ÈÍÒÅËÐÎÑ > ¹74, 2014 > The Role of U.S. Land Forces in the Asia-Pacific
Kimberly Field and Stephan Pikner
Even as turmoil continues to mark the Middle East, the long-term trends in global security matters are increasingly focused on the Asia-Pacific and China. Indeed, for the structural realists who believe the distribution of power between states is the root of why states do what they do and the primary driver for conditions of peace and war, the rise of China is principal on the security landscape. In contrast, the efforts of the past decade have reduced terrorism to the status of a gnat that the United States will keep chasing around the globe.
While China will not soon surpass the United States as the global diplomatic, military, economic, and soft power leader, its rise is undeniable. In contrast to the stark U.S.–Soviet Union dichotomy, the relationship between America and China has remained more interwoven, complex, and fluid. While the ideological differences between the United States and Soviet Union manifested themselves in the economic, military, and cultural domains, the U.S.-China relationship is a mix of cooperation and competition that requires balance and integration of efforts across all dimensions of national power. Executed poorly, missteps in one area could significantly damage American interests elsewhere; executed well, the relationship could grow into a mutually beneficial one in which “a rising tide lifts all boats.”1
China’s decades of rapid economic growth have underwritten a surge in military modernization, regional assertiveness, and global activity. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has taken lessons from the U.S. military’s logistical, tactical, and operational dominance displayed during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the shock of being unable to deal with the deployment of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Straits in 1996, and the performance of Western coalition airpower against Serbian air defenses in Kosovo in 1999.2 These lessons have spurred modernization focused on countering American power projection platforms and their associated communications and surveillance infrastructure. Highly advanced antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), coupled with antisatellite weapons and cyberwarfare capabilities, present a serious threat to the U.S. military’s ability to defend its allies and interests. In addition to this military buildup, the reduced American military presence in the Pacific due to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has coincided with the escalation of longstanding disputes between China and its neighbors regarding the sovereignty of various islands (and their associated maritime exclusive economic zones). These actions have taken China’s neighbors, many of them U.S. allies, aback.
China’s global activity is less overtly aggressive but is increasingly felt. Its veto power on the United Nations (UN) Security Council has limited collective security action against autocratic regimes in Sudan, Syria, and Iran. The growing economy’s insatiable appetite for raw materials and energy has pushed Chinese corporations far afield in search of resources. Africa, in particular, but also South America, the Arctic, and Central Asia, have been popular destinations for investment in research and resource extraction. Chinese-funded improvements in foreign ports (the “string of pearls”) have increased, and these ports can have naval significance.3
It is in the three interrelated arenas of military, regional, and global activity that the China-U.S. relationship will be tested. Some escalation of the security competition between Beijing and Washington is inevitable as military capabilities developed by one side will be seen as provocative by the other, creating a drive to build countercapabilities. Power transitions, when a rising power approaches parity with the incumbent, are often the period where the danger of miscalculation and war is greatest.4 While neither the United States nor China will lose their urges for political advantage simply because of interdependence (and certainly activities in cyberspace are intensifying), the urge to use traditional military power will be restrained by that economic interdependence and by mutual nuclear deterrence.
To ensure long-term mutual growth and stability, these existing seeds of restraint should be nurtured. A relationship based on mutual restraint is critical to preventing the instability that power transition theory proposes. Mutual restraint expands on existing mutual deterrence. As stated by David Gompert and Phillip Sanders:
The distinction between mutual deterrence and mutual restraint is crucial. Although mutual restraint depends on mutual deterrence, it is less fragile and more likely to contribute to wider cooperation than fear-based deterrence alone. It implies that the parties are not fundamentally adversarial and that each seeks a relationship based on more than canceling out the other’s strategic threat. While mutual restraint does not depend on faith in good intentions, it can ease fears of hostile intent, thus reducing the danger of miscalculation and the collapse of restraint during crises. It also invites—indeed, requires—earnest dialogue and understanding regarding the shared problem of strategic vulnerability, as well as concrete steps to reinforce restraint.5
Developing mutual restraint has two major implications for the future of American landpower. The first relates specifically to deterrence of aggression and reassurance of America’s allies in the western Pacific. Mutual deterrence is a necessary condition for mutual restraint, and the inability to use force (due to lack of capacity, capability, or will) undermines the viability of mutual restraint. The second is broader in scope and considers the worldwide implications of the cooperate-compete nature of the U.S.-China relationship as it applies to developing regions, unstable states, and the global commons.
A New Flexible Response
The U.S. military has enjoyed unfettered air and naval access across the Pacific since World War II. Working with treaty allies in Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Thailand, the United States has built a network of ports and bases that allows it to project and sustain military power. China’s recent investment in its military capabilities, especially in intermediate-range missiles whose range and capabilities pose a risk to the U.S. Navy as well as forces stationed nearby, has the potential to disrupt the military balance in the western Pacific. As above, while China is not the threat the Soviet Union once was, it can now impose unacceptable costs on the American military, economy, and homeland in the event of a conflict. Managing this challenge to America’s regional role in the western Pacific while keeping options for global U.S.-China cooperation open have led to dissonance among American policymakers.
America’s 2010 National Security Strategy cites the need to “pursue a positive, constructive, and comprehensive relationship with China” while emphasizing that “disagreements should not prevent cooperation on issues of mutual interest, because a pragmatic and effective relationship between the United States and China is essential to address the major challenges of the 21st century.”6 Building on this, the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance cites the need to “build a cooperative bilateral relationship” while at the same time stating that “the United States will continue to make the necessary investments to ensure that we maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely in keeping with our treaty obligations.”7 The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, though, emphasizes the need to ensure military access in a contested environment through the development of an Air-Sea Battle concept and the expansion of future long-range strike capabilities.8
Air-Sea Battle is an operational concept developed jointly by the Navy and Air Force that seeks to overcome the challenges posed by China’s military buildup. By integrating a variety of land-, sea-, air-, and space-based sensors and weapons, it seeks to neutralize an adversary’s antiaccess weapons systems. While some of the steps that would be taken early in a conflict would seek to disable enemy communications and sensors, success in the first stage hinges on “executing a suppression campaign against long range strike systems”—in other words, widespread and persistent bombing of the Chinese homeland.9 The long-term strategic consequences of such a massive retaliation (or preemption) are dramatic and dire and should give national leaders pause.
Furthermore, the possibility of inadvertently hitting a transporter-erector-launcher carrying a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile or just “dazzling” a nation’s launch detection systems through electronic jamming would dramatically escalate the crisis. China could see this the same way the United States or Soviet Union would have during the later years of the Cold War—as an attempt to preemptively disarm its nuclear deterrent. It may respond in kind, risking a general war.10
Facing the possibility of the U.S. military neutralizing its sensor, command, and missile systems, China would have a strong rationale for using them early in a crisis before they are disabled or dispersed and hidden to survive the American suppression campaign. A security dynamic that incentivizes China to use its most advanced weapons early in a crisis—while the United States strikes deeply and continuously on the Chinese homeland to counter and suppress those same weapons—is inherently unstable and could cause a crisis to rapidly spin out of control. In short, it undermines mutual restraint and risks badly distorting the cooperate-compete nature of the U.S.-China relationship. The tactical requirements of an operational concept such as Air-Sea Battle would bind American strategy in a straitjacket and might ultimately be seen as an empty threat to be tested or ignored.
The challenge that spawned Air-Sea Battle must be viewed more broadly than countering the specific capabilities of Chinese ASBMs and anticommunications systems. Fundamentally, it is about America’s ability to fulfill its security obligations to its allies in the western Pacific and to ensure the free flow of commerce in the global commons. Defense of allies and deterrence of any threat to free trade, as opposed to power projection for the sake of projecting power, is the central challenge facing the United States.
Certainly, cost is a significant factor. Chinese investments in the ASBM systems that Air-Sea Battle seeks to counter can be much less than the investments the Air-Sea Battle directs—precision missiles and advanced targeting systems. If America’s overriding national interest in the western Pacific is the defense of the sovereign rights of allies, leveraging submarines and developing land-based antiair and antiship missile systems on allied soil is an effective and economical approach.
Flexible response during the Cold War was in part about coming to terms with a certain level of vulnerability. It presented options across the spectrum of warfare for dealing with aggression other than just the option of massive nuclear retaliation. The survivability of retaliatory capability was stressed as opposed to first strike or fighting at a high end (nuclear war). The idea in mind was that the latter would undermine deterrence, would fuel the arms race, and was not politically feasible. Furthermore, importance was also placed on counterinsurgency and civic action programs to address the threat in other less costly and dangerous ways. The strategy of flexible response can be a model for the foundation of U.S.-China mutual restraint.
Building a resilient and economical military posture that does not drive rapid escalation but rather facilitates crisis stability is central to this new flexible response. The chains of islands in the western Pacific, most of which are allied with the United States, form a natural base for this posture. Strings of acoustic sensors capable of detecting quiet, modern submarines, coupled with hardened communications infrastructure that is not dependent on vulnerable satellites, would increase the survivability of the defensive network. Austere airstrips could support both strike and support aircraft without the limitations of an aircraft carrier’s catapults.
Land-based air defense and antiship missiles are another critical component of a new flexible response. First, they are fielded on a country’s sovereign territory, making a preemptive strike against them a significant escalation. Second, they can be hardened and dispersed, presenting a tougher target than a ship, which must retire from the fight after a hit from an ASBM. This increases not only their military value but also their strategic worth as they do not have to be used immediately. Third, missile bases on land are a more capable and economical, though less flexible, method of deploying firepower to a given region.11 These first three reasons are the foundations for China’s investment in such systems as well as justification for American interest. Finally, and unique to America, an island-based defense chain in combination with a broader strategy of engagement presents a tangible, permanent commitment by the United States to its allies in the region—and a better foundation from which to develop varied options to strengthen the U.S. position. While air and naval forces can project power worldwide, they are also transient by nature and can be recommitted elsewhere at a moment’s notice. While this flexibility is beneficial for the operational capabilities of the U.S. military, it can be disconcerting to allies and costly to employ.
The endstate of building and deploying this defensive network of land-based missiles is to create the conditions where America’s allies are secure against Chinese attempts to coerce or compel them on their sovereign territory or in the global commons. In a crisis, the United States and China could impose significant costs on each other’s air and naval forces operating in the western Pacific, but the destabilizing military need for rapid and preemptive strikes on the sovereign territory of any nation is eliminated. Any escalation from that level would be a deliberate step rather than the inadvertent result of a narrow military need to neutralize ASBMs.
In the wider context of establishing a framework of mutual restraint between the United States and China, in conjunction with a broader engagement strategy, this approach gives both sides flexibility to manage a crisis effectively. Developing and building an island-based hardened infrastructure of sensors and communications, coupled with antiair and antiship missile systems for deployment on the soil of U.S. allies in the Pacific, set the conditions for mutual deterrence while avoiding the destabilizing potential inherent in the current vision of Air-Sea Battle. From this foundation, broader cooperation on a variety of global issues as well as greater freedom of action become possible.
If the fundamental change in the international system is the rise of China, consistency of logic must view this as a global change that involves all elements of national power and not as a predominantly military effort confined to the western Pacific. The United States—and only the United States for the foreseeable future—will be the primary sustainer of the international system that it built along with other likeminded countries over the last 70 years. Realist balance-of-power inclinations must be weighed against a constructivist approach that posits the international system will reflect the inputs entered into it. While these inputs are not exclusively military, hard military power must underwrite diplomatic, economic, and soft power efforts. In this sense, America will continue to provide the collective good of relative empathy for and awareness of other countries’ needs coupled with the desire and ability to address challenges across the world. In short, power exacts responsibility, and that responsibility requires a vision that transcends narrow, short-term self-interest. Great powers remain great if they promote their own interests—economic, security, and legal—by serving those of others.12
While military scenarios in the western Pacific close to China can be a zero-sum game, interests farther afield may increasingly converge, or merely not diverge, especially in areas such as countering weapons of mass destruction (WMD), ensuring the free flow of energy resources through the global commons, and stabilizing failing states with critical resources. There will still be points of friction, especially given America’s (admittedly intermittent) underwriting of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine that contrasts starkly with China’s emphasis on state sovereignty as paramount.13 There may also be struggles over limited strategic resources. Even so, the overarching concept of mutual restraint allows for case-by-case cooperation worldwide and for the United States to act in its own interest by assisting others with theirs.
In all the ways the United States uses force, it must always strive for legitimacy. Defending an ally facing regional aggression, ensuring access to the supply of resources on which the livelihood of billions of people depends, stopping genocide and aiding in humanitarian crises, preventing the use of chemical and biological weapons, and helping other states combat internal threats that also threaten American interests (trafficking of illegal goods, for example) are all examples of occasions when the military might be called on to strengthen an international system built on the laws and norms America helped develop.
This by no means implies that the United States has to become a global policeman, draining its resources in ways that do not promote its national interest. Rather, smaller and shorter operations as well as an increasingly indirect and longer-term approach in conjunction with partners may be able to achieve desired ends without long-term individual military commitments of scale. Leadership by “pushing on the open door” of converging national interests with China and with partners around the globe will strengthen the international system while conserving American resources.
The first steps in cooperation between the PLA and the wider international security community are being taken. Two notable examples are, first, the ongoing counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden where the PLA Navy has operated as part of a multinational force for several years, and second, China’s increasing contributions to UN peacekeeping operations and disaster relief exercises. China previously viewed peacekeeping operations as violations of sovereignty, but now deployments under UN auspices are becoming commonplace.14
Another area in which U.S. and Chinese interests may converge is countering WMD. Some claim that it is difficult to see an actual instance in which the United States would employ extensive forces to counter WMD. Yet the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance makes no claim that countering the proliferation and use of WMD is a less likely mission than employing major weapons systems in a kinetic exchange with China. The United States must be just as ready to simultaneously identify, secure, and triage multiple cache sites as to manage the consequences of a WMD attack within a failing state or on the homeland. This is one of the most complex, challenging, and likely scenarios facing the global community. This challenge requires both significant ready capacity and specific capabilities primarily in the land forces. The initial estimates for securing WMD in Syria, for example, were for around 70,000 soldiers,15 and more in the case of a disorderly implosion of the Pyongyang regime. Cooperation with China in the latter case could reduce the risk of unintended clashes between the U.S. military and the PLA while both attempt to prevent terrorist smuggling of loose weapons. Even where China may not directly assist the United States and others in neutralizing the WMD threat (in Iran or in the event of collapse of government in Pakistan, for example), China’s desire for stability and trade will benefit from America’s counter-WMD efforts even if support is publicly disavowed.
In other intersections of interest, cooperation is less certain. The truth of the expression “The Americans are going to Asia and the Asians are going to Africa” is evident in the huge investments in extraction and transport infrastructure Chinese enterprises are making in Africa and elsewhere. Using development assistance, military assistance, and other incentives, China has moved aggressively to assure mineral access in Africa. Southern Africa, for example, contains major reserves of chromium, platinum, manganese, cobalt, and other strategically important minerals. In 2008 Beijing signed a long-term infrastructure development agreement with the Democratic Republic of the Congo worth over $9 billion and received the country’s favored access to two rich copper-cobalt deposits.16 China is doing this in Africa, central Asia, and South and Central America.
This expansion does not foretell certain conflict between Washington and Beijing. Indeed, there is potential for cooperation in stabilizing regions where mutually required strategic resources lie or flow through. On the other hand, it is quite possible for friction between the United States and China to be driven by calculations of potential economic gain in an integrated system. Given mutual restraint underpinned by mutual deterrence, tensions are not as likely to come to open hostilities over whatever can be shared for the benefit of all. Rather, conflicts are more likely to flare up over access to resources or transit chokepoints that can be monopolized. Tensions and proxy wars between the United States and China over such issues are less likely to mimic the political ideology–fueled proxy conflicts of the second half of the 20th century (Angola, Cuba, El Salvador, Greece, Mozambique, and Nicaragua, for example) than the interactions of the Great Powers across the globe in the 19th century.
China is not likely to discern between legitimate and corrupt regimes in its need to access resources, as seen in Africa and South America. The United States, by both unwritten policy and laws such as the Leahy Amendment, is constrained in working with corrupt and brutal regimes, yet it will also desire access to the strategic resources in their countries. These different approaches could put Washington and Beijing at odds, with each side building the capacity of the party that can enable their access. The resulting conflicts may not be directly between the uniformed forces of the United States and China. Rather, they will more likely be fought by, with, and through local and regional partners in locations that are already unstable.
The Future Role of America’s Land Forces
The logical extension of this global cooperate-compete dynamic is that maximizing U.S. national interests requires the skillful application of limited and indirect force—in the Asia-Pacific and around the globe. Execution of limited contingency operations (Operation Just Cause in Panama, for example), provision of specific capabilities such as missile defense, and military engagement and security cooperation are contributions that land forces will uniquely make both in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. The U.S. military’s ability to execute these varied missions has to be reenergized after a decade of constant focus on one type of mission in one part of the world. The ability of the joint force to meet these specific, tailored needs with increasing agility is dependent on Service provisions of unique capabilities for mission requirements as expressed by combatant commanders. But the themes that run through them all is that they are almost certainly conducted by enabling partners to work independently or with us, among populations, and with the support of surrounding countries. Each mission demands regional access, building the capacity of likeminded states to address or assist us in addressing internal or regional problems, and the ability to influence others in order to achieve decisive effects.
This is a long-term endeavor that must start now. The United States only has to recall its post-9/11 basing agreements in Central Asia to realize that approaches that rely on short-term expedience are fraught with uncertainty and leave little lasting positive impact. This stands in contrast to the seven-decade relationship between the United States and its partners across Europe, where robust partnerships, bases, and access agreements established during World War II and adapted for the Cold War have shown their enduring utility for operations in the Balkans, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, as well as their productivity in integrating former communist states into the community of democracies. The United States and its partners must now adapt—not shut down—their Middle East and European arrangements, reinvigorate their Asia-Pacific posture in a way that is efficient and flexible, and enhance their partnerships and agreements with Africa and South America to be discreet, precise, and effective. Their military relationships must be strong and vibrant even if the military footprint is not large, or if it is large but of short duration.
In this context of continuously shaping or reshaping an uncertain environment, engagement, relationships, and regional understanding are the only foundation from which to directly meet national interests in agile, tailorable ways. Skeptics of military engagement and security cooperation claim there is no hard evidence that such investments have resulted in concrete measurable outcomes, and in fact American money has often gone to corrupt regimes. This is rather like saying we ought not to invest in the education of inner city youth because there is no clear or direct connection between investments and results. Society accepts some risks in full recognition that progress will require steady investment over many years. Given the evolving security environment, where the more likely threats have access to technology that makes them more lethal, smart choices must be made in those places where progress over time is in America’s national interest. Prudent engagement is preferable to the alternative of ignoring threats and allowing them to metastasize to the point where they affect important national interests.
The United States has spent significant time and effort building the capacity of security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade. The knowledge, skill, and institutional predilection for these capacity-building missions are stronger in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps than ever before. With those wars over or ending, now is the time to reap the benefits of a military that is trained and experienced in working side by side with allied partners by leveraging those skills across the globe. Land forces are uniquely positioned to build the capacity of partners and allies for several reasons. First, while America’s naval and air capabilities are unmatched, they are also unmatchable because the cost of building and maintaining the fleets of high-tech ships and planes fielded by the United States is beyond the reach and need of the countries with which America most needs to partner. In contrast, a 10-member squad of Soldiers or Marines has fundamental commonalities with any military. Second, the predominant military service in most countries is the army, giving army-army contacts greater weight in military, political, and security affairs beyond just the employment of land combat forces. Even in East Asia, 22 of 27 chiefs of defense are army officers, and in 2012, the U.S. Army conducted hundreds of exercises, engagements, and exchanges with the vast majority of Asian states. Finally, professionalizing security services and armies yields benefits for all in operations beyond interstate war ranging from counterinsurgency to disaster relief. Instead of clumsy or brutal responses that only foster increased violence, suffering, and instability, a partner nation’s military integrated with regional allies and the United States can effectively and efficiently manage the situation for the benefit of all.
To prepare for these partnership missions, in addition to specific mission training, the U.S. Army is regionally aligning its forces by educating and training its Soldiers in the history, language, culture, and specific mission requirements of the regions to which they will deploy. They thereby not only learn the specifics of a particular locality but also gain a broader ability to rapidly develop situational understanding in the event of a contingency operation anywhere. They are expert in their combat skills, and when coupled with U.S.-based global response forces, these regionally aligned forces provide a powerful blend of local knowledge and large-scale capabilities that can execute the full spectrum of activities from security cooperation to support to counterterrorism to large-scale contingency response. Through all they may be asked to do, regionally aligned forces are constantly mindful of the defense strategy directive: partner in myriad ways with other countries’ militaries at the behest of the Department of State and combatant commander to increase influence, enable access, and help partners develop the capability to address their own security issues.17 Ultimately, presence must be tailored as needed as well as expert, widespread, quiet, respectful, and persistent. The U.S. Army, along with special operations forces and the U.S. Marine Corps, form the core of a global landpower network where the world’s challenges are the most complex, where all conflicts will ultimately be solved, and where U.S. leadership is most needed.
Land forces operating as a dispersed network while also rapidly reaggregating in the event of a larger multinational, interagency contingency operation is central to the Chairman’s concept of globally integrated operations. This concept demands a military that can quickly combine capabilities across echelons, geographic boundaries, and organizational affiliations, and headquarters that can command it all. In keeping with this imperative, the Army is aligning a division or corps headquarters to each of the six geographic combatant commands, allowing them to gain regional expertise, build enduring relationships, and command all capabilities required for specific missions. These rapidly deployable headquarters will be able to pull from the vast array of capabilities across the Army’s Active and Reserve components. They can also work laterally and quickly integrate with the other Services, foreign counterparts, and interagency partners to provide the core of an aggregated whole-of-government response to a regional crisis, integrating all elements of U.S. and allied military power.
As budgets get tight, the temptation will be to drop many of the activities and missions that make a global leader legitimate. That would be a mistake. The alignment of forces now based primarily in the continental United States uses existing capabilities and resources, in effect becoming a cost-effective solution for combatant commanders. Persistent small-footprint activities (or large but short) are low cost when compared to fighting a major prolonged campaign or procuring large, expensive weapons platforms. Presence cannot be short-changed; it must be sustained widely, lightly, and respectfully across those areas of interest to the United States. Forces must be kept expert and ready for a range of missions. These same forces can rapidly aggregate to address the largest threats. The flexibility of this model—as an integral part of the joint force—is unique, proven, and cost-effective, and the Army is committed to continuously improving it.
The cooperate-compete relationship between the United States and China is complex and involves economic, military, and political interactions across the globe. A myopic view of this relationship focused on countering China’s growing military capabilities in the Pacific region with an escalatory warfighting concept obscures the larger strategic picture and is counterproductive for the United States in the long run. A more flexible approach uses all elements of U.S. and partners’ powers to maintain stability and security in the Asia-Pacific and will ultimately sustain U.S. global leadership in the world. JFQ