand our interests in this, which are not ideological. As Americans, our interests are not making China into a democracy. I hope we all wish for China to develop a free government in the interest of the Chinese people, but our job as national security experts is to think about what is in the interest of the American people. There are also significant downsides to ‘over-ideologize’ the rivalry with China. There will be an ideological component of this competition with China – because China has a different mode of government, pretty loathsome on the whole. But, we will need to work with some governments that we do not agree with, like Communist Vietnam or the current Indian government which has been subject to criticism. Other governments in Southeast Asia, like those of Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, are also quote-unquote problematic to some. Further, I think if we are over-focused on ideology, we are likely to see peripheral conflicts as more important than they actually are – as we did in Vietnam.

I also think Americans will only be prepared to fight a war against China if they see their own interests as being engaged. Americans did not ultimately stay in Iraq or Afghanistan to make them free societies – at a much lower cost than we are talking about in a conflict with China. So, when people talk about ideology as a means to rally the American people, I think that it is exaggerated. I think we’re interested in our own families and our communities, our prosperity. That is not to say that we do not care about ideology, but when we are talking about something that could escalate into World War III, we need to have a clear idea of what we are doing and how it connects to our concrete interests.

That said, I think that the ideology point can resonate as a secondary part of how we talk about the competition — in the sense that, “Hey America, we have to prevent China from taking over Asia for our own interests. But also, if you care about freedom and democracy in the world, it’s going to really suffer if China takes over.” That is a very different thing. I also think ideological framing can help at the margin. That Taiwan is a free society and a vigorous democracy makes Americans more sympathetic. If Taiwan were Vietnam, it would be a lot tougher. The conservative side would say they are Communists, and the Left would point out human rights issues. So my view is that we really got to have it straight in our heads what we are doing here and what we are focused on.

Clay Skaggs

In the face of China’s record-setting incursions into Taiwanese airspace over the last few weeks, Biden has called for “relentless diplomacy.” How do you think diplomacy plays a role in this, both with regards to the PRC and the ROC? Can it calm or enflame tensions?

Mr. Colby

I think diplomacy is really important. I think we should avoid war with China if we possibly can. Diplomacy can play a critical role. So if there are ways of avoiding a war by keeping open channels of communication, great. I’m not one of these people who thinks that we should stop talking to the Chinese. That’s crazy. We did that in the 1950s. John Foster Dulles infamously refused to shake Zhou Enlai’s hand, which is kind of self-defeating in the end.

But what I do not understand about the Biden administration’s position, as they explain it publicly, is that they say we are going to compete really intensely but at the same time we are going to cooperate on issues of common interest. So we are going to really intensely compete over here. Then over here, we are going to be cooperating. Then the things that we are going to be cooperating on are the things that the administration says are their top priorities – like climate change, the pandemic, and that kind of thing. Well, that only works if the Chinese agree. If you are playing rugby and one side is like, “when we get off the pitch it’s all over”. But the other side is like, “no, we’re going to punch you in the face,” It does not work.

From what we can tell, the Chinese are saying they are not going to play by these rules. The Trump administration’s view, as I understood it, was that we must go through a period of pretty significant confrontation in order to get to a position of détente from a position of strength. This notion that you are going to have these hermetically sealed areas of competition and cooperation does not make a lot of sense. I think that the Biden administration must manage its own political coalition, so it’s presumably signaling in that context. But as a practical strategy, it does not make any sense to me.