Two unassailable realities are aligning to drive the reshaping of the U.S. military. The first is a shift in the focus of U.S. strategic interests and planning to the Asia-Pacific region. The reasons for this are obvious. The region from India eastward around to East and Southeast Asia and then across the Pacific to North America is the center of the world economy and global trade. The list of U.S. friends and allies in the region is long. China’s rapidly growing military power poses a significant potential challenge in the region.
The other reality is the growing pressure to reduce U.S. defense spending. The Pentagon clearly is struggling to deal with the impact on force structure and programs of the $420 billion in spending cuts agreed to in the Budget Control Act. Senior defense officials have suggested strongly that unlike previous downsizing exercises this time they will not engage in “salami slicing” all programs equally. Moreover, there have been hints that this time there will not be the traditional equal allocation of remaining resources among the services.
What does the ongoing strategic pivot mean for the Department of Defense and, in particular, its effort to address the mismatch between future budgets and current force structure? The conventional wisdom is that the region is extremely challenging and may be in some ways in the too tough category, particularly when the problem is deterring China. The distances are too great, U.S. forces in the region are relatively few and tied to a small number of fixed facilities and China’s growing military power, specifically its investments in so-called anti-access and area denial capabilities, is creating the potential for a war winning conventional first strike scenario. The United States would be left with two unappealing options: either acquiescing to Beijing’s aggression or building up sufficient forces to fight its way across the Pacific. The latter option has all the wisdom and naïve charm we have come to associate, thanks to Tennyson, with the charge of the Light Brigade.
It has generally been assumed that the Asia-Pacific region will be an Air Force/Navy playground. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggested as much in one of his farewell speeches. It is assumed that the Army would have a role in a war on the Korean peninsula but even here, given the strength of the South Korean military, airpower would be the critical U.S. contribution to the alliance. As for the Marine Corps, is another Inchon even possible in a region that is witnessing the rapid proliferation of anti-ship cruise and even ballistic missiles? The Air Force and Navy certainly seem to think that this region is theirs, going so far as to collaborate on a vision of future warfare in the region titled AirSea Battle. Of course, there are problems with the Air Force and Navy laying claim to the Asia Pacific region when the former has so few long-range strike assets and the latter is considering cutting the size of its surface fleet and shrinking the number of carrier battle groups.
There is another way to conceptualize the strategic problem for the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific region which could not only enhance security in peacetime and deterrence of major conflict but also be affordable. It is not about the Army versus the Air Force and Navy or about how many carrier battle groups the Navy requires in order to fight its way across the Pacific. Rather it is about presence, avoidance and endurance. China does not want to fight the United States; it wants us to leave voluntarily. If it has to fight us, it wants the war to be contained and over quickly. Who would ever start a war with the intention of it mushrooming and becoming a protracted conflict?
For the United States, the best and cheapest investment would be in lots of large American flags that would be planted next to those of our friends and allies all over the region. More seriously, the U.S. needs more forces forward in the Asia-Pacific region. That means, if possible, more bases not fewer and more stuff on the ground or in port. We have taken an important step in this direction by expanding military facilities at Guam and basing submarines and B-2 bombers there. More bases and forces in the region increases U.S. military options, reassures allies and complicates an adversary’s first strike planning.
Avoidance means reducing the vulnerability of U.S. and allied forces and bases to attack. One way of doing this is by deploying assets that are less susceptible to current anti-access/area denial threats. Submarines are great in this role. Another is by expanding theater missile defenses in the region. The real ballistic missile threat is not from Iran or even North Korea but from China, which has deployed some 1,600 non-strategic ballistic missiles that can strike Taiwan, Japan and U.S. bases in the region. A role for the U.S. Army would be to operate those land-based theater missile defenses. A third important area for investment is in electronic and cyber warfare. Whether we are speaking of an adversary’s offensive or defensive capabilities, what it cannot see it cannot strike.
Finally, there is the matter of endurance. In order to deter future wars in the region it is less important — and possibly less costly — for the United States to plan and posture to win quickly than we make clear that the U.S. cannot be defeated quickly. The United States needs the kinds of forces and war plans that are designed and postured to endure. A strategy of endurance cannot simply be defensive. It must have as a central component the ability to hold an adversary’s high value targets at risk. To accomplish this aim, the U.S. desperately needs to invest in long-range strike. This means the new strategic bomber, but what would be equally valuable would be conventional prompt global strike, sea-launched cruise missiles and, were the INF Treaty limitations out of the way, a conventional theater ballistic missile.
Obviously, strategy depends on the maintenance of strong political alliances and capable allied military forces. Japan and Taiwan both need the most advanced air defense capabilities available; this means the F-35 and new F-16 C/Ds, respectively. Taiwan should also consider investing in its own arsenal of conventional rockets and missiles capable of striking mainland targets. South Korea should explore the acquisition of systems to counter rockets, artillery and mortars. An expanded regional capability to conduct offensive mine warfare would not be bad either.
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