WASHINGTON: The US Army must play a larger role in the Pacific to deter China, one of DC’s leading defense experts is telling Congress today. That larger role requires politically and fiscally difficult decisions to build new kinds of units and base them in new places, Andrew Krepinevich told me in advance of his Capitol Hill briefing.
The core of Krepinevich’s vision: Army missile batteries — for anti-air, anti-ship, missile defense, and long-range strike — regularly deploying to, or even permanently based in, West Pacific nations. Those allies could contribute crucial ground forces themselves, each according to their capabilities. Japan has its nascent coastal anti-ship batteries. The Philippines could build a state-sponsored irregular defense force, one that takes tactical and technological lessons (but not ethical ones) from Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Together, US and local ground forces along the First Island Chain — running from Japan to Indonesia — would provide the strong backbone of a Western Pacific defense. Dug in on islands, they would be the immovable anvil to the mobile hammer of the Air Force, Navy and Marines.
“Ground forces can be important complements to the air and naval forces,” Krepinevich told me. “Because of the archipelago terrain, the ground forces really are compelled to adopt a positional defense: It’s very hard to move between islands in this kind of a conflict.” (Your transport would likely be shot down or sunk en route).
So “air and maritime forces need to be the heart of your mobile operational reserve,” he said. “Ground forces engaging in cross-domain operations — C4ISR, counter-air, counter missile, coastal artillery, and even anti-submarine warfare — can create blocking positions along the First Island Chain, thereby freeing up more of our naval and air forces to do the things only they can do.”
A Hard Sell
There’s significant interest in a wider Army role in the Pacific in both the Senate and the House. But this isn’t an easy sell in other places where it matters — the Army, to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, or to the allies:
- Allies worry about permanent US bases. They create political friction where they already exist, in Japan and South Korea, and they’re off the table in places like the Philippines, at least for now.
- The Army doesn’t want to support Air Force and Navy operations from static positions on islands. It’s not attractive compared to leading sweeping armored maneuvers in Europe a la World War II or a World War III with Russia.
- OSD — with the possible exception of former Secretary Chuck Hagel — thinks funding a major Army role in the Western Pacific, as opposed to in Europe, is counterintuitive.
“Both the Marine Corps and the Army are trying to figure out…this high technology battlefield that they might face against these high end competitors — primarily Russia, because we don’t anticipate a ground fight against China,” a senior defense official told me recently. The scale in China is too huge. There’s even a joke — updated from something Bismarck allegedly said about the British invading Germany — that if the US Army landed in China, Beijing would just order the local police to arrest them.
But Krepinevich is not talking about a land war in Asia. He’s talking about land forces doing things that affect targets in the air, at sea, and in cyberspace — as well as long-range missile strikes against Chinese-held islands or even the mainland. (More on that in a minute). Such “cross-domain” operations are touted in new joint and Army doctrine, but they remain an unfamiliar and even uncomfortable idea for many in the military.
Changing The Army
While all the services must make changes for future warfare in the West Pacific, “I think the biggest shift would be for the US Army,” Krepinevich said. “Just as Special Forces were really the big growth area over the last 20-25 years, in archipelagic defense, the big growth area is going to be artillery: air defense, missile defense, coastal defense — i.e. anti ship cruise missiles – and rocket artillery for strike.”
“Just as with Special Forces,” he continued, “we’re talking about the Army placing a priority on what has been not a dominant branch of the ground force. We’re not talking about the infantry, we’re not talking about the armor, we’re not talking about cannon artillery, the combined arms force at the core of a brigade combat team.”
We’re also not talking about the Army’s preferred way of positioning its forces since the Cold War era. Once, the Army had massive garrisons in West Germany and South Korea, but since 1991, “the trend has been towards becoming a more expeditionary force,” Krepinevich said.
But rapid deployment is not what’s needed here, if only because once the shooting starts, Chinese “anti-access/area denial” defenses may prevent troops based in the US from deploying to the theater. Instead, he said, “for archipelagic defense — whether we’re supporting the Japanese in the northern sector of the First Island Chain or countries like the Philippines in the southern sector — more of the Army’s going to have to be forward deployed or forward based” when conflict starts.
“This is not going to happen overnight,” Krepinevich emphasized — and that’s okay. “In 1949, we had very few troops in Western Europe, but that grew over time. Likewise, with the growing risk to security in the Western Pacific you have to lay the groundwork, and over time our force posture may involve more forward based ground forces.”
He advocates a crawl-walk-run approach: from occasional exercises to regular exercises to rotational deployments to, one day, permanent bases.
“Right now we have elements of Army brigades that do some periodic training with forces in the region,” he said. “You begin to build on that — only you don’t do that with Stryker brigades, you do it with air defense, missile defense. Over time these become regularized, say, every few months.”
“As the next step, you would have a unit may deploy there for six months, and then there’s a two-month gap, and then another unit comes in for six months,” Krepinevich continued. Ultimately, at least some allies may allow a permanent US presence.
“The approach has got to be baby steps,” he said. “It’s something that evolves over time as countries see the benefits of this kind of support.”
Americans, Don’t Go Home?
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the Asia-Pacific region is receptive to more US presence — up to a point.
“The Army’s Pacific Pathways program is quite welcome in the region,” Green said. “The challenge is that most countries in Asia can’t handle a Stryker brigade or the kind of formations the Big Army’s built around.” (A smaller unit — like one of the missile batteries Krepinevich calls for– might fit more easily, however).
“We’ve done surveys [of] elites in 10 Asia countries several times over the past five years, and it is remarkable how much strategic thinkers, political leaders from Vietnam to India to Japan want more of us,” Green said in response to Sen. John McCain. “They want more cooperation, they want more exercises, they want more trade agreements. They don’t want bases — they don’t want bases in most cases — but they’re willing to accept new arrangements.”
For example, Australia is letting us rotate Marines through Darwin and will soon allow US squadrons at Royal Australian Air Force bases, Green said. The Filipino supreme court just approved a new “enhanced defense cooperation agreement” that lets US forces in in larger numbers, albeit not on with permanent bases like the old Subic Bay or Clark Airfield. Even a US return to Cam Ranh Bay in what was once South Vietnam is possible, Green said.
For complex legal reasons, “we do not have the kind of relationship with Taiwan where we can do forward deployment and forward basing,” Krepinevich told me. “But if you look at countries like Singapore, the Philippines, even Vietnam, we are now pushing on much more of an open door than five or ten years ago.”
It’s not all American give and no take, either. “We have a very strong portfolio of allies and partners in the region that, if cultivated properly, can provide a great deal of additional military capability,” he said.
From Filipino “Hezbollah” To Army Cruise Missiles
What can the different allies contribute, and what do they need from the US? There’s a spectrum of answers.
Japan possesses a first-rate modern military with, by some measures, more combat power than China. Many of their capabilities are similar to America’s, but “what they have that we don’t is they have coastal artillery,” Krepinevich said. “They have Ground Self-Defense Force units that have anti-ship cruise missiles, and I think that’s a big step forward in terms of archipelagic defense.”
“They’re also converting one division to more of a rapid reaction force,” he continued, “and they’re looking at taking one of their army brigades and giving it an amphibious assault capability — like the US Marines — for reinforcing threatened sectors.”
Overall, Krepinevich said, his Japanese contacts feel confident they can hold the line against China in the northern part of the First Island Chain. Further south, however, Taiwan and the Philippines are in greater peril and need more help. But they’re hardly helpless.
“One of the great potential capabilities that the Philippines and the Taiwanese bring is that they could make themselves very difficult for an invading force to swallow,” Krepinevich said. How? “By creating modern irregular warfare units. Picture a Hezbollah kind of force — with, at least in the Philippines, American trainers and advisors.”
Hezbollah is often held up as an exemplar of “hybrid warfare“: a mix of guerrilla tactics and nation-state capabilities. The Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists are another such hybrid force. Why should the bad guys have all the fun?
“Look at a robust irregular force like Hezbollah: They have rockets, they have artillery, they have mortars, they have missiles, they operate as an irregular force,” Krepinevich said. “That kind of force in Taiwan and the Philippines could make it very difficult for any enemy to occupy their territory.”
The US could provide training (except in Taiwan), advanced but inexpensive weapons like precision-guided mortars, and liaison officers with network links to the whole panoply of US power: satellites and drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance so our allies aren’t fighting blind; airstrikes and long-range missiles for precision fire support so they aren’t outgunned.
The most controversial part of Krepinevich’s whole scheme is not the basing arrangements, the cultural changes inside the Defense Department, or even a Filipino Hezbollah, however. It’s those long-range offensive missiles. Many experts fear that hitting targets in mainland China would quickly escalate a conflict. Krepinevich argues being unable to do so would weaken our deterrence even as it lets the Chinese invest all their resources in offense.
“The ability to hold targets, critical targets, in China at risk provides our national command authority with an important option,” he said. “It also creates a problem for the People’s Liberation Army. If their key assets — headquarters, air bases, etc. — are sanctuaries from American attack, they don’t have to devote any resources to things like air defenses and hardening: They can put that money into offensive systems like submarines and missiles. If we can hold them at risk, that may encourage the PLA to devote more resources into less threatening capabilities.”
“This isn’t about going to war with China anymore than AirLand Battle [in the 1980s] was about going to war with the Soviet Union,” Krepinevich said. “If you convince the Chinese that you can fight effectively enough that they can’t coerce their neighbors, they’re not tempted to engage in acts of aggression.”