Strategic Predictability: Landpower in the Indo-Pacific
When people look at maps of the Indo-Pacific region, often they see a lot of blue and very little green. They see the massive Pacific Ocean with tiny islands speckled throughout. Closer to the Asian continent, they see archipelagos and island chains with large seas and bays with strategic straits cutting throughout. When national security professionals view the region in this way, they tend to discount landpower in favor of air and sea. While those domains are central to Indo-Pacific security, we see the region through a different lens.
The resources that drive competition — including fresh water, energy, food, and scarce minerals — in the Indo-Pacific are almost entirely on land. Six out of 10 people on Earth live in the region and are only able to survive from land. Nations only exist on land. Land is where the United States needs to compete, respond to crises, and prepare for conflict to advance and preserve its national interests. Nothing signals a nation’s commitment as much as putting people on the ground. As Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville emphasized in his paper Army Multi-Domain Transformation, “America’s Army serves to protect the Nation and preserve the peace.” To fulfill the Army’s purpose, landpower needs to be present in the Indo-Pacific.
Today, the United States and its allies and partners face a growing competitor in the region. As the president laid out in his recent speech at the Pentagon, “we need to meet the growing challenges posed by China to keep the peace and defend our interests in the Indo-Pacific and globally.” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin clarified the nature of this challenge in March as they began engagements in the Indo-Pacific, stating “China … is all too willing to use coercion to get its way,” from internal repression in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong to external violations of international law in the South China Sea.
Left unmet, the challenges Beijing poses will erode the U.S. military’s comparative advantage and undermine U.S. assurances to allies and partners. The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” could become a fleeting memory. Those committed to the region — especially the Army — should address this challenge. To that end, the Army is transforming landpower in the Indo-Pacific to engage in, and deliver operations across, the land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace domains on, from, and through land. By calibrating its force posture, developing and employing next-generation capabilities, and synchronizing joint and coalition effects across all domains, the Army will reduce risk in the region by imposing asymmetric costs in competition and applying targeted leverage in crisis. And — if conflict does come — the Army is ready to fight and win alongside our sister services and allies and partners.
Posture Equals Relationships
Figure 1: Army Solidifies Partnerships
Landpower puts U.S. soldiers alongside allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. This is the Army’s competitive advantage: its unique ability to cultivate, forge, and strengthen bonds of trust among members of like-minded nations. Soldiers who are forward-operating, thinking, learning, creating, training, experimenting, innovating, and discovering get to know their teammates where they live. They work together. They share skills and mutual values. Through sustained international military exchanges, military attaché engagements, and enduring military presence, the Army is able to build credible relationships with allies and partners. Foreign officers who have trained and learned at Army institutions have gone on to become army chiefs of staff, ministers of defense, and senior officials. These officers form long-term win-win relationships with American partners. Further, these soldier-to-soldier linkages are the foundation of U.S. landpower based and rotating in the region, communicating that the United States will support them if they are threatened. It is also the strongest and most credible signal the country can send to opportunistic actors that the United States intends to respond to a crisis or aggression.
Both of us have experienced the value of forward land forces multiple times throughout our careers. In the Indo-Pacific, we have witnessed exercises like Pacific Pathways deepening partnerships with multiple countries through direct on-the-ground rehearsals. These rehearsals reduce logistical friction while building confidence in mutual contributions. This has led to the pre-positioning of stocks for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies in ground storage or on mobile Army watercraft. Operating together on the ground also forces Army partners to design, test, and employ distributed interoperable networks. This can and does lead to further integration everywhere, from fielding common systems to enduring intelligence sharing.
These actions present policymakers with options. In 2017, with tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula, the Pentagon deployed the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system and rapidly integrated it into the allied air and missile defense system. Expeditionary landpower communicates strategic predictability while maintaining the flexibility to understand and assess potential malign activities. As was the case in 2017, landpower offers immediate, tested levers to de-escalate crises. In a conflict, landpower provides the distributed sustainment network that enables the military to conduct joint and combined operations, blunt aggression, and surge additional forces throughout the region. Most importantly, Army landpower affords the entire military the ground network of logistics, protection, intelligence, fires, and command and control necessary to fight a modern conflict.
Building Emergent Capabilities
Figure 2: Strike Capabilities from Strategic Distances
The Army contributes unique capabilities to the Indo-Pacific, including distributed logistics, mobile air defense/protection, and an integrated intelligence network. It is also building additional capability through its six modernization priorities of long-range precision fires, next-generation combat vehicles, future vertical lift, a modern network, air and missile defense, and enhanced soldier lethality. Underpinned by modernized intelligence, the Army will be able to perform a new and critical role in the Indo-Pacific — the ability to strike enemy targets in all domains from land at strategic distances.
Since the early 2000s, the People’s Liberation Army has undergone a rapid transformation of its capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. From developing counter-satellite capabilities to anti-access area denial anti-ship missiles, the People’s Liberation Army now has capabilities specifically designed to impede U.S. operations in the region. Further, through targeted use of predatory economics, the Chinese government has coerced other countries into providing access to their assets. Beijing has extracted long-term exclusive port access, stolen intellectual property, and used economic pressure campaigns to dissuade international coordination. The U.S. military needs capabilities to respond to these coercive activities before they become irreversible.
The fundamental aim of China’s military modernization is to undermine the U.S. military’s ability to access the first island chain, giving it the operational space to carry out coercive military actions. Relying primarily on sea and airpower presents the People’s Liberation Army with a problem its anti-access area denial capability is designed to solve. The U.S. Army’s modernization priorities, calibrated posture, and strong relationships, reinforced by a robust network of intelligence and advisory capabilities in the region, ensure that the military is in position with multiple capabilities to deter Chinese aggression or coercion. Combining that position with foreign military sales delivers an interoperable defense network across the region. These collective capabilities provide the military the agility to operate jointly across all domains in highly contested areas throughout the Indo-Pacific.
New Approaches, New Dilemmas
Figure 3: Emerging Technology
The Army provides the military a survivable warfighting and intelligence architecture with reliable, persistent access in areas the People’s Liberation Army works to deny, including the first island chain. By making it easier for the United States and its allies and partners to respond to aggression, that architecture creates strategic predictability for Indo-Pacific countries. Further, the Army’s capabilities in the region give the Indo-Pacific Command commander the flexibility to rapidly impose costs, regardless of the position of naval and air forces. If naval and air forces are out of position, the Army can still access and employ its greater intelligence network with integrated protection and long-range fires to enable the military to deliver multi-domain effects. The Army will also leverage its capabilities and posture to facilitate the maneuver of naval and air forces in the time, place, and combination of the commander’s choosing. Without landpower, the commander is reliant on the positioning of naval and air forces to deter and respond. With it, he can assure, deter, and respond at any time and in a manner of his choosing.
The Army is exercising its emerging capabilities with the rest of the joint force and our partners in the region through its daily actions in competition, including employment of the Multi-Domain Task Force through exercises like Valiant Shield. To support this joint and multi-national effort, Army Futures Command initiated Project Convergence. Joint and multi-national by design, Project Convergence ensures the United States can fight and win as one team. Project Convergence brings together the right people, the right units, and the right capabilities, all correctly positioned around the world and enabled by the right technologies and intelligence network. Project Convergence is how the Army rapidly and continuously integrates the unprecedented “range and speed” of converging effects.
The Army will bring the results of Project Convergence to the Indo-Pacific and develop its multi-domain operations approach alongside sister services and partners. Competing this way requires a transformational change in the Army’s approach to the region. Landpower based on modern capability, forward posture, and synchronization with sister services and through partners and allies is the key to enduring U.S. military deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. The cumulative result of persistent Army actions in competition is military readiness to deter and respond to adversaries’ malign activities.
Ultimately, America’s ability to persistently deliver multi-domain effects with and through allies and partners is how the United States competes and wins without fighting across the competition continuum. Beijing should take into account that the United States can contest the People’s Liberation Army in all domains at all times, and is willing to engage on land to do so. This level of capability and commitment is an undeniable signal — to our adversaries and partners alike — that the United States will fight for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
Landpower Is Indispensable in the Indo-Pacific
Figure 4: Working with Allies
As the president has noted, the United States will “take on directly the challenges posed [to] our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China.” The Department of Defense needs to marshal all elements of American military power — air, cyber, land, sea, and space — in response. Given the stakes involved and Beijing’s continued ability to translate economic growth into military might, the United States cannot afford to discount landpower in its regional strategy.
The United States could just buy more technological platforms and say that this is our competitive advantage. But, if America did that, a quick look at military history would prove it wrong. From Great Britain in the American Revolution to France in World War II to America’s own experience in Vietnam, what a country fights with is nowhere near as important as how it fights. The United States can and should develop new platforms with better technology and enhanced intelligence capabilities, but it should also be clear-eyed about where and how it intends to employ those platforms to create enduring effects. U.S. air-, cyber-, sea-, and spacepower are essential to securing American interests in the Indo-Pacific, but we are unaware of any historical example where a war ended at sea or in the air — or in space or cyberspace space for that matter. Does the United States compete in those domains? Absolutely. However, war is won, and peace is preserved, on land. Army landpower needs to be in position to help decide the outcome.
Lt. Gen. Charles Flynn currently serves as U.S. Army deputy chief of staff for operations, strategy, and planning and has been confirmed as the next commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific. Lt. Gen. Laura Potter currently serves as U.S. Army deputy chief of staff for intelligence.