The Asia pivot in theory and practice

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Article Highlights

  • In order for a deterrent to be effective, it must first be credible.

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  • Above all else, the United States is missing a coherent and comprehensive military strategy against China

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  • An American military focus on the Asia-Pacific is long overdue

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Since the Obama administration announced a "pivot" or "rebalancing" to Asia, the military components of this larger strategic shift have quite understandably dominated much of the public debate. After all, since its inception, the rebalancing to Asia has widely been interpreted as a hedge against future Chinese intentions and as a sign of America's enduring military commitment to the region. At their core, the military dimensions of the rebalancing to Asia are about maintaining conventional deterrence in the face of Chinese military modernization. Unfortunately, in this regard, the rebalancing leaves much to be desired. If the U.S. is serious about increasing its military posture in Asia, it must increase its investment in vital capabilities while crafting a comprehensive strategy to deter, and if necessary defeat, its greatest strategic competitor.

Strategic Context

Conventional deterrence is especially challenging today because the stakes are transparently lower than during the Cold War. At the peak of U.S.-Soviet tensions, it was at least conceivable that the United States would risk the destruction of a major American city in order to defend Western Europe from a Soviet invasion. Today, while it is plausible that the U.S. would undertake a conventional campaign to defend Taiwan, Japan, or Guam against attack, it is highly unlikely that America would respond to a conventional attack against any of these targets with nuclear force. In order for a deterrent to be effective, it must first be credible. The unfortunate implication is that while America's nuclear deterrent is important to prevent catastrophic state-based attacks on the American homeland and nuclear attacks against its allies, it is less effective in preventing aggression below a certain escalation threshold. Following this logic, America's deterrent posture in Asia rests largely on the conventional balance of forces.

This is a major problem because the Chinese, among others, are embarking on a systematic campaign that threatens to undermine American conventional deterrence. The Chinese are building a robust network of what are termed anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) technologies that essentially threaten to keep American forces at arms' length through a variety of means designed to attack American forces, networks, satellites, and communications. While these technologies may be insufficient to produce a Chinese victory in a protracted engagement against the United States, they could conceivably produce a Chinese victory against local American and allied forces in the early stages of a conflict, which China would seek to limit and conclude on favorable terms.

In this context, the rebalancing to Asia is extremely important for two major reasons. To begin with, an effective military presence in the Asia-Pacific is the best way to maintain conventional deterrence and thereby preserve peace. Second, if the unthinkable should happen—as it did in 1941, when a rising Asian superpower launched a risky preventative strike against American and allied interests in hopes of a quick victory—an effective buildup could help weather the initial strike and ensure an eventual American triumph. Unfortunately, while the rebalancing to Asia represents a positive rhetorical step in this direction, it has thus far failed to generate substantive action to better protect American interests in the region. While it is not too late for the administration to propose a serious military rebalancing to Asia, change is needed if the pivot is to become more than words on a page.

The Rebalancing: Theory and Practice

Perhaps the most effective illustration of the military component of the rebalancing to Asia is the Obama administration's January 2012 Defense Strategy, which privileges air and naval forces potentially at the expense of ground forces necessary to wage protracted stabilization and counterinsurgency campaigns. As part of this strategic shift to Asia, the Department of Defense announced several coordinated moves, including expanding the share of the Navy home-ported or deployed to the Pacific from what it benchmarked at about 50 percent of the fleet today to 60 percent by 2020. The moves also included the future basing of four new Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore, establishing an eventual rotational presence of 2,500 Marines out of Darwin, Australia, and expanding military cooperation with regional partners, including Australia and the Philippines. The moves, while relatively modest, were designed to reassure allies of America's commitment to the region and dissuade potential aggressors.

Unfortunately, these moves mean even less in practice than they do on paper. In fact, two of the highest profiles moves—the rotational Marine presence out of Darwin and the 60/40 fleet split—are emblematic of the larger problems with the rebalancing. For one, the new Marine presence out of Darwin is not a net increase of 2,500 Marines to the region. Last spring, the American and Japanese governments agreed on the removal of about 9,000 Marines from Okinawa. In what can only be described as a form of amphibious shell game, the Marines will be redeployed across the region to Guam, Hawaii, and yes, Australia. While the Pentagon is to be applauded for expanding its relationship with the Australians, shifting forces from one part of the region to another—one further away from the most likely crisis area at that—does not indicate a serious regional military buildup.

Likewise, the Pentagon announcement to deploy roughly 60 percent of the Navy's fleet in Pacific waters by 2020, actually is just a reflection of current reality as the Navy is very close to this threshold today. According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Navy, 50 percent of existing aircraft carriers are currently home ported or deployed in Pacific waters, 53 percent of destroyers, 55 percent of cruisers, 57 percent of ballistic missile submarines, and 56 percent of attack submarines. While a Pacific buildup that bumps these levels up to a full 60 percent would be welcome, it would hardly shift the regional balance in any appreciable manner.

More problematically, the Navy's future deployment projections are based on a rapidly shrinking fleet that may be still unaffordable despite its reduced size. In September 2011, the administration released a shipbuilding plan that averaged a fleet of about 306 ships each year over the course of its 30-year duration. Only months later, after formulating a defense guidance that emphasized naval power and the strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific, the administration released a 30-year shipbuilding plan that averaged a fleet of roughly 298 ships per year. Worse still, the 2013 plan projected the construction of 16 fewer ships over its first five years compared to the previous plan. The 2013 shipbuilding plan was impossible to spin—the incongruity of a shrinking Navy with a defense strategy focused on the Asia-Pacific exposed that budgets, not strategy, were driving Pentagon decision-making.

The Navy's recent 2014 shipbuilding plan is no better. Over the next five years, the Navy still plans to retire more ships than it will build. In fact, 31 ships are set to retire in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 alone. This means that in the very near term, the Navy will drop to 270 ships, its lowest level since World War I. The Navy plans to make up for these retirements with an aggressive near-term construction plan. The service plans to fund over 42 percent of all the attack submarines it will acquire in the next 30 years over the first ten years of the plan alone. At the same time, the Navy plans to offset the retirement of 17 small surface combatants between 2014-2018 with the construction of 14 Littoral Combat Ships over the same period.

What this means is that the Navy will be extremely dependent upon the ships it builds over the next several years since the fleet will be at a century-long low. Yet the prospect of undoing the remainder of sequestration appears to be a long shot at best—and even if sequestration itself were replaced, any future deal would surely contain additional large defense cuts. Therefore, the Navy cannot rely on the level of funding it assumed to meet even this reduced fleet target. With the goalposts moved and the Navy still likely to come up short, the naval portion of the rebalancing simply does not add up. Moreover, even if sequestration were to be repealed and additional funding added in support of a larger naval presence in Asia, the rebalancing would still be missing a key ingredient.

A Comprehensive Military Strategy in the Pacific Needed

Above all else, the United States is missing a coherent and comprehensive military strategy against China. While the Pentagon surely has operational plans for specific scenarios such as the defense of Taiwan, what seems absent is an overarching strategy that ties it all together—a roadmap of sorts that would pave the way from D-Day to V-Day in any future major war. This level of planning would have two results. Most importantly, it would tell the Chinese in no uncertain terms that the U.S. has the willpower, the capability, and a plan to defeat any potential aggression. This would have a powerful effect in strengthening conventional deterrence, and if the worst should come, would give American defense planners a guidebook to fighting and defeating a great power adversary.

America's strategic approach in the Pacific today stands in marked contrast to the last time it stared down a rising competitor in East Asia. When Japan launched a Pacific-wide offensive on December 7, 1941, it set in motion an American war plan half a century in the making. As Edward S. Miller chronicles in his history War Plan Orange: The U.S. Strategy to Defeat Japan 1897-1945, around the turn of the 20th century, American defense planners began developing War Plan Orange, one in a series of colored war plans that described how the United States would fight a variety of different countries. In the case of Orange, the plan was directed at the industrialization and militarization of Japan. Seeing a potential threat looming on the horizon, American planners spent nearly five decades considering how the United States could best fight and defeat Japan. While they hoped war would never come, they carefully considered difficult questions such as whether the Philippines were defensible (the plan eventually argued that they were not), whether the U.S. should conduct a major buildup on Guam, and how the Navy would claw its way back across the Pacific inch by inch, relying on the overall superiority of the American fleet while crippling the Japanese economy through a relentless blockade. This kind of thinking represented the best of military strategy. For decades, the Navy's best and brightest dared think about the unthinkable—and when it came, they were prepared with a roadmap to victory.

If the Pentagon is doing this kind of thinking in regard to China today, it is hard to see. While Jan van Tol and his colleagues at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments probably came the closest to this kind of planning in their 2010 whitepaper, AirSea Battle: A Point-of-Departure Operational Concept, what the Pentagon today calls Air-Sea Battle has very little to do with the strategic level of warfare. Instead, as the Chiefs of the Air Force and Navy have argued, the oft-cited but poorly understood Air-Sea Battle concept has to do more with inter-service cooperation and tactical level innovation and is not intended to be a comprehensive strategy for defeating China. Even the Pentagon's slightly more expansive Joint Operational Access Concept, a document intended to detail how the Pentagon will ensure access to regions like East Asia in the face of A2/AD challenges, essentially provides a list of principles and capabilities without a truly coherent vision that ties it all together.

If the Pentagon wants to enact a more effective rebalancing to the Pacific, it needs to get serious about strategic planning. By thinking about how a hypothetical conflict may play out, the Pentagon would also be forced to think through the forces it would require tomorrow—and therefore needs to buy today. As defense budgets continue to decline, a comprehensive military strategy against China is also the best chance the Pentagon has to protect vital capabilities because it crafts a coherent and compelling narrative that makes the strongest case possible to Congress for robust defense investment. Without an honest discussion of how to triumph in a war against China, the Pentagon would miss an opportunity to build the forces it needs for such a campaign and thereby strengthen conventional deterrence. And, if the worst should come, it would be less prepared to see the war through to victory.

Get a plan, Uncle Sam

An American military focus on the Asia-Pacific is long overdue, and to this extent the Asia-Pacific rebalancing is a positive step, at least in rhetoric, in thinking through the region's many challenges. Yet, to this point, the military components of the rebalancing have proven to be inadequate, hollow, and at times, illusory. The Pentagon must do better. The 21st century may well be a Pacific century, and America must be the nation to lead it. But such leadership comes with the price of careful planning, forethought, and investment. If the nation wishes to maintain its preponderant regional position, it must develop a coherent military strategy that walks through a hypothetical conflict from its strategic background, to its opening hours, to intra-conflict escalation control, to its final conclusion. Such a comprehensive strategy is America's best chance to preserve peace if peace is possible, while developing the forces and strategies to conclude a conflict on favorable terms if the United States is once more faced with fire in the Pacific.

Charles Morrison is a research assistant in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.

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