The Army may soon be playing a much greater role in the maritime Asia-Pacific theater. That’s because of the increasing need for anti-ship, counter-air and missile defenses.
The last administration trumpeted its so-called “Asian pivot.” But that shift was largely rhetorical. As the U.S. wound down its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the White House wanted to avoid leaving the impression that America was in global retreat. By announcing a pivot to Asia, the administration suggested that it was proactively seeking new high ground in securing our national interests.
At the same time, there was a widely growing consensus that the rise of China presented geo-strategic challenges. Beijing could not be ignored. The Asian Pivot offered an answer. The U.S. would ramp up its engagement with China and other nations in the theater. We would be a good, pro-active neighbor!
While this was unfolding, the Pentagon trumpeted the “third offset”: it would shift the emphasis of defense investments to long-term solutions for countering the growing “anti-access/area denial” (A2/D2) threat—the potential that Chinese military forces would be able to control the region’s sea lanes.
Both “third offset” and “pivot to Asia” bumper stickers are now discarded. But these policy forays are worth mentioning as points of contrast to the new direction of U.S. strategy in Asia.
Part of the new strategic approach comes from the new team in Washington. Part comes from Allies. It all might be important to the Army.
The Trump administration’s conception of protecting vital interests is far different from that of the Obama administration. The change is reflected clearly in the recently released (December 2017) National Security Strategy. Rather than focus primarily on Asia, the new U.S. strategy acknowledges that peace and stability in Asia, Europe and the Middle East are all vital to American interests—and that none can be guaranteed without a robust, active U.S. presence.
The Trump team also sees itself as taking a strategic middle ground between the last two presidents. They view George W. Bush’s post-9/11 strategy as too muscular, too intrusive and ambitious, trying to fix the world’s problems to make the world safe for America. In contrast, they regard the last administration as too timid—ceding too much space to competitors and abandoning strategic space that was then filled by bad people with bad intent.
The Oval Office’s broader conception of top priorities folds nicely into recent initiative from America’s allies. In early 2016, the Japanese began floating the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a coalition strategy focused on ensuring the freedom of the commons throughout the region.
Not surprisingly, one of the first stops the Japanese made was New Delhi. The Indian government was already deeply concerned about China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean and its Indian Belt and Road infrastructure and trade initiatives—especially Beijing’s activities in Sri Lanka. Linking up the strategic interests of the two countries made sense.
The Japanese pitched the idea to senior advisors of the Trump transition team shortly after the ballots in the 2016 election were counted. The new administration was already looking for new ways to manage the rise of China and predisposed toward strengthening relations with New Delhi. As a result, the U.S. quickly embraced the “free and open Indo-Pacific” construct and actively helped recruit Australia, the other key ally in the theater, to the cause.
The president and secretary of state have already highlighted the Indo-Pacific concept in speeches. It is referenced in the National Security Strategy, and the administration has prepared a separate regional Indo-Pacific strategy to further flesh out the concept.
Australia, the US, India and Japan have already established a diplomatic framework to build out the concept. Called the “quad,” the countries held their first meeting at the assistant secretary level in Manila in November, just ahead of the ASEAN Summit.
All the governments are quick to point out the pursuit of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is not about containment, and it is not primarily a military strategy. At the same time, it is clear that there is a military component.
In the end, China respects power. If the nations calling for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific can’t guarantee that they can enforce freedom and openness, then there is zero likelihood Beijing will respect the notion.
Maritime activities are, without question, the core of the concept. We are certain to see new initiatives to extend current maritime situational awareness into an integrated, common, operating picture stretching from the Gulf of Aden to the Arctic. There will also be big emphasis on “constabulary” maritime power—particularly the use of national coast guards to counter Chinese naval militias and other concerns.
There is, however, also a role for land-based assets. Not only can they help defend the littorals and protect rights of freedom of passage, they can also expand situational awareness and provide presence forces to demonstrate national sovereignty.
Beyond that, what is also needed is a land-based capability that could be potentially exported to friends and allies or, possibly, be co-developed. Also required are integrated capabilities that could be networked with air and naval forces. For example, consider the advantages of seamlessly linking land assets with the U.S. F-35.
Of course, as always, the strategists will want these capabilities in place sooner rather than later, and at a reasonable cost for fielding and sustainment. There is nothing wrong with building an open capability that might one day wield laser beams, rail guns and boost phase missile intercept, but there ought to be a credible capability that can fielded with largely existing technology. Some of this might leverage programs the U.S. Army has already worked on—like “rockets in a box.”
My colleague at Heritage, Dean Cheng, pitched one idea for installing such a capability last year. He called it an expeditionary coastal artillery brigade. The unit would be mobile, making it both more deployable (e.g., it could be stuck on an island) and survivable (e.g., it could hide out in caves or roam the countryside).
The brigade would bristle with anti-ship missiles and boast some air defense capability as well. It would include some organic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, such as radars and drones. And the unit would have ground security to protect against airborne and special operations forces assaults.
Cheng’s notion is to start with something that looks like a contemporary armored cavalry regiment, and build out and improvise from there. One essential element, however: it would have to include some kind of containerized missile force that could be rapidly resupplied.
Missions for the brigade would include tasks such as interdicting enemy naval traffic, area defense, early warning, and deterrence.
There is application for this concept in both the Army and the Marine Corps. The best way to start would be to gin up a little inter-service competition, giving both the mission of establishing initial capabilities and seeing where that leads.
America’s military has long been out of the coastal artillery business. As a result, there is no natural proponent for this concept in the military services. On the other hand, it is concept that fits well with America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, the needs of our allies, the geography of the theater, and the arsenal of military capabilities that the U.S. can bring to the table in the near term.
Expeditionary coastal brigades are not the answer to the problem of a free and open Indo-Pacific. But, developing them would be a powerful signal that the U.S. is willing to start the conversation.
This article first appeared in the March 28 Issue of ARMY Magazine