The U.S. military’s worldview is about to change dramatically.
Defense Department leaders are set to trade desert and mountain terrain in the Middle East and South Asia for the watery expanse of the Pacific Ocean, where a rising superpower threatens the vitality of global trade and U.S. interests in the region. It is a strategic “shift” or “pivot” that has been in works for a while, but will accelerate once U.S. troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
“Here’s how we look at the world,” Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Thomas Conant, deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said during a recent presentation. “It’s not centered on North America, it’s not centered on Europe. It’s centered on that [China], as it should be.”
Most of Conant’s presentation to the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference in Panama City, Fla., was given before a series of maps centered on Asia. On one, China was highlighted in white while colored rings representing the ranges of its precision-guided missiles radiated from its borders.
The focus of the U.S. military’s shift to the Pacific is not aimed at provoking China or a knee-jerk reaction to any immediate threat from that nation, Conant was careful to explain. War between the two superpowers is not on anyone’s radar, he said. The plan is rather to “manage the rise” of China as it stretches its economic and military sphere of influence in the region, he said. U.S. civilian and military officials recognize that less-powerful countries in the region may view China’s economic expansion as a threat to their own sovereignty.
“When you have a rising power … and a ‘great’ power — the U.S., China, India, Russia — meet up and come to this collision point … somebody ends up in a shooting match, whether it’s bows and arrows, or whether it’s cannons or dropping bombs. We cannot allow that to happen.”
The main concern in the Pacific is not that the United States and China may come to blows, but that regional anxieties could disrupt global trade through chokepoints like the Strait of Malacca. Tensions are already high, given China’s insistence — over claims by Vietnam, Thailand and other nations — that it has sole fishing rights in the South China Sea.
By partnering with lesser nations in the region, the U.S. military may be able to deter a costly war. But direct hostilities with China is something for which neither country is currently prepared, Conant said.
For the past 10 years, through two wars, the United States has not had to contend with a peer nation that possesses precision-guided missiles, the proliferation of which threatens the primacy of U.S. carriers and their ability to project power. For that reason, the Defense Department loosely adopted the air-sea battle strategy, said Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work.
“The Pacific has always been a maritime theater,” Work said at the conference. “Over time this will cause us to emphasize longer-range systems and weapons and longer- range, secure communications.”
The air-sea strategy is designed to counter a peer nation’s guided missiles that could keep aircraft carriers and landing forces at a distance, and thus render them impotent. The plan relies primarily on long-range bombers and submarines to disable missile systems. Army and Marine Corps officials have repeatedly asserted that they also play a role in the strategy.
The Pacific is vast and operations there will rely on maritime forces, but the Defense Department plans to take a “whole of government” approach to its strategy. To achieve long-term goals of safeguarding commercial activity and avoiding regional conflicts, “it requires land forces, it requires naval forces, it requires Coast Guard capability and unmanned” systems, Conant said.
“There’s no one force — you can talk about air-sea battle all you want — but that’s not the problem set that is going to solve this issue,” he added.
U.S. forces in the Pacific remain dispersed on a strategic footprint that resulted from World War II and the Korean War, Conant said. Primary locations include Alaska, the West Coast, Hawaii, Guam, Japan and South Korea. But ships and troops are not stationed in such a way that U.S. forces can police the entire Pacific and deliver disaster relief where promised in a timely manner, a situation Conant called a strategic “misalignment.”
Conquering the “tyranny of distance” could prove one of the biggest challenges for a forward-deployed military with massive logistical requirements, he said.
“The distances alone defeat your efforts,” Conant said. “It is the one thing that will put you in a crisis of sustainment without an active crisis. You are so far way from everything, that if you were to get into a conflict, we have to think about managing some critical aspects of logistics and movement.”
Prepositioned resources and troops in strategic areas like Thailand can help. The U.S. Pacific strategy envisions that country as a humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief center. With an annual toll of 70,000 people lost to natural disasters, that mission will likely become a major occupation of naval and air assets in the region, both U.S. and foreign, top-level commanders have said.
“If you’re going to respond to natural disasters, you’ve got to have some hubs out there,” Conant said. “It comes at a small price and it’s a good way to partner with other countries.”
Cooperation with at least 36 regional allies will play a major role in multiplying a force constrained by budgets and available resources. Beginning in 2014, the Navy will station Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore to provide coastal patrol capabilities.
The Air Force and Army are also contemplating a presence in that city state, Conant said.
Marine commanders are already studying the possibility of military cooperation with the Philippines, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Vietnam. There is also a possibility that by 2020 and beyond, rotational forces could be stationed in those countries, depending on the level of cooperation.
Bangladesh, Conant said, has a capable but poorly resourced military that the U.S. can help grow.
“If you look at their flag and general officers, they are well trained, well disciplined, excellent tacticians,” he said. “They are very important to us in the region.”
The Defense Department is in the midst of a program review of its air-sea battle plan. The strategy is a blueprint for how to counter potential hostilities from nations like China, Iran and North Korea, whose precision-guided missiles threaten U.S. ships. Military planners foresee having to contend with an “anti-access, area denial” threat from those or other peer nations. In such a contingency, missiles and undersea mines would keep large ships at a distance where short-range attack aircraft are rendered all but useless and landing forces are put at risk without air cover.
Along with developing tactics to counter the long-range missile threat, joint exercises with partner nations likely will increase, Work said. Engagement on both the diplomatic and military fronts is also increasing. In recent months a coterie of U.S. government and defense officials have made several wide-sweeping trips in and around the Pacific Rim to explain the U.S. strategic shift.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured the Pacific in August, including an unprecedented stop at an island-nation summit on the remote Cook Islands. She also visited Russia and China during the six-country visit. Clinton’s trip was bookended by two Pacific tours by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in May and again in September. He has now visited the region three times since taking office July 2011.
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James Amos also made a two-week tour of Marine installations and partner nations in August.
Two of the largest international military exercises were conducted over the summer in Hawaii and Australia, emphasizing cooperation and interoperability among militaries at distances that Pacific contingencies would necessitate.
In July and August five countries — the United States, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and for the first time Indonesia, participated in the biennial “Pitch Black” military exercise in Australia’s northern territory. The various air, naval and marine forces practiced offensive and defensive counter air combat with 94 different aircraft and more than 2,200 personnel.
At nearly the same time, off the coast of Hawaii, 22 nations participated in the Rim of the Pacific exercise, the 23rd year the U.S. military has hosted that war game for its regional partners. A total of 40 surface ships, six submarines, 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel were involved.
“You’re going to see a lot more of that kind of engagement,” Work said.
While the Marine Corps and Navy plan to rely heavily on partner nations as force multipliers, both services plan on significantly beefing up their physical presence in the region.
By decade’s end, there will be a total of 31,000 Marines in the Pacific with 22,200 of them stationed west of the International Dateline — meaning places other than Hawaii. Locations include Okinawa and Iwakuni in Japan; Guam; Darwin, Australia; South Korea; and on Navy amphibious assault ships throughout the region. A rotational force of 250 Marines already is stationed in Darwin. That force will eventually grow to at least 2,500 troops.
The Army is making similar moves. Following its exit from Afghanistan, the ground force will reposition I Corps to the Pacific. Based primarily at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., the 14-division corps represents about 40,000 active and reserve troops.
“That’s the Army’s contribution to this big plan,” atop its well-established presence in South Korea, Conant said.
The Navy also plans to permanently assign 60 percent of its fleet to the Pacific theater, including six of its 11 aircraft carriers and as many big-deck amphibious assault ships.
There will be a lot of work for Special Operations Command in the Pacific. With such immense spaces to traverse, they will need greater mobility. Anticipating that need, Air Force Special Operations Command is already pushing CV-22 Ospreys out to the Pacific theater, said Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command.
Half of the planned 50 tilt-rotor aircraft have been delivered. Following the stationing of 10 Ospreys at Royal Air Force Station Mildenhall, in the U.K., another 10-aircraft wing will be established in the Pacific, he said. That plan should take shape within two years to coincide with the end of operations in Afghanistan, though no basing decisions have been made.
For Air Force fliers, and special operations aviators especially, the shift will require a brushing up on skills that have atrophied over 10 years spent flying almost exclusively in high-mountain or arid-desert terrain, Fiel said.
Low-level flight, for instance, is not something often practiced in Afghanistan, so crews are being rotated back to their home bases to sharpen dulled skills, he said. Joint terminal attack controllers and specialists in weather also have seen weakness in some skill sets, Fiel said.
With more than a third of global commerce streaming through the South Pacific annually, the U.S. military has a strategic interest in keeping those sea-lanes open. Managing China’s influence in the region and other nation’s reactions to Chinese expansion is a cornerstone of that plan, Conant said.
“We have to do that because [if tensions reach a breaking point], history does not tell a good story,” Conant said.Photo Credit: Navy, Defense Department