Spiking the Problem: Developing a Resilient Posture in the Indo-Pacific with Passive Defenses
In the late 1960s, U.S. Air Force Gen. Glenn Kent found a unique but effective way to overcome persistent resistance from Defense Department colleagues to building base defenses in Europe. During heated budget battles, Air Force officers habitually prioritized new aircraft and missiles over purely defensive measures. Gen. William “Spike” Wallace Momyer, commander of U.S. Tactical Air Forces, had written on a piece of paper that his top priority was to build hardened aircraft shelters to protect American fighter aircraft based in Europe from Soviet attack. Kent then obtained the Air Force chief of staff’s concurrence, which was captured by his signature under the phrase “I’m with Spike.” Kent or a colonel attended every meeting as the Air Force built its budget and each time eliminating funding for the shelters was proposed, he pulled out that piece of paper and said, “I’m with Spike.” This level of senior leader guidance and continuous engagement was needed to ensure that short-range American airpower — a key U.S. advantage — could have been effectively employed to stop a Soviet invasion, thereby strengthening deterrence.
Today, America’s military posture, which is comprised of forces, bases, and agreements, is a critical issue that needs a senior champion. China has a formidable arsenal of conventionally armed long-range missiles that are significantly more accurate than the ones that the Soviet Union had during the Cold War and plans to fire them in a first strike to destroy U.S. forces on the land and at sea. The Defense Department should ensure that American forces in the Indo-Pacific can survive this blow and generate combat power while under attack, which requires taking steps to increase the resiliency of U.S. military posture.
But absent a crisis, the Defense Department finds it difficult to significantly change America’s global posture. After more than a decade of promising to improve the survivability of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, the department has little to show for it. In part, ongoing wars in the Middle East have inhibited efforts to rebalance the American military footprint to the Pacific, as has the need to obtain the consent of nations that host American forces. Additionally, the services prefer to fund their priority weapons, and their reticence to spend money on supporting infrastructure is compounded when uncertainty about future base access is factored in. Finally, the Defense Department has yet to break with its past approach to power projection and to fully flesh out new operational concepts and ways of fighting. No posture is perfect and American operating concepts will continue to evolve over time, but that should not impede the progress that can be made today to improve the resiliency of U.S. bases and forces.
In the near term, one of the most consequential and affordable steps that the Department of Defense can take to shore up the conventional military balance in East Asia is to reduce the vulnerability of American forces to Chinese air and missile attacks by distributing them across more locations and putting in place a system of passive defenses on existing bases. Doing so would introduce uncertainty that China could cripple U.S. forces with a first strike and thereby strengthen deterrence.
The Military Problem
China has developed large stockpiles of long-range precision cruise and ballistic missiles to hold U.S. forces at risk in the Indo-Pacific. Fixed facilities — especially sprawling air bases, ports, and headquarters — are particularly vulnerable to enemy air and missile attacks. Ballistic missiles armed with submunitions could damage aircraft parked in the open and render runways inoperable, while cruise missiles could target maintenance facilities, heavy equipment, electric power, housing areas, headquarters, docked ships, and fuel storage. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force also fields medium and intermediate range anti-ship ballistic missiles that can hit U.S. aircraft carriers and other large surface warships at sea up to 3,000 kilometers away. Chinese forces have enough weapons to saturate and overwhelm existing U.S. air and missile defenses, such as the Patriot, Aegis, and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems. Beijing has also fielded advanced warheads, such as hypersonic gliders, to evade these defensive systems. The People’s Liberation Army plans to employ these weapons in a devasting first strike to ensure that the United States cannot meaningfully intervene in a conflict and stop Chinese aggression.
There is no silver bullet to counter this threat. The United States and China are engaged in a long-term military competition and each side will respond to steps taken by the other to gain an advantage. The Defense Department tends to focus on technological counters, such as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative’s request for a missile defense system for Guam. Although a layered and integrated air and missile defense system is a part of the solution, surface-to-air missile defenses are expensive and relatively easy to defeat, and the United States cannot afford to field enough defenses to match China’s offensive arsenal. This places existing active missiles defenses on the losing side of the cost-exchange ratio. Future technologies that have a lower cost per shot and larger magazine, such as solid-state lasers, may reverse that equation, but U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific cannot afford to wait for these technologies to mature as the military balance swings further in China’s favor and the risk of war grows. The Defense Department needs to take multiple steps today to protect its Pacific bases and forces while simultaneously investing in future capabilities that could fundamentally transform this problem.
The Missed Opportunity in the Posture Review
The Biden administration’s 2021 global posture review was a missed opportunity to make significant progress in this area. Although the review mentioned a few improvements to the U.S. posture on Guam, the Northern Marianas, and Australia, it heralded no big changes in the wider Indo-Pacific theater and was light on specifics. Instead of being a sign of the soon-to-be-released national defense strategy and fulfilling the department’s promise to focus on China, the posture review appears to have been an effort by the Biden administration to repair relations with allies and partners that had been frayed by its predecessor and to reverse the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Germany. Although the posture review is also part and parcel of the larger shift from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific that the Department of Defense has tried to make since the Obama administration, there were no further reductions in the Middle East or details about what America’s over-the-horizon presence in Afghanistan will look like.
The review, therefore, largely reverted to the pre-Trump status quo rather than making significant additional changes to America’s military posture. Nevertheless, given that the administration has identified China as the pacing challenge and senior officials have argued that the Defense Department urgently needs to take steps to counter China’s growing military power and deter aggression, this was a missed opportunity. The Biden administration should not make the same mistake with the forthcoming national defense strategy and the Fiscal Year 2023 budget. Going forward, senior officials should champion investments in posture in the Indo-Pacific that protect American bases and forces and enable them to operate in a more distributed fashion. Senior leadership is required because both the services and Congress loathe spending money on military construction overseas. Although the services recognize the importance of a resilient posture, they continually prioritize combat forces over supporting infrastructure and equipment. And even if they do try to make these investments, members of Congress often do not like appropriating military construction funds abroad where there are no constituents.
The Unexciting and Neglected Solution
Passive defenses minimize the damage of an attack by improving the ability of the target to withstand a strike, recover, and continue critical military operations. This may include dispersing forces across multiple locations, spreading forces and equipment out on a base, hardening, redundancy, camouflage, concealment, deception, early warning systems, and recovery capabilities, such as civil engineers, to rapidly repair the damage from an attack and restore operations. Decades of RAND research has demonstrated that passive defenses greatly improve the survivability of U.S. aircraft and are useful against a range of threats from swarms of drones to ballistic and cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons. Ideally, one wants a diverse portfolio of active and passive defensive measures, which reduces the probability that an attack succeeds. Yet the U.S. military is overfocused on active defenses, such as surface-to-air missiles, electronic warfare, and defensive combat air patrols, which seek to intercept and neutralize a threat before it reaches its target. Passive defenses offer an affordable and effective way to counter a range of threats to U.S. bases and forces, but they lack strong advocates in the services, Congress, and industry and thus tend to be overlooked in favor of active defenses.
There are two courses of action that the Defense Department should pursue in the Indo-Pacific to bolster passive defenses in the region. First, it should gain access to more bases and make infrastructural improvements to existing ones in the first island chain and in more distant locations to enable distributed operations. Second, it should employ multiple types of passive defenses on existing and new bases. It may appear that the Defense Department is already undertaking these actions, but an examination of the defense budget reveals little real progress in these areas.
Access to new bases requires finding a willing nation to host U.S. forces, accept more troops, or to permit them to use different locations in peacetime. Both Australia and the Philippines appear poised to provide additional peacetime access to U.S. forces. While this does not guarantee permission to use a base during a crisis or war, it would complicate China’s planning, increase the number of missiles that need to be fired, and decrease confidence that the People’s Liberation Army could knock out the majority of American forces in the theater with a devasting first blow. Moreover, it would reassure allies and partners that United States remains committed to their defense. For these reasons, the United States has sought to distribute its military footprint across the Indo-Pacific region for nearly a decade. However, such efforts have largely failed.
China’s recent assertive actions — including belligerent diplomacy, economic coercion, and attempts by Chinese military and paramilitary forces to harass and intimidate — have alarmed many of its neighbors, suddenly enhancing the desirability of U.S. forces. Prior agreements and discussions with allies — like the Philippines and Australia — that previously did not produce significant posture changes have nonetheless laid the groundwork for steps that could be taken today. The United States does not need new permanent bases, but instead occasional access to improved facilities that can support distributed U.S. military operations. The Philippines and Australia should be prioritized because the moment appears propitious. The Biden administration has improved relations with the Philippines and consequently Manila extended the agreement that permits U.S. forces on its soil. The Department of Defense needs to seize on this opportunity and upgrade the airbases identified in the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The actions of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stalled the implementation of the basing agreement, which has been limited to building a few storage warehouses. Further upgrades to air bases should be made and kit emplaced to enable U.S. aircraft to operate from them. Additionally, the United States should seek permission to rotate ground forces to the Philippines for exercises and to preposition supporting equipment — not weapons systems — for Marine stand-in forces and Army multi-domain task forces.
Additionally, the Defense Department needs to capitalize on the success of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States agreement by improving infrastructure at Australian air and naval bases so that they can support American forces and create a rear logistics hub outside of the worst threat ring. Australia is a big continent and a relatively safe location for large-body American bomber, tanker, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft to operate and for ships and submarines to rearm and be repaired. Because Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin is saturated with Australian troops and American Marines, the Defense Department should upgrade airbases in northern Australia and on Cocos Island. Moreover, it should preposition stockpiles of critical munitions, such as air-to-air missiles, anti-ship missiles, lightweight torpedoes, and sonobuoys, along with the shore equipment needed to reload the missiles fired by naval ships and submarines.
In addition to improving the infrastructure at new bases, the Defense Department should take actions that make it difficult for adversaries to find and efficiently target U.S. forces on existing U.S. bases. This would include on-base dispersal of weapons platforms, munitions stockpiles, and critical logistics systems, such as fuel distribution. Additionally, the Defense Department should selectively harden key facilities, such as command posts, field expeditionary hardened shelters for fighter aircraft, and acquire additional post-attack recovery capabilities to repair airfields and ports. Implementing these resiliency measures on existing bases would require military construction funds and some new equipment, but it would not require new bases and is something that the Defense Department could undertake today that would greatly improve the survivability of its current posture.
Spiking the Problem
During the post-Cold War era of uncontested U.S. hegemony, the Defense Department’s overseas footprint shrank, and forces were concentrated on a relatively small number of large installations to improve the efficiency of operations and reduce costs. Bases are crowded and aircraft and ships are kept close to one another to ease maintenance and support functions, making them lucrative targets that a highly capable adversary, such as China, could easily exploit. It is long past time to make the People’s Liberation Army targeters’ job more difficult. The Defense Department needs to make resiliency a priority and to accept the inefficiencies that are necessary to project power while under attack from a capable adversary.
The situation in the Indo-Pacific is not hopeless and war is not inevitable, but the United States needs to take steps to enhance deterrence in the next five years before China believes that it can successfully invade Taiwan, while making long-term investments in future technologies that enable it to maintain its military-technological edge. The Defense Department cannot afford to continue to lose more ground. The solution, however, is decidedly unpopular because it does not involve a larger force or buying more ships and aircraft, which would limit the Defense Department’s ability to modernize and not be fielded quickly enough to mitigate the growing near-term risk. Pouring concrete overseas, making investments in logistics and supporting materials, and operating in a distributed manner is anathema to many in the Defense Department who are accustomed to efficient operations and prefer to spend money on tanks, ships, airplanes, and sophisticated missiles.
Base resiliency is one area in which the United States can make impactful investments today while also investing in the future technologies of tomorrow. The United States should improve the resiliency of its posture by embracing a multi-faceted system of passive defenses. This will only happen if senior defense officials or members of Congress make it a priority. This solution is not exciting, nor is it perfect, but it will not break the bank and it is an effective stopgap measure while modernization efforts mature. It is far past time for senior defense leaders to stand up and say, “I’m with Spike.”
Stacie Pettyjohn (@StaciePettyjohn) is a senior fellow and director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security.