WASHINGTON: The Senate Armed Services Committee has joined the push to give the Army a much larger role in the Pacific. The hard part, ironically, may be getting the Army to go along.
Why should soldiers do more in the Pacific, a theater traditionally dominated by pilots, Marines, and, above all, sailors? The Pacific, obviously, is full of water. But it’s also full of islands — and some of the larger islands are US allies: Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan. The Army’s potential role there isn’t limited to defending against invasion. The Army already has missile defense radars in Japan (the Raytheon AN/TPY-2) and may deploy THAAD anti-missile batteries to South Korea.
But why stop at defensive systems, ask lawmakers like House seapower chairman Randy Forbes. China’s Second Artillery Force already has long-range land-based missiles that can attack US and allied ships far out at sea. What if the US and its allies fielded land-based anti-ship systems of their own? That might deter — or in the last resort, defeat — a Chinese land grab for disputed islands like the Senkakus or the Spratlys.
Pushed by Forbes, the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act requires a Pentagon report “as to the feasibility, utility, and options for mobile, land-based systems to provide anti-ship fires.” That’s an idea endorsed by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The Senate’s version of the bill goes much further.
It calls for “a comprehensive operational assessment of a potential future role for U.S. ground forces in the island chains of the western Pacific in creating anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in cooperation with host nations to deter and defeat aggression in the region.” The capabilities specified for study include land-based anti-ship missiles and more. The full list, with our commentary in italics:
“(A) Anti-ship mines and mobile missiles as a means of neutralizing adversary naval forces, including amphibious forces, and inhibiting their movement, and protecting the shores of host nations and friendly naval forces and supply operations.” (US-laid minefields devastated Japanese shipping during World War II, but the Navy has largely gotten out of the business since).
“(B) Mobile air defense surveillance and missile systems to protect host-nation territory and ground, naval, and air forces, and to deny access to defended airspace by adversaries.” (The Navy’s Aegis ships play an ever-larger role in missile defense, but the fleet is reluctant to tie up such assets protecting friendly territory when a land-based defensive battery could do the job more cheaply and as well).
“(C) Electronic warfare capabilities to support air and naval operations.” (Navy electronic warfare is far ahead of Army EW, but the Chief of Naval Operations himself has noted that land-based systems can be larger and more powerful than anything you can fit on a ship).
“(D) Hardened ground-based communications capabilities for host-nation defense and for augmentation and extension of naval, air, and satellite communications.” (Jamming and hacking of wireless communications is a major worry in a high-tech war, making old-fashioned, well-buried landlines an attractive backup).
“(E) Maneuver forces to assist in host-nation defense, deny access to adversaries, and provide security for air and naval deployments.” (Only in this fifth and final item do we get to the classic Army role as “boots on the ground” securing territory).
Unlike the House, the Senate also specifies who it wants conducting the study, with participants including the celebrated Office of Net Assessment and the four services’ War Colleges.
“This is a concept that offers loads of opportunity for US strategy in Asia for a relatively small cost,” one Senate staffer told me. “We need low-cost ways to raise costs and create new dilemmas for China in the Pacific right now. A mobile, land-based sea-denial and anti-air warfare capability is a no-brainer.”
“There were actually staffers on both the R[epublican] and D[emocratic] side thinking about this and we found ourselves all on the same page,” the staffer went on. “There is a broad, bipartisan consensus on the Hill and in the think tank community that the Army should be moving in this direction, but a limited appetite in the Army to take on such a mission right now.”
“US ground forces should be giving these concepts and capabilities more attention than they have been,” a House staffer agreed. “This is a great opportunity for the Army, in particular, to leverage the unique capabilities and characteristics of land forces to play a new and important role in places like the Western Pacific. It is puzzling that the level of interest within big Army is so low.”
Anti-ship defenses — the Coastal Artillery — were a major and prestigious part of the Army until World War II. Shore-based anti-ship missiles would be the 21st century equivalent. The latest Army Operating Concept even states that “Future Army forces will [conduct] the projection of power from land across the maritime, air, space, and cyberspace domains.”
But while “cross-domain synergy” and “pivot to Asia” are the strategic rhetoric, the Budget Control Act is the reality. Unless the Army gets more money to build shore-based missile batteries, it would have to cut something else. “Army coastal artillery is interesting,” a third Hill staffer said, “but tell me what you’ll trade off to create it? Infantry? Field artillery? Short-range air defense?”
With the Army feeling even more under siege than the other services, building a whole new capability is daunting. But it could give the Army new missions and new sources of funding.