Admiral Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, oversees more than 300 ships and 350,000 service members. He is the top-ranked uniformed officer in what is considered to be the world's strongest maritime force.
This interview, conducted on July 11, has been edited for brevity and clarity.
On a possible contingency in Taiwan
Takagi Masaru: US intelligence officials, including CIA Director William Burns, have said Chinese President Xi Jinping has instructed his military to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027. What is your view on this?
Admiral Michael Gilday: We take statements like that very seriously. We have a great deal of respect for the trajectory that the PRC has been on with respect to modernizing their capabilities and their forces, not just their conventional forces, but also their nuclear forces, their space forces, and their cyber forces.
I think it's important that we maintain a high state of readiness today, and at the same time continue to modernize our collective forces — not just the United States, but Japan and other allies and partners.
We must be ready for 2027, 2030. We must be ready every single day. It's our duty to be ready and to have a force that's capable of prevailing, but our focus is on deterring that conflict from ever happening.
Takagi: In June, a Chinese navy vessel cut sharply across the path of an American destroyer, forcing it to slow to avoid a collision. Why do you think the Chinese conducted such a dangerous maneuver?
Gilday: It was dangerous. We characterize that maneuver as unsafe and unprofessional.
It's not what we expect from high-end navies in terms of acting responsibly at sea. I won't try to assume what the intentions were of the PLAN ship in that maneuver. I would only say that I'm proud of the way that the US Navy destroyer captain and his crew handled themselves in that situation, adhering to international law, communicating very clearly on the radio so that not only that particular Chinese ship, but anybody in the vicinity, could understand what we were doing and why.
Takagi: The military-to-military hotline between the US and China has not been used since the then House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last summer. Do you have any concerns about an unexpected military confrontation right now?
Gilday: We have seen an increase in PRC activity in the maritime since Speaker Pelosi's visit last year. I think that it would be better if we could talk on a more regular basis and have open lines available when any type of friction is evident between our nations. We should avoid a position where we're trying to read somebody else's mind. But we will, in the absence of those communications, have to rely on what we see, how forces behave, what they're doing, and then respond accordingly based on the directions and guidance that we receive from our superiors.
I think that the most recent visits (to China) of high-ranking US officials; the Secretary of State, the Treasury Secretary, I think that they're a good sign, in terms of communications improving. And we'll see one day if we get to a point where military-to-military communications become more the norm.
China's ultimate goal
Takagi: Looking at PLA's activities today in East Asia, what do you think China ultimately wants to achieve?
Gilday: It would appear by their actions that the PRC has an intent to test and potentially change the rule-based international order to make it advantageous for them. I think that there's a difference in mindset in terms of how our country, how the PRC views international rules-based order, versus the way that other nations do.
I think that we need to continue to uphold the international rules that are globally recognized, and we should challenge any nation that tries to test the validity of those rules.
US Navy and global military power balance
Takagi: How do you see the balance of military strength between the US and China in the Western Pacific region?
Gilday: I think that the US military maintains a very healthy deterrent capability in the Western Pacific. As important is what we're doing on a day-to-day basis in conjunction with allies and partners. The US and Japan are both involved in the Quad, as an example.
We see our bilateral — the US Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force — and multilateral exercises are ongoing on almost a monthly basis. I do think that the growth of the Chinese navy has been impressive, and we respect that growth.
After two decades of ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US has begun to invest heavily in our maritime forces, along with the US Marine Corps. So right now, in seven shipyards across the country, we have 55 ships that are under construction, and another 70 that are under contract to be built. That's a significant investment.
I think the capabilities that we field, along with a very highly trained professional force, are really the asymmetric advantage that we have over anybody.
Takagi: In order to counter the Chinese navy, the largest in the world, how should the US strengthen and develop its capabilities in the coming years?
Gilday: If I take a look at the PLAN aircraft carriers against US capabilities, the US has a far lead in terms of capabilities, in terms of operational expertise. We have been operating carriers at sea for a century now. We've learned a lot in peace and war, in terms of how to operate them.
The nuclear propulsion that we have in those carriers allows us to maintain them at sea for extended periods of time. We are highly proficient in terms of our ability to generate dozens and dozens and dozens of sorties off the deck of an aircraft carrier, to reload the weapons on an aircraft carrier. We're very adept at that.
The new Ford-class aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, right now is on deployment in the Mediterranean and the European theater. We will station a Ford-class carrier on the West Coast of the United States, in the near future.
That's an added capability, as it is replacing the Nimitz-class carriers that are now between 40 and 50 years old.
We're building a new class of frigate — the first will be delivered in 2026 – that has a much-improved anti-submarine warfare capability, as well as a surface-to-air and surface-to-ground strike capability with respect to missiles. We are investing in an extra-large undersea vessel that has a clandestine mine-laying capability.
US-Japan ties "vitally important"
Takagi: In order to counter the Chinese military, how important is integrated deterrence between the US and allied countries like Japan?
Gilday: We consider the US-Japan relationship to be the cornerstone of stability in the Western Pacific. It is vitally important.
I think that every aspect of the joint force should receive an ample amount of emphasis in terms of interoperability with US forces.
Speaking just between the United States Navy and the JMSDF, I think that we are tightly knit in terms of the capabilities we're investing in, the type of abilities we're training with, at a very high end of warfare.
That relationship is only going to grow and strengthen. The fact that JMSDF has had Aegis destroyers now for 30 years is a very important point and indicative of the kind of trust and the kind of high level of professionalism that we expect in this relationship.
Takagi: In Japan, there has been growing concern among people that if the two superpowers, the US and China, keep on strengthening their military presence in the Western Pacific, and keep on confronting each other politically, we may not be able to avoid a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. To avoid such a worst-case scenario, what do we need to do right now?
Gilday: I think we always need to make sure that we can protect our sovereign interests and the prosperity of our countries. In the case of the US and Japan, we are heavily reliant on trade on the seas. Most of our commerce moves over the oceans and that's really the foundation of our strong economies.
Having strong militaries is important to ensure that both security and prosperity, and economic interests, are maintained.
At the same time, strong diplomatic discussions among our nations, including importantly the PRC, must continue to evolve in a positive way. On the one hand, you do need to have a strong military. On the other, you need to have constructive dialogue and relationships, including interpersonal relationships, as well as economic relationships, that benefit all of our nations.