Addressing America’s Operational Shortfall in the Pacific
The Trump administration has made a number of strong statements about the need for the United States to do more to prepare for great power competition with China. Officials have effectively set the stage for 2019 as a year in which critical progress must occur with regard to implementing posture, budgets, and policies that counter Chinese efforts to displace the United States in the Western Pacific. Unfortunately, the scope and scale of Chinese efforts over the past 25 years diminished America’s influence in Asia, particularly its role in Southeast Asia, in such a way that current U.S. actions must have a sense of urgency if they are to succeed.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy clearly articulated the top priority the Trump administration placed on handling the challenges mounted by near-peer competitors. The budget deal agreed to last March reset the baseline for defense funding at 3.5 percent of GDP and provided two years of significantly increased funding over Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 levels. These efforts, along with other trade and policy actions by the Trump administration in 2018 and 2019, reflected a renewed concern for the economic and security threat China presents to the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific.
Recently, the Department of Defense released its new Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. The document represents an excellent discussion of the challenges the Pentagon faces and a cross-referencing of the ongoing procurement and posture changes in the works to address them. However, it does not fundamentally address the core operational issues the U.S. military faces, nor explain how it could reduce the risk in an acceptable time frame. The Defense Department and the administration should be proposing actions to demonstrate that the United States is committed to countering the threat posed by China in the Asia-Pacific and is willing to realign its force posture and service budgets to achieve this strategic objective. These posture actions will emphasize U.S. efforts to both assure allies and partners and deter Chinese behavior in Southeast Asia; and, should deterrence fail, these actions will enhance America’s ability to rapidly defeat any Chinese provocations that occur.
The United States is experiencing the impact of China’s successful 25-year effort, initiated after the Taiwan Straits crisis of the mid-1990s, to design and build a military capability and capacity that specifically targets U.S. air and maritime forces. This Chinese procurement effort aimed to exploit vulnerabilities in U.S. forces and mitigate risk from known U.S. strengths. Investments of greatest concern to U.S. war planners include the anti-ship ballistic missile threats to U.S. aircraft carriers, anti-ship cruise missile threats to U.S. surface ships, and both ground and air launched cruise missile and ballistic missile threats to U.S. and allied air bases and fixed logistics sites. In addition to these long-range missile developments, China’s success in both modernizing and growing capacity in destroyers, long-range bombers, submarines, air defense and electronic warfare systems, and long-range surveillance and targeting capabilities also reduce or eliminate U.S. advantages. These Chinese systems place America’s most important military forces, which constitute much of the “contact” and “blunt” layers of the Trump administration’s defense ambitions, at significant risk. This reality makes it appear to U.S. allies and partners that Beijing could successfully seek a fait accompli by launching a quick, sharp conflict. This dangerous perception makes it all the more critical that the United States move rapidly to close the operational gap with China.
Rebalancing Without Closing the Gap
Beginning in the 1970s, for various political and diplomatic reasons the U.S. posture in the region was slowly shifted out of bases in South Vietnam (1973), Taiwan (1979), and the Philippines (1991) and consolidated in Northeast Asia (Japan and Korea) where the majority of U.S. forces have been since the 1990s. For the first two decades of China’s modernization effort (1994 to 2012), U.S. force posture in Asia remained largely stagnant, if not regressive. The wars in the Middle East and a belief that Chinese economic integration into the global system would lead to a softening in China’s security posture encouraged a lack of U.S. investment.
However, since 2012 a modest effort to modernize and reposition U.S. forces in Asia has occurred, and in the face of a general reduction in force structure, U.S. forces in the Pacific were allowed to remain static. Shaping these changes were two factors. First was a desire to rebalance U.S. operating locations from a concentration in Northeast Asia to locations throughout Southeast Asia. Second was the Obama administration’s rightful effort to mature a new posture that was “geographically distributed, politically sustainable, and operationally relevant.”
These posture changes included moving a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and a modernized carrier air wing in Japan, two extra destroyers in Japan, fifth-generation fighters in Japan, an additional submarine and THAAD missile battery in Guam, rotational Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore, a new defense cooperation agreement with the Philippines, and a persistent Air Force and Marine Corps presence in Western Australia. These efforts provided new opportunities to construct a sustainable posture at new and relevant locations in the theater, including Southeast Asia and Australia. Some efforts also made direct operational contributions, specifically the U.S. Air Force initiatives in Northern Australia at RAAF Darwin and RAAF Tindal. However, other initiatives such as the Marine Corps training initiative in Darwin, Australia and rotational Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore came at a high cost, focused more on reassuring allies and partners, and did little to contribute to the U.S. ability to deny or defeat Chinese forces.
In short, while the U.S. military started a process to adjust its presence in the theater for the good, the tardiness of this response combined with Chinese force modernization and growth have contributed to a crisis in confidence about the credibility of U.S. assurance and deterrence efforts.
Regaining the Positional Advantage
Going forward, the central question for American planners is how to restore contact and blunt forces in the theater such that Indo-Pacific Command can assure allies while also creating the conditions for surge forces to arrive in a timely manner if deterrence fails. Fortunately, there are a number of posture steps the United States can commit to today that will rapidly improve the security balance with China.
Maintain Undersea Advantage
One of the remaining areas of U.S. asymmetric advantage against China is the U.S. Navy’s attack submarine force, but these forces have to be rapidly available in theater and in sufficient numbers. The current planned force of 55 attack submarines is projected to decline precipitously over the next 10 years to a low of 42, which would result in too few submarines in the Pacific. To correct this deficit, the Navy needs to raise and maintain the new submarine construction build rate to three per year and ensure that as many Los Angeles-class attack submarines get service life extensions with a third reactor core as is feasible. The Navy also needs to continue to reposition submarines to the Pacific, including basing new Virginia-class submarine in San Diego and Hawaii and basing a fifth submarine to the Navy base in Guam. Attack submarines remain the key to defeating China should deterrence fail. Congress can no longer consider them one of a series of budget decisions that should be weighed against other priorities; rather, they should be the top investment priority ahead of all other shipbuilding programs.
Reestablish Distributed, Capable Airpower
China’s effort to hold U.S. and allied airfields at risk with large numbers of modern cruise and ballistic missiles places U.S. air superiority, normally a given for U.S. combat operations, at risk. Through a mix of procurement from Russia and technology theft from the United States, China has also made significant improvements in its air defense, fighter aircraft, air to air missile, and air surveillance programs. To address the challenge from Chinese missile systems the United States needs to improve its posture through airfield resilience. This starts by relying first on U.S. territory (Guam, Alaska, Palau, Yap, Tinian, and Saipan), second on existing bases in Japan, and finally on sites the United States may be given access to depending on the shape and location of the crisis (Australia and the Philippines). In Japan, the U.S. military should reposition fighter aircraft currently at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa to bases in northern Japan to distribute their strike power and move them further out of range of many of China’s short- and medium-range missiles. Additionally, the military can enhance credible combat power in the Pacific by moving the squadron of F-22s currently in Hawaii to either Alaska, Guam, or northern Japan.
The United States should also invest in cruise missile defense systems (the Army can no longer effectively defend against cruise missiles) and proliferate portable airfield systems throughout the theater (creating a targeting challenge for Chinese planners). To counter Chinese fighter aircraft modernization efforts, the U.S. military needs to improve its air surveillance and battle management by pushing more fifth-generation aircraft into the theater (Air Force F-35As to the 35th Fighter Wing at Misawa, Japan) and placingNavy E-2D aircraft in ground detachments throughout the theater to augment the Air Force’s aging AWACS fleet. The development of agile, resilient, distributed airpower, equipped with fifth-generation capabilities, will restore the deterrence, assurance, and defeat capabilities the United States expects in its air forces.
Build Prompt Strike Capacity
Chinese investments in anti-access technology have forced many U.S. strike assets out of their normal operating areas. The U.S. military should restore its strike system proximity to the theater and improve the availability of munitions there. This means an emphasis on permanently deploying systems that can operate inside the theater, starting with long-range bombers (operated from Guam, Australia, and potentially Alaska in the future). Since the mid-2000s the Air Force only maintains what it calls a continuous bomber presence on Guam, rotating five or six bombers every few months, but this commitment is imperfect and waning. Second, as Washington moves to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty it should develop and deploy mobile, ground-based strike systems that can hold maritime and land targets at risk with conventional weapons across the first island chain, Finally, this effort will require survivable maritime strike systems both inside the first island chain (such as unmanned surface and subsurface systems with strike packages) and outside the first island chain (carriers with long-range, unmanned strike platforms). These systems will need to be paired with sufficient, modern long-range precision munitions postured throughout the theater, to include both land attack and anti-ship missiles, which serve to demonstrate credible U.S. logistics posture to allies and adversaries alike.
Addressing the Critics
Critics of a robust investment in America’s Asia-Pacific deterrence posture might argue that an upgrade similar to what we have outlined here will only escalate the competition with China and could lead to further provocations. This ignores the fact that China’s massive defense investment and aggressive behavior in the Western Pacific over the last 20 years occurred without any U.S. provocation and while the United States was seeking to enmesh China in the global economic order. For too long, U.S. policy has been guided by the mantra that treating China as a competitor or foe will only encourage China to become one. The bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission concluded late last year that the United States could lose a war against China or Russia. Clearly, soft hedging is no longer enough, and absent a serious adjustment, China’s confidence that it can present a fait accompli to the United States or its allies and partners in East Asia will only grow. When Russia took provocative action in Europe, the United States and its NATO allies moved quickly to begin to address the stark military-operational dilemma Moscow posed. It seems entirely reasonable that the United States should also take similar steps to counter Beijing in the Pacific.
Others argue that despite Chinese military advances, the People’s Liberation Army has not been tested in an actual war since 1979 and may be a more brittle competitor against the combat-proven U.S. military than it appears on paper. This is a dangerous assumption; while it is reasonable to expect that U.S. forces will perform at a proficient level given the military’s investments in training, simulators, and exercises, it is hubris to assume that this advantage will compensate for significant capacity shortfalls and an 8,000-mile logistics chain against an adversary fighting in its own backyard. We should also remember that the last time U.S. naval or air forces fought a peer competitor was 75 years ago.
Critics will also ask how we pay for all of this. If China is the first priority, as the National Defense Strategy prescribes, then a $750 billion defense budget should be sufficient. To this point, the administration and Congress have talked a good game on China and some resources related to munitions and research and development have started to move in the right direction. But while the Russia problem set is being approached with incredible budget urgency, investments in Asia to counter Chinese gains remain wanting. The European Deterrence Initiative has helped European Command inject tens of billions of dollars of procurement and posture initiatives into the services’ individual budget requests in just five years. Meanwhile, without additional budget resources like the European Deterrence Initiative provides, Indo-Pacific Command has struggled to cajole or convince the services to use their budgets to address its identified operational gaps. Under the current system, when the command is left to ask the services for critical but less flashy posture investments like munitions facilities, deployable airfield sets, or command, control, and communication capabilities, the answer is either no or “we will get to it, but in 2023.” The current approach relies on a bureaucratic process that manages to reduce or eliminate many near-term posture or budget asks. The Department should instead adopt a five-year budget exercise for the Asia-Pacific similar to the European Deterrence Initiative that enables Indo-Pacific Command to direct resources through the services to address its shortfalls. An Indo-Pacific Stability Initiative with a committed level of funding of about 1 percent of the total annual defense budget is the best way to direct robust resources towards this significant challenge. While congressional support is necessary, only the Department of Defense has the ability to create and execute it.
Restoring America’s War-Winning Capability
The three broad force posture improvements outlined in this article are designed to improve U.S. theater presence and provide assurance to American allies and partners, serve as a deterrent by creating uncertainty for Chinese planners, and provide U.S. planners with war-winning tools if deterrence fails. There are a number of system procurements that these posture proposals encourage or require, such as attack submarines, long-range munitions, and unmanned strike vehicles. There are also a number of important procurement efforts not directly addressed by these posture arguments (such as space, cyber, and surveillance systems), and these are of course needed as well. If the United States makes concerted posture investments in the coming years in these three areas — robust submarine force capacity, distributed reliable air power, and prompt strike capacity — it will do much to restore U.S. credibility, and war-winning capability, in the Pacific.
Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery (Ret.) most recently served as Policy Director of the Senate Armed Services Committee under Sen. John McCain. He was previously the Director for Operations (J3) at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
Eric Sayers is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously was a Special Assistant to the Commander, Indo-Pacific Command and a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Armed Services Committee under Sen. John McCain.