Sailors, Sailors Everywhere and not a Berth to Sleep: The Illusion of Forward Posture in the Western Pacific
It’s a problem familiar to any wargamer: Sure, you can buy more and more boxes of soldiers and tanks and missiles, but, eventually, you run out of places to store them. At some point, the prudent course of action is to figure out what to do with the ones you’ve got rather than simply try to shove more into your existing storage space — for the sake of not just your wallet but to preserve the domestic peace.
Unfortunately, in their article, “The State of (Deterrence by) Denial,” Elbridge Colby and Walter Slocombe propose to buy many more boxes of real-life military forces while disregarding where exactly they might fit. The authors are the latest to sign onto the illusory prospect of a large-scale forward positioning of U.S. forces, particularly land-based missiles, in the Western Pacific. They add their voices to a years-long chorus of commentators who insist that only by “strengthen[ing] its Western Pacific forward posture” and stationing vast numbers of manpower and materiel in-theater — proving the ability to resist “Chinese aggression” — will any degree of deterrence be secured. But the very idea of “sufficient” foreign posture is an illusion: No additional countries in Asia (with the exception of tiny Palau) are interested in hosting U.S. troops at all, much less the quantity and type of forces for which Colby and Slocombe advocate. At the same time, merely increasing troop numbers at existing U.S. and partner bases would not meaningfully alter the strategic calculus, and new weapons systems like theater missiles are particularly unlikely to be welcomed with open arms.
Given the very real limitations on deploying additional personnel or platforms to existing forward bases or to aspirational new ones, Washington ought to adopt a more peripheral approach to conflict management in the region. An emphasis on platforms that do not require new basing rights would offer a more mobile and survivable posture. Specifically, the Navy should recapitalize the guided-missile submarine fleet with a new purpose-built class and continue to enhance long-range strike capabilities across the surface fleet. It is also worth reconsidering the “contact/blunt/surge/homeland” global operating model of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, particularly the “blunt” layer in which prepositioned forces would supposedly absorb strikes and defend against a hypothetical attack by China. This concept presupposes a relatively large-scale first strike to which the United States would respond, but, should conflict with China erupt, it is likely to happen in a much less calculated and coordinated fashion. Instead, Washington should underline its ability to contain a crisis and respond in due course, relying in part on existing alliances to prompt more urgent responses if necessary.
The Problem with “More” in the Western Pacific
The idea of a significantly larger U.S. force presence in the Western Pacific ought to be a non-starter, given the very real limitations on existing and potential new basing locations alike. First, even if large additional deployments were possible to the bases and airfields the United States already used, their utility would be limited. Virtually all permanent U.S. bases in the region are well within range of Chinese land-based missiles already (the entirety of Japan and Southeast Asia), or else too far from the theater to bring significant concentrated firepower to bear (e.g., Diego Garcia). Even if distance were not an issue, without significant infrastructure enhancements these facilities’ current rates of work would remain the same despite the increased demand: Aircraft sortie generation rates would be unimproved, naval ship repair timelines flat, and troops unable to redeploy any faster than they can today. Coupled with the increased attractiveness of these locations as targets — now containing an even juicier sampling of American forces — it would be of little additional value, if not outright counterproductive, to double down on existing locations.
Second, if existing bases are out, the question then turns to which other countries might be willing to host this enhanced forward presence, and here the answers are brief: almost none. Even though Colby and Slocombe acknowledge that “the real questions will be where, how, and when,” and that “getting host nation agreement for such basing will be a tough lift,” they leave those questions unanswered. And yet, figuring out where else in the Western Pacific the United States would actually base additional troops, much less ballistic missiles, is not merely one consideration among many but the entire ballgame. The authors’ failure to even consider whether any countries might be interested in supporting Washington’s grand strategy is emblematic of an approach that disregards the actual desires of people in the region.
Finally, it may be that distributed operations or similar operational concepts, such as those that the U.S. Army and Marine Corps recently proposed, are worth pursuing and can achieve the desired outcomes. But it is equally likely that the access challenges even these lighter-footprint operations pose will be insurmountable.
The Limits of Existing Partnerships
Despite numerous ongoing regional defense initiatives, and diplomatic groupings like “the Quad” with India, Japan, and Australia, there is no real multilateral security body. The United States itself has bilateral mutual defense treaties with only three countries in Asia: Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Moreover, none of these countries are obliged to participate in anything but “consultations” in response to a conflict that does not result from a direct attack on their respective territories. The United States is also considered to have “obligations” to Taiwan (albeit non-binding ones) and has a similar arrangement with Australia and New Zealand under the eponymous Australia, New Zealand and United States Security (ANZUS) Treaty. There are major U.S. forces based in Japan and South Korea and rotational deployments to the Philippines and Australia. All four, plus Taiwan, also receive frequent training and security cooperation. Furthermore, the United States has a basing agreement with Singapore (at Changi Air and Naval Bases), as well as occasional access to U-Tapao Airfield in Thailand, when Bangkok allows it.
Regional theater basing presents a dilemma: too close to an adversary and bases are vulnerable to attack, while too far away the logistics of strike operations become much more complex. Virtually every possible host of U.S. forces is already well within range of conventional Chinese land-based and air-launched missiles, as this map from the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020 annual report illustrates:
Major airbases the United States currently uses — like Yokota, Iwakuni, and Misawa on Honshu; Futenma and Kadena in Okinawa; and even Clark in the northern Philippines — are all easily in range of Chinese short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, as well as cruise missiles. Simply adding more forces there would provide little in the way of survivable combat power. Likewise, even at larger bases in the theater like Kadena and Singapore’s Changi Air Base, eventually the physical infrastructure becomes a limiting factor. One RAND Corporation study estimated that an air expeditionary task force would require at least 560,000 to 1.1 million square feet of ramp space and minimum runway lengths of 8,200 ft. (for fighters) to 11,800 ft. (for support and airlift). Only a few dozen runways in the entire theater — including at civilian and dual-use airfields — meet even the lesser of these requirements, and only six of those (Taoyuan in Taiwan, Changi in Singapore, Kadena in Japan, Noi Bai and Tan Son Nhat in Vietnam, and Don Muang in Thailand) are capable of supporting heavy support aircraft. Fuel supplies are another weak spot, with any wartime air and missile strikes likely to sever pipelines, roads, and rail connections, and strand aircraft on the tarmac, where they would be additionally vulnerable to follow-on strikes.
Countries at the outer edge of Chinese theater missile ranges (e.g., Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea) present challenges of their own. Any aircraft sortieing from Changi or Australian bases would have to overfly Indonesian airspace, of which Indonesia has been fiercely protective in recent years. While the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea allows for “archipelagic sea lane” passage through one of several designated north-south routes, it remains to be seen whether Jakarta would be willing to uphold this in wartime under pressure from Beijing. As Blake Herzinger and Elee Wakim envision,
non-belligerents, under [Chinese] pressure and having curtailed access to their territory, might conceivably restrict permission to overfly their country as well. This would severely limit the avenues of approach of air power and reinforcements flowing into theater as they are forced to detour around the airspace of erstwhile partners.
Likewise, extensive use of Guam and other bases within the Second Island Chain presupposes overflight of the Philippines but also suggests that permission to operate from Clark and other airbases there has been denied. If Manila is not sufficiently concerned by a given threat to allow basing access, what guarantee is there that a regime like that of Rodrigo Duterte would permit even mere overflight? If that were the case, Washington would be faced with a difficult choice: whether to violate the sovereign airspace of its formal allies or partners.
Additionally, if a drastically stepped-up forward presence were to be feasible, it would require locations not only to base forces, but from which to employ those forces in wartime. But the bilateralism of the American alliance structure and the geography of the Western Pacific make it difficult to accomplish anything like an integrated force posture while relying on host-nation basing. Sheena Greitens and Zack Cooper recently published an essay examining ally and partner support through the lens of a Taiwan contingency. They concluded that, in such a scenario, only two allies (Japan and Australia) might be willing to contribute materially, and only a few more might grant basing access.
The same would likely apply in reverse to a conflict over the Senkaku Islands, for instance. While, obviously, Japan would be involved directly in a war for and over their own sovereign territory, what is the likelihood that South Korea or Taiwan (or the Philippines or Thailand) would risk becoming embroiled in a major war between China and Japan by allowing the United States use of their bases, much less contributing their own military forces? Would Tokyo risk Chinese reprisal by allowing U.S. forces to stage from Japan in defense of the Philippines?
So if not There, Then Where?
Most of those countries in which the United States has no permanent presence — be they allies like the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan, or not, like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia — have demonstrated little or no interest in any sort of permanent U.S. force presence. (They are, of course, also close enough to the Chinese coast to be under the immediate threat of land-based missiles.) The likelihood of them hosting any American forces, even on an ad hoc, temporary basis, is slim.
The sole exception seems to be the small island nation of Palau, which has invited the U.S. military to build joint-use facilities and then station forces there. Palau is also one of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies and represents something of a bridge between Taipei and Washington. Given their willingness to host American bases, ports, and airfields, it is not much a stretch to imagine even land-based missile units on Palau. Four hundred nautical miles closer to Hainan and the South China Sea than Guam, Palau provides some advantages in terms of basing, but a single additional island still well within range of missiles and bombers is not a game-changer in the strategic calculus.
And What There, Exactly?
Moving additional conventional U.S. forces to the Western Pacific would be hard enough. Deploying new types of weaponry, particularly medium- and long-range, land-based missiles, would be even more difficult. The Army’s long-range hypersonic weapon missile is nearing operational status, with other conventional missile systems in development. The recent $27 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative proposal from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command lays out a requirement for “highly survivable, precision-strike networks along the First Island Chain, featuring increased quantities of ground-based weapons.” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s new planning guidance for expeditionary advanced based operations highlights the primacy of distributed operations and “stand-in forces,” including significant investments in long-range precision fires that can obviate traditional basing requirements. The U.S. Army, terrified of an air/naval-centric defense budget, has staked its very future on the very similar Army multi-domain transformation concept, which pledged the development of a capability to operate as an “inside force” by 2040, with its long-range precision fires pre-positioned within an adversary’s anti-access/area denial umbrella in such a way as to render the latter pre-compromised.
While the Army’s new hypersonic missile likely has sufficient range to reach the Chinese mainland from Guam, other systems would need to be based closer. And nobody is keen on hosting American missiles. Neither South Korea nor the Philippines are interested, Australia has ruled it out, and Japan has not made a decision yet but does not seem particularly eager. If “a horizontal escalation strategy that gives up in the Western Pacific” is, as Colby and Slocombe suggest, “a losing and a potentially devastating strategy that will poison relations with key allies and partners,” then naturally those key allies and partners most at risk from a Chinese-led conflict ought to expand U.S. access and welcome the deployment of new precision strike platforms. Yet, they are independent nations with their own risk calculi, values, and domestic concerns. Assuming they perceive the same level of menace as the loudest voices in Washington is a quick way to be ignored.
The Marine Corps’ new operational concept is meant to avoid this dilemma altogether, as a “force structure … not dependent on concentrated, vulnerable, and expensive forward infrastructure and platforms.” The Army, for its part, acknowledges that multi-domain operations’ “response options in every contingency” depend on “mutually beneficial alliances and partnerships,” but it declines to further specify just how it would operate on the battlefield without significant new basing rights.
Neither of these concepts avoids issues of access. The Marine Corps’ at least suggests a minimal forward presence, but it can only succeed with partner arrangements made in advance of conflict. If the United States faces the choice of respecting allied sovereignty at the cost of a carrier, or instead forcing in anti-ship missiles wherever the Army would like, it will have made grave mistakes. Some claim that a degree of ambiguity is beneficial from both operational and communications standpoints, preserving relocation flexibility and avoiding “telegraphing to our potential adversaries where exactly our launchers might be in a crisis” without “mak[ing] the jobs easier for Chinese targeteers.” But, absent publicizing the existence of such arrangements, it’s equally easy to believe that the United States has none at all. It’s better to announce that U.S. forces could operate from Japan, the Philippines, and so forth because Washington has reached mutual agreement with them.
Of course, the United States should also be prepared to accept “no.” As Mathew Burrows and Robert Manning recently wrote in these pages, “any effective U.S. strategy needs to discard the mindset that assumes U.S. interests subsume those of allies and partners [and] understand the limits of U.S. agency.” That means that, for all the posturing over the absolute necessity of deploying missile and forces forwards now, just because the United States wishes it does not mean it will happen. New basing options cannot simply be willed into existence.
If the Rule Brought You to This Point
If America’s forward posture in the Western Pacific is currently insufficient to, as Colby and Slocombe write, “immediately engage and lean hard into blunting any Chinese assault,” and if the means of enhancing that posture are heavily limited by a lack of available basing options, then it is worth considering whether that “contact/blunt/surge” construct, as laid out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, is in fact executable. An inability to fulfill the promises of the defense strategy would not be a new phenomenon. The United States has a costly history of biting off more than it could chew both practically and conceptually. Therefore, it is worth considering if there is any alternative way to achieve the deterrent capability the authors argue for, and/or whether the strategic goals themselves ought to be revised.
The fact remains that, except for Palau, no additional country will agree to host large numbers of U.S. troops or any ground-based precision strike assets at all, even on an ad hoc basis. This has persistently been the refrain of many who opposed the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and the development of these types of missile capabilities. Even though China may have a significant advantage in the number of, specifically, land-based short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, it does not logically follow that the United States or its allies should therefore field those precise weapons as well. Clearly it has not been the presence of such weapons that has deterred China from an invasion of Taiwan for the past 30 years.
There are plenty of alternatives to a massive forward presence in order to contribute to regional security without destabilizing the strategic situation. For the reasons above, land-based precision strike may well be a nonstarter. As the head of Air Force Global Strike Command recently said of the Army’s multi-domain transformation concept, “Honestly I think it’s stupid … I just think it’s a stupid idea to go and invest that kind of money that recreates something that the [Air Force] has mastered and that we’re doing already right now. Why in the world would you try that?” With significant investments already underway in the realm of survivable precision strike, both with aircraft as well as extended-range air- and sea-launched munitions, the need for an entirely new capability without a logical home seems a stretch.
Likewise, focusing on land-based missiles ignores the assets already available to the United States. There is a reason the Tomahawk land-attack missile has been one of the most used munitions since the end of the Cold War. Sea-based assets hold the promise of mustering massive amounts of distributed firepower in international waters, and, with the current surface fleet aging and ailing, an imminent push to recapitalize is underway. This presents an opportunity to reconceive of the nature and purpose of modern naval platforms, and to look at even longer-range capabilities that would allow the Navy to play a part in a conventional seaborne deterrent strategy without having to risk forward-deploying huge numbers of ships. It is worth considering whether the guided-missile submarines converted from Ohio-class nuclear missile subs could serve as a possible template for a future platform. Given that their “replacement,” the Virginia-class attack submarines with the Virginia payload module, has only about a third of the capacity, a true purpose-built successor guided-missile submarine could perform the same mission at a fraction of the cost. As it is, to replicate the current combined Tomahawk total of 616 missiles across four guided-missile submarines, it would require no less than 22 Virginias with the Virginia payload module, at a total cost premium of $8.8 billion over models without it. A limited magazine size in the Virginia payload module also means that missiles would run out sooner and that underway replenishment missions would be executed across a much greater area. But a dedicated guided-missile submarine would offer survivability, capacity, and, most importantly, it would not require basing or access rights. Disaggregated surface ship capabilities — for instance, a number of vertical launch tubes operating as an unmanned swarm in a joint command-and-control network — would provide similar strike potential in an even more survivable and less expensive form.
Finally, even if war did break out in the Western Pacific, the United States should challenge Beijing in areas outside of merely the military domain and the First Island Chain. Washington has many economic levers and tools to punish military aggression without resorting to direct violence: Sanctions and embargoes can be applied. Likewise, even with America’s overseas reputation greatly diminished after decades of war and unilateralism, it still has valuable political currency with allies and international organizations alike. Laying the groundwork in those fora now — as a means of reestablishing a moral high ground — would enable a broader coalition to apply its own diplomatic and economic pressures to China. Unlike the idea of responding to adversary missiles simply by developing missiles of one’s own, this approach would be asymmetric. Finding alternatives to force-on-force clashes would play to America’s strengths by working with its considerable number of allies and partners, leveraging its existing naval power, and decreasing the risk that a crisis could turn into a great-power war.
Despite fears of an overly small military presence, the United States is already redeploying forces from Europe and the Middle East to existing bases around the Western Pacific. These bases are in allied countries that have already welcomed large concentrations of U.S. military forces and have no objection to a few more. The region has been at relative peace since the end of the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, with no major interstate wars (unless one counts the intervention in East Timor in the 1990s). Even with the end of the Cold War and ensuing force reductions, the U.S. force posture in the Western Pacific has actually increased over time, providing a steady and continuous presence.
Is that sufficient for deterrent purposes? It clearly has been so far. One doubts whether reintroducing the permanent presence of U.S. airpower at Clark Air Base in the Philippines or a triumphant return by the Navy to Subic Bay would make the difference in a war for Taiwan. In short, given the unpredictability of security partners and even treaty allies at providing the barest wartime support, proposing to position significantly more U.S. forces in the region runs up against an unmistakable reality: There is nowhere to put them. The geopolitical realities of the Western Pacific mean that, as much as some American commentators might wish for a stronger U.S. forward presence there, without greatly expanded basing and access rights, they are simply that: wishes. And yet, if there is no way to win the “blunt” phase of the National Defense Strategy given the current footprint in the region, then what correlation of forces would actually allow that? While an alarmed chorus insists that more is needed, they do not even ask, much less answer, the question of “how much is enough?” Is it simply “as many missiles as China has” — or is it possible that the question itself is the issue?
The problem lies not with the quantity of forward-deployed resources so much as with the strategic assumptions underpinning their requirement. Rather than proclaiming the need to flood the zone with tremendous amounts of equipment and end strength and then having nowhere to put them, the United States is better off developing naval platforms like submarines and unmanned surface and underwater vehicles that would provide precision strike capabilities without requiring overseas basing. Additionally, the United States should enable its partners and allies to defend themselves if need be, whether that means selling them the very weapons systems they would rather not see on their territory under U.S. control or simply conducting the necessary bilateral work to ensure U.S. wartime access. Such a restrained posture is one of neither abandonment nor appeasement — it is recognizing the limits of the possible and tailoring a strategy to support and defend the U.S. partners that make the region one worth caring about.
Graham W. Jenkins is a senior principal analyst in Northrop Grumman’s Aeronautics Sector and a young leader with the Pacific Forum. He was previously a contractor for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and a research assistant at the Institute for Defense Analysis. All views are his own and do not reflect those of his employers, customers, or the U.S. government.