The State of (Deterrence by) Denial

March 22, 2021
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America should act now to strengthen its Western Pacific forward posture. Neglecting it further raises the risk of war — and defeat.

It is now widely understood that dealing with the threat that China poses in Asia should be the Department of Defense’s top priority. The administration of President Joe Biden has acknowledged this, stating that China will be the defense establishment’s “pacing” threat. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s just-released Pacific Deterrent Initiative request for the Fiscal Year 22 budget makes clear how urgent the situation is. The Department of Defense, the White House, and Congress should use this opportunity to make meaningful progress on this front.

Clear declaration of priority is all to the good. Asia, and China’s threat there, should be the Defense Department’s top priority. Ensuring the continued security of U.S. allies and partners in Asia — and thereby a sustainable balance of power — is a central U.S. interest that is in increasing peril. But it is one thing to say that America needs to address the military challenge that China poses in Asia, and quite another to actually field the critical element of an effective forward defense in the theater — in other words, a force that is readily available and capable of blunting a Chinese attack against U.S. allies, including Taiwan.



A forward defense is not always necessary to deter an adversary. When an opponent is weaker or more geographically distant than the United States from allies, one can count on limited forward forces and ample time to reinforce before engaging the aggressor effectively. In such conditions the United States can adopt a more distant posture. Until relatively recently, that perspective by and large made sense in Asia. It no longer does.

U.S. allies and Taiwan are close to China and far from America. The challenges of that geography for U.S. military operations in Asia, always present, have been significantly increased by a second, new factor — that China now has a vastly stronger military than it had before. According to Indo-Pacific Command, by 2025 China is projected to have roughly an 8-to-1 advantage in ships and submarines compared to U.S. forces west of the international date line, comparable advantages in aircraft, and an overwhelming lead in large land-based missiles. Moreover, China has been rapidly narrowing the technological gap with the U.S. military, and hopes to surpass America’s military-technological lead by the end of the decade.

Despite this, China’s ambitions in Asia can be resisted. The United States retains important military and technological advantages and is seeking to extend them. Moreover, it has the immense political advantage of regional allies and partners, which are increasingly recognizing the looming dangers from a China emboldened by its growing military and economic power. But the trend lines are nonetheless gravely concerning. In the last decade China has very substantially increased the capability of its military to mount a rapid, large-scale attack against Taiwan, and that capacity will almost certainly grow against other “first island chain” nations, such as the Philippines and South Korea — and ultimately against Japan, Australia, and India.

The alternatives to a conventional forward defense are unappealing at best and disastrous at worst. The idea that this challenge can be met by threatening a prompt U.S. nuclear response to a Chinese conventional attack is a delusion. The United States needs nuclear deterrence in Asia but should not look at it as a substitute for credible conventional response. Nor will a horizontal escalation strategy that gives up in the Western Pacific in hopes of imposing costs on China elsewhere work — it is both a losing and a potentially devastating strategy that will poison relations with key allies and partners.

Nor will a surge-based defense strategy work. If America plans to wait until after an attack to build up sufficient force to defeat the People’s Liberation Army, it risks Beijing achieving a fait accompli by overwhelming the forces of regional states and whatever limited U.S. forces are present in the theater before the United States could meaningfully respond. Distance works against the United States in this kind of scenario since it is much easier for China to defend conquests close to its mainland than it would be for U.S. forces to eject them, especially since Chinese forces have been designed specifically to keep U.S. forces at a distance. U.S. forces seeking to eject such an entrenched Chinese military would need to wage a prolonged, all-out campaign across vast distances comparable in cost, risk, and sacrifice to what it took to defeat Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. Thus if the United States relied only on such a surge defense, Beijing would all too likely be able to coerce regional states based on the threat of a successful attack or invasion. This would enable China’s effective domination of the region.

In short, absent an effective American forward defense, China will be able to advantageously wield its military strength over key states in the region. Beijing need not necessarily actually launch such aggression. It could progressively use the perception of this capability to coerce and divide states in the region until any coalition to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific falls apart, leaving an Asia under China’s hegemony — with dire and very direct implications for Americans, who would then be subject to a far more powerful China that has clearly shown its willingness to coerce other countries and intervene in their internal affairs. Conversely, the most reliable form of deterrence would stem from the demonstrable capacity of the United States and its allies and partners to deny China the ability to subjugate one of them. In other words, the best deterrence in this situation is deterrence by denial, which essentially here requires an effective forward defense.

To avoid this calamitous outcome, the United States needs to establish an effective forward defense that can, alongside the efforts of its allies and partners, blunt any Chinese attack on an ally or Taiwan. The United States has, of course, long maintained significant forces in the theater, but it is widely understood that its current force posture is insufficient in light of the growth of Chinese military power. To be sure, reinforcements from the United States would still be necessary to decisively block Chinese victory. But unless America has sufficient force resident in or able to quickly get to the region, ready to immediately engage and lean hard into blunting any Chinese assault, forces coming from the United States and other theaters will not have the time, openings, and advantage to prevent such a fait accompli.

Fielding such a credible forward defense will be difficult and costly. And it is not simply a military problem. Successful deterrence will need to be founded on a clear U.S. willingness to use military force in the face of Chinese aggression against U.S. allies or Taiwan, and on a major effort to encourage contributions from and cohesion among allies and partners. But any such strategy will be hollow without the military capability to back it up. And, despite what some contend, a credible forward defense is by no means beyond U.S. capabilities or resources, especially in concert with much greater and more focused efforts by its allies and partners toward addressing the problem.

But the U.S. forward posture is not where it needs to be. Rather, the United States is now at a critical juncture as to whether it will do what is needed to establish such an effective forward defense. America has not arrived at this difficult point for lack of strategic clarity. The Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy of 2018 made clear that China in Asia is the defense establishment’s priority and identified the need for this kind of an effective forward defense — what it called a “blunt layer — there. But progress in realizing the goal has been gradual, to put it generously. The military services do not have a strong incentive to spend on forward posture, other geographic theaters clamor for Defense Department resources, and bureaucracy does its thing. Meanwhile, China has been galloping ahead.

Recognizing this, Congress passed the Pacific Deterrence Initiative last year — precisely to build up U.S. forward defense in Asia. Indo-Pacific Command, under the aegis of the initiative, has now outlined a plan for using $4.67 billion in the coming year and $22.7 billion over the following five to begin to reverse the erosion of deterrence. Their steps are, the command says, “specifically designed to persuade” China “that any preemptive military action will be too costly and likely to fail” — by, in other words, “convinc[ing China] they simply cannot achieve their objectives with force.” This is the idea behind blunting — denial — and the right one.

These kinds of steps are only part of what is needed to deal with the threat that China poses in Asia. Indeed, the whole force — including elements not initially deployed forward but also needed to support and augment that forward defense — should be overhauled to contend with a People’s Liberation Army that is expected to grow only more powerful over the long term. Dealing with China is not just a matter of near-term investment in Western Pacific forward defense. But it is a vital step, structured to plug gaps and assure integration of effort that, due in part to the vagaries of Defense Department bureaucracy and budgeting, fall between the cracks, largely because no big service is carrying them forward. In particular, Indo-Pacific Command’s request includes strengthening Guam’s air and missile defenses, which its commander has called “our most critical operating location in the western Pacific.” It also calls for well-placed radars west of the international date line where they can, among other things, better detect and track Chinese forces and weapons, and dispersal, staging, and prepositioning locations to make U.S. posture more resilient in light of the vicious hail of fire that U.S. and allied forces can expect on day one of any fight with China. In light of that, the request seeks to enable more realistic exercises to prepare to fight America’s first superpower rival since the Soviet Union, as well as the command and control and logistics investments that would be critical to America’s ability to fight over the vast distances of the Pacific.

Of special significance, the submission includes a request for conventionally armed “ground-based, long-range fires” with ranges greater than 500 kilometers. Indo-Pacific Command makes no bones about their critical importance:

[The United States] requires highly survivable, precision-strike networks along the First Island Chain, featuring increased quantities of ground-based weapons. These networks must be operationally decentralized and geographically distributed along the western Pacific archipelagos … allow[ing the United States] to deter and defend by reversing an adversary’s anti-access and aerial-denial (A2/AD) capabilities that limit U.S. freedom of action or access to vital waterways and airspace.

In other words, the capability offered by ground-based, long-range conventionally armed missiles (which formerly would have been banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty) will be vital for a serious American conventional deterrent in the Western Pacific. This should lay to rest debates about whether the United States should deploy ground-based, long-range conventional-armed missiles in the region. The real questions will be where, how, and when. Indeed, even here, Indo-Pacific Command makes clear that these systems cannot simply be deployed on Guam — they will need to be at least partially arrayed along the first island chain. This means that the United States should procure and begin fielding such missiles promptly, but also press to find deployment locations for them along the first island chain as well as farther to the rear. Getting host nation agreement for such basing will be a tough lift but it is necessary for this important element of the effort.

Indo-Pacific Command’s request is, of course, not gospel. Parts, perhaps important ones, may not be necessary or advisable — other measures may be more effective. Technology may offer ways to meet the requirements better than is possible with existing systems. And doing what is necessary will demand resources — whether from increases in overall defense resources or shifts of effort from other geographic theaters and missions, or some combination thereof. Nor should the request detract any support or focus from the need to make longer-term changes and investments to contend with China. Rather, it should serve as a near-term measure to enable an effective defense as the Defense Department more fundamentally overhauls the Joint Force.

But what is clear is that the United States — alongside its allies and partners’ own efforts — needs to spend money and bend metal to strengthen its forward defense alongside its confederates in the Western Pacific — and do it now. $4.6 billion now and $22.7 billion in the future is a lot of money — but it is a small part of the overall defense budget and roughly equivalent to what has been spent on the European Defense Initiative. More to the point, China just announced it was increasing its own defense spending by 6.6 percent this year. There will be no cheap way to meet this challenge — so hard choices in other theaters and for other requirements will be obligatory. But failing to do so will be the most expensive mistake of all.



Elbridge Colby is a principal at the Marathon Initiative. He served as deputy assistant secretary of defense from 2017 to 2018, during which he served as lead official in the development of the 2018 National Defense Strategy.  

Walter Slocombe served as under secretary of defense for policy from 1994 to 2001.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Cpl. Seth Rosenberg)