Time to Launch a Combined Maritime Task Force for the Pacific
On his way to the Shangri-la Dialogue this week, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis recited familiar talking points to discuss how the United States would keep up a “steady drumbeat” of naval exercises and freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. But while the United States has continued to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows in the western Pacific Ocean, China has continued unabated with efforts to build out its military infrastructure in the South China Sea and deploy new methods to coerce its neighbors in the maritime domain. The United States needs new ideas to generate regional balancing against Chinese behavior while simultaneously deterring future actions like the consolidation of control at disputed features like Scarborough Shoal.
One such idea that I previously raised in these pages is the establishment of a Combined Maritime Task Force Pacific that would be modeled off the Standing Naval Forces Atlantic construct that NATO operated in the 1970s and 1980s. It is normal practice today for the United States and like-minded navies to operate independently across the region and only come together on an intermittent basis to exercise. As China’s maritime power and reach grow, the region continues to demand that the U.S. remain engaged in new and innovative ways.Establishing a Combined Maritime Task Force Pacific would challenge partners that seek further U.S. and regional cooperation to contribute consistently to naval activities across the region and remain committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific maritime environment.
The Standing Naval Force Atlantic was established in 1968 as the first permanent multinational naval unit that operated during peacetime. It included 6–10 surface ships (destroyers, cruisers, frigates, and support ships) that attached to the squadron for up to six months at a time. Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States were the five permanent contributors to the standing force, with other European nations often contributing ships as well. Command rotated among contributing nations and reported back to the Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic in Virginia. The squadron demonstrated NATO’s ability to bring significant multilateral naval power to bear at a time and place of its choosing. But the real utility was that its permanent and consistent nature allowed contributing navies to work together to build interoperability during peacetime. Instead of conducting intermittent exercises throughout the year, Standing Naval Forces Atlantic gave the alliance a tool to ensure it was always signaling contributing navies’ growing alignment and desire to work together.
The Europe of the Cold War is not the Asia of today, nor is the NATO alliance necessarily a guide for organizing cooperation in the Pacific today. Nevertheless, America’s allies and partners across the region have lingering doubts about its long-term staying power and continue to be vocal about the need for innovative and sustained U.S. leadership in the region. On the military front, the Standing Naval Forces Atlantic concept presents a historical roadmap for how to encourage like-minded partners facing shared challenges to contribute more to regional security. A modern equivalent for Asia, which I propose calling Combined Maritime Task Force Pacific, could help expand regional naval cooperation from intermittent exercises into a more permanent effort to protect the free and open Indo-Pacific maritime environment. To do this, the task force could operate as a persistent deployment of 4–6 surface ships from a group of like-minded countries. The United States should use the upcoming “2+2” meetings with Japan and Australia to negotiate and finalize the founding members of this new task force. India, European partners like the United Kingdom and France, and other Southeast Asian partners like Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore could also be asked to join.
The task force’s duties would be numerous: conducting port calls across South Asia, Oceania, and into Northeast Asia, conducting exercises, joining existing multilateral exercises, and responding to natural disasters and other emergencies, all while sailing together on a regular basis and building cooperation, trust, and interoperability. One month, the task force might be doing port calls throughout the South Pacific; the next it might join a high-end maritime exercise in the Indian Ocean. The force could then be diverted to help respond to a cyclone in Southeast Asia, after that it might head off to visit Manila Harbor and host ASEAN officials aboard for a dinner before the various members sail together to Hawaii to join RIMPAC 2020. While many of these individual activities are already occurring on a regular basis, packing them into a persistent regional maritime effort would be a new way for the United States to demonstrate leadership in the region. At the same time, it would challenge those who are demanding more from the United States to step out of their comfort zone and contribute more to their own regional security.
Critics will argue that the U.S. Navy is too stretched at this time to take on an idea this lofty. Events of the last year would certainly validate such concerns. But the tragic loss of life last year should not be a justification for dreaming smaller. If the Trump administration is serious about the lofty objectives laid out in the National Security Strategy, it could allocate additional personnel and resources to build out the task force idea. The Littoral Combat Ships that the United States is already planning to forward deploy to Singapore could form the nucleus of America’s naval contribution, with additional 7th Fleet surface assets joining from Japan and Hawaii when available.
China will also inevitably complain that this new formation is designed to contain it. Beijing makes it a habit of complaining about any regional military activity that brings it displeasure, a tactic that can occasionally scare off new cooperative efforts. It’s worth noting that China’s aggressive actions are what have made cooperation like this more possible than they were just a decade ago. Nevertheless, potential members of the task force are likely to balk at the idea as Beijing seeks to apply pressure and torpedo the nascent initiative. Avoiding this trap will take careful planning. First, the task force might be even more enduring and impactful if the idea originates from Tokyo or Canberra. Second, to avoid the perception that this will be an anti-China coalition, member states should instead insist that the task force be formed around a statement of principles that they will all pledge to uphold, from freedom of overflight and navigation, to the protection of the maritime ecological environment, to agreeing that all disputes should be resolved peacefully. Third, the task force should initially be launched as a mechanism to enforce sanctions against North Korea or focus on low-intensity operations. Just as the combined response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami fostered the emergence of U.S.-Japan-Australia-India quadrilateral cooperation, the task force should focus on a specific problem at the outset and eventually be allowed to grow into a more mature regional concept. Finally, to ensure the task force is viewed more as a cooperative unit than a wartime squadron, command and control could be run out of Singapore by the Commander, Logistics Western Pacific, which traditionally focuses more on maritime cooperation activities in the theater.
Modern maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific emerged in the wake of a natural disaster and has continued to this day. As the region faces old problems like natural disasters, current challenges like North Korean proliferation, and growing competition with China that will unfold in the disputed waters of the Indo-Pacific, the United States and its regional partners and allies have to challenge one another to consider new models for cooperation. A Combined Maritime Task Force for the Pacific is sure to take prospective members, including the United States, out of their normal comfort zone, but it offers a range of ways to address current and future challenges that cannot be ignored.
Eric Sayers is an Adjunct Fellow for Asian Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He previously worked as a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and as a consultant to U.S. Pacific Command, where he worked as Special Assistant to the Commander.