North America and East Asia are the two regions that will dominate the world in the 21st Century. Separating them is the Pacific Ocean. Because the Pacific is so vast and U.S. interests, allies and competitors are at the opposite end, it is no surprise that many strategists have assumed that future conflicts in this region will be air and sea power centric.
This perception is fundamentally wrong. In truth, the Asia-Pacific region is a land theater. For the most part, the waters and air space of this region are essentially irrelevant except as highways to get where the military needs to go: on or near the land.
The wars that have occurred in the region, certainly those involving the United States, have always been about seizing, defending and controlling the land. Virtually all the important military campaigns that have occurred in the region in modern times have been land-oriented. In fact, all of the naval battles in this region over the past century from Tsushima to Coral Sea, the Solomon Islands, Leyte Gulf, Okinawa and Inchon have been fought close to land, not in the vast, trackless expanse of the Pacific.
The Asia-Pacific region is a land theater for two essential reasons. First, this is where the elements of national power can be found: people, infrastructure, industry and resources. Second, because control of the land is the sine qua non of a nation’s ability to project military power in the region, including air and naval power. Air and naval forces can traverse the Pacific with ease but both require land bases in order to be able to concentrate, resupply and refit. The battle of Tsushima was the result of Japan’s determination to oust Russia from the Korean Peninsula and, in particular, the warm water sea base at Port Arthur. The campaigns of the Pacific war, both those by Japan and the Allies, were fought for control of land from which resources could be drawn and air and naval power projected. The misbegotten island of Guadalcanal became the center of one of the fiercest campaigns of the Pacific because of its potential as a base from which the supply lines to Australia could be interdicted or defended. The Marianas were seized to provide the airfields and anchorages necessary to the conduct of offensive operations against Japan. Iwo Jima was assaulted largely in order to provide an intermediate landing location for damaged strategic bombers.
Most of the recent squabbles in the region have been over several sets of small and unremarkable islands and shoals which are important, not only because of the resources that may be beneath them but also because control over them determines who “owns” the surrounding waters and air space.
It is control over the relatively small amount of land (in absolute terms) that exists between the one side of the Pacific and the other that will determine the security of the entire region. Today, virtually all this territory is in U.S., allied or, at a minimum, friendly hands. As a result, the sea and air lines of communication between the United States and its allies such as Japan, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand are open. Trade can move freely from and to Asia. Perhaps more important, the ability of China to project military power is constrained and, should a conflict arise, the mainland itself could be threatened from a number of these land locations. Beijing understands this, which is why it is trying to deploy enough coercive power so as to force the U.S. in particular to operate outside the so-called second-island chain beyond the range at which it can properly support regional allies or threaten the mainland.
The U.S. defense strategy for the Asia-Pacific region is fundamentally flawed insofar as it views the challenge in the event of war as one of controlling the air and seas. This is, at best, a secondary goal. It’s about dominating the land. Defending Taiwan, Japan, the Korean Peninsula and the western Pacific islands is the key to controlling the region and putting the cork in the bottle of prospective Chinese aggression. It will make it unnecessary for the U.S. to have to fight its way back in.
It is puzzling that the U.S. Army doesn’t get the idea that the Asia-Pacific region is theirs for the asking. The Army deployed more troops and suffered more casualties in combat in the Pacific (even excluding the China-Burma-India Theater) than did the Marine Corps. Given that the secret to dominance in the region is the control of land, this should be the Army’s sweet spot.
Of course, to be successful, it means the U.S. military, in general, and the Army, in particular, needs to focus on the right kinds of capabilities for holding, defending and exploiting the land. The Army needs to invest a lot more in air and missile defenses, land-based anti-ship missiles, long-range sensors and even UAVs. The Navy is making a series of good investments in advanced capabilities for undersea warfare, countermine warfare, air and missile defenses (including directed energy and rail guns) and electronic warfare. The Air Force needs to put serious money towards base self-defense, hardening and reconstitution.
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