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Army Targets AirSea Battle; Hungers For Pacific Role

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


With budgets falling and China rising, the U.S. Army wants in on the one theater where President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have promised to keep investing: the Pacific.

The world’s largest ocean is not an obvious fit for America’s land forces. So far, it is the Air Force and the Navy that have best capitalized on concerns over China, with the two highest-tech services putting forward a joint approach to controlling the Western Pacific that they call “AirSea Battle.” (The name, ironically, is a tribute to the influential Army-Air Force “AirLand Battle” concept of the 1980s). But the Army is working on a way in – and on a direct challenge to the “AirSea” idea.

With the goal of revising its guiding “Capstone Concept” document early next year, the Army has kicked off a series of conferences on its role after Afghanistan. At the first event, at the end of October, a conclave of experts addressing “alternative futures” for the year 2020 repeatedly highlighted the rise of China. But both the participants and the generals hosting them seemed vague on what the Army could actually do about it.

So at the follow-on conference, hosted the second week of December in Washington, D.C., scores of officers, Army civilians, and thinktank experts wrestled with scenarios involving crises in color-coded fictional countries that were transparent stand-ins for nations in the Pacific Command theater of operations: North Korea, renamed “Brownland”; Pakistan, dubbed (strangely) “Greenland”; and a blood-colored blob labeled “Redland” – the People’s Republic of China. Not only did the participants work out ways for the Army to be relevant in the Pacific, some of them took explicit aim at AirSea Battle.

“When I read that concept,” said Fred Svedarsky of the Army’s Mission Command Center of Excellence at Fort Leavenworth, Ks., “what was striking to me was the total focus on systems and platforms, and no recognition of the Army’s role – particularly with regard to developing basing rights, transit rights, all those things that allow the air and naval elements to move around and do those things they want to do in the AirSea concept.”

The argument here is that the Air Force and Navy have fixated on the parts of the China problem that are most suitable to their high-priced, high-tech systems – the clash between aircraft, warships, submarines, and electronic networks to secure or deny access to the Western Pacific – while they have ignored other aspects that the Army is best suited to address.

AirSea Battle is a response to adversary nations trying to keep the U.S. from deploying to their region. This kind of “anti-access / area denial” problem is typically conceived of in terms of long-range missiles, submarines, and cyber-attacks disrupting the incoming flow of American ships and aircraft. But the Army wants to broaden the concept to include what happens both before and after the initial deployment.

“‘Area denial’ might be that, once you get someplace, they litter the place with IEDs,” said the conference’s host, Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s deputy commander in charge of “futures.” Defeating improvised explosive devices – or better yet securing territory around U.S. forward bases so the enemy can’t emplace IEDs in the first place – is a challenge where the Army has the most experience of all the services. For that matter, while shipping or flying forces to a theater in the first place is a Navy and Air Force job, building the logistical infrastructure that sustains them there is the Army’s responsibility.

As for “anti-access,” Walker went on, instead of fighting your way into the theater, “you may already have such good relations that you drive in or you fly in” peacefully, because the groundwork has been laid by U.S. training missions and advisors, also functions dominated by the Army due to its experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. As those wars wind down, Army forces become available for such partnership-building missions in strategically located countries elsewhere around the world – including, of course, around the Pacific, where the Obama Administration recently announced it would base a Marine force in Australia.

Conference participants emphasized that the country could not afford to return to the Cold War model of permanent bases and garrison forces around the world. “[But] do we always have to put 20,000 boots on the ground when we have an obligation to provide presence?” asked Robert Toguchi, a Training and Doctrine Command “concept developer.” Foreign officers at the conference, he said, emphasized a range of less expensive ways to build strong ties without permanently stationing U.S. troops abroad, such as regular international exercises, prepositioning supplies for rapidly deploying U.S. forces to fall in on, and simply conducting joint planning between U.S. and foreign military staffs. “The allied partners,” he said, “really gave us some insight, eye-opening insight, into how to do this differently.”

Toguchi was not content to find the Army missions on the margins of an Air Force and Navy-dominated fight, however. While the Western Pacific is normally seen as a purely air and naval arena, he said, “in this part of the world, there are a lot of strategic chokepoints” – narrow straits – “and you can control those chokepoints with land assets.” And in a battle dominated by long-range missiles, Toguchi suggested an Army Patriot battery ashore might be an alternative to a Navy ballistic missile defense destroyer at sea. After all, Toguchi said, “the enemy can sink BMD ships, but the enemy can’t sink islands.”

Of course, the only way to get those Army forces into position across the Pacific is to deploy them there by plane or ship – which brings us full circle to the “anti-access” problem on which the Air Force and Navy focused their AirSea Battle concept in the first place. So alongside the Army’s emphasis on its very real abilities to support U.S. forces and build relationships with foreign ones, there is anxiety about the Army’s ability to deploy itself quickly in a crisis. The rapid deployment problem consumed much of the Army’s attention between the two Iraq wars, but without dramatic success, and since 2003 the Army has only gotten out of practice.

Warned one officer at the conference, “in an era of declining resources when the Army’s largely based in CONUS” – the continental United States – “if we don’t crack the deployment problem the Army has, the Army will increasingly be seen is irrelevant.”

His remark was greeted with a moment of grim silence. Then the assembled participants launched back into discussing how to make the nation’s biggest armed service relevant to the world’s biggest ocean.

[Eds. note: The photo shows Army Secretary John McHugh visiting Army Special Operations troops on Sulu island in the Philippines, aka the Western Pacific.]

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