One little noticed decision reached at the G-20 Summit was to postpone the transfer of wartime command of allied forces on the Korean Peninsula, originally scheduled for April 2012, until 2015. According to President Obama, “This gives us appropriate time — within the existing security context — to do this right … we want to make sure that we execute what’s called the OPCON transition in an effective way.” In light of recent events in the region, most notably North Korea’s decision to engage in a clear act of war by sinking the South Korean patrol boat but also the beginnings of a transition of power in Pyongyang, this decision makes sense.
More time also allows the Obama Administration to consider the broader challenge of security in Northeast Asia. A central feature of the security environment in the region is the need for local allies to take on more responsibility for their own defense. That is the motivation behind the transfer of OPCON or operational control of forces on the Korean Peninsula to South Korea. But for allies to do more in their own defense they must have the tools. The sinking of the warship Cheonan in March highlighted South Korea’s need for improved maritime security capabilities for ASW and countering the North’s vast arsenal of sea mines. Both South Korea and Japan need expanded missile defense capabilities to deter and, if necessary, defeat the North Korean ballistic missile threat.
Pentagon leaders and civilian defense analysts are increasingly concerned about the growing threat posed by China’s so-called anti-access and area denial capabilities. In particular, they point to Beijing’s massive investment in ballistic missiles and the related precision targeting systems that would allow that country to accurately target U.S. bases on Guam, Okinawa, Japan and South Korea. Some of these systems might be able to locate and attack U.S. aircraft carriers. Unless it develops the means to neutralize or rollback the Chinese ballistic missile threat, the U.S. might not be able to come to the assistance of its allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
The U.S. needs a plan to build up the capacity of major allies in the region to resist potential aggression from their neighbors and to better integrate their forces with those of other friendly nations, including the United States. The U.S. needs to consider providing regional allies with advanced air and missile defenses such as the land-based Aegis/SM-3 system, the Littoral Combat Ship, unmanned aerial systems and even combat aircraft. Taiwan, for example, is desperate to purchase new F-16 fighters to replace its obsolescing F-5s. A strong bulwark of allied capabilities should be the first line of defense in the Asia-Pacific region.
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