A U.S. Army Role in Countering China’s A2/AD Efforts: The Expeditionary Coastal Artillery Brigade

Report Defense

A U.S. Army Role in Countering China’s A2/AD Efforts: The Expeditionary Coastal Artillery Brigade

November 30, 2016 15 min read Download Report
Dean Cheng
Dean Cheng
Former Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center
Dean was a senior research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs.

It is a truism that the Asia–Pacific theater is an air and maritime theater. One need only look at a map to see the vast expanse of ocean that marks the region. The Pacific covers one-third of the Earth’s surface.

But while air and naval forces undoubtedly play central roles in any regional defense calculations, ground forces are also essential. Air and naval forces need airbases and anchorages from which to operate. Interests must be defended. The U.S. Army has long experience in these roles. Prior to World War II, it was U.S. Army forces, including not only the Army Air Forces, but ground forces, that were the “guardians of empire,” defending Hawaii and the Philippines.[1] During World War II, Army forces participated in many of the island campaigns, with battle streamers marking fighting in Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Saipan, the Philippines, and Okinawa. They were among the first ground forces to fight the Japanese, as they defended the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor in the Philippines in 1942.

Today’s Pacific poses challenges that are very different from, yet parallel to, the earlier ones. The Army remains an important force, even if the lion’s share of responsibilities resides with the Navy and Air Force. Understanding these ongoing responsibilities and challenges is essential as the military rethinks roles and missions in the years ahead.

A Political Role

An essential role for the U.S. Army in the Pacific today is a political one. Military-to-military (mil-to-mil) engagement is an essential part of the larger portfolio of interactions between the United States and various regional states. This aspect is of growing importance, in part because the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is actively pursuing its own mil-to-mil engagements as a central means of expanding its diplomatic impact.

In much of Asia, ground forces continue to exercise substantial political and bureaucratic power. In most Asian militaries, the ground forces are the largest service, and consequently also control a substantial portion of most nations’ military budgets. This, in turn, means that ground force commanders exercise substantial political power, both within their respective national security establishments, and also in their political environments. Consequently, the U.S. Army potentially plays a vital role through its interactions with local militaries, as fellow ground force leaders who can speak the same “language.”

This political role is further enhanced by the common desire among many of these militaries to work with a premier ground force, arguably the premier ground force in the world. Because of the various wars that the United States has engaged in since 1990, the U.S. Army has combat experience that is unrivaled in the Asia–Pacific region. It is important to recognize that, although the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has not fought a war since 1979, neither has any other military on the Asian littoral. Japan’s military has not fought since World War II. The South Korean army has not fought since Vietnam. Vietnam’s military, like the PLA, last engaged in high-intensity combat operations in the Sino-Vietnam War of 1979. Only the Philippine military has engaged in regular combat, undertaking an extended counterinsurgency role for much of the past two decades.

By contrast, the U.S. Army has fought in both high-intensity conflicts (Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom), as well as low-intensity conflicts (in Afghanistan and Iraq). It therefore offers a wealth of experience and insights that few Asian militaries possess—and are eager to discuss and learn. Consequently, the U.S. Army represents a key means of engaging significant military and political players throughout the Asia–Pacific region. By its interactions with local militaries, including joint exercises, military exchanges, and mutual training activities, the U.S. Army can help build bridges and relationships that few other militaries, including the PRC, can match.

In addition, however, the U.S. Army also can make a more direct military contribution to regional security. This role is embedded in the geographic reality of the western Pacific and the geo-economic situation that confronts the PRC.

China’s Unique Position: A Continental Power that Relies Upon the Sea

The PRC is currently the world’s foremost trading state, eclipsing the United States as the world’s largest trading nation in 2012.[2] Part of this substantial amount of trade is driven by China’s dependence on energy imports. For the past several years, China has been the world’s largest importer of oil. “In September 2013, China’s net imports of petroleum and other liquids exceeded those of the United States on a monthly basis, making it the largest net importer of crude oil and other liquids in the world.”[3]

China has also been a net importer of food since 2004.[4] While China’s overall food picture varies by crop and staple (for instance, while China imports some grain, it imports much more in soybeans), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s statistics suggest that China’s overall dependence on food imports has grown since about 2008.[5]

For the PRC, meeting demands for oil, food, and various other resources requires that it be able to access the sea. While China has been building pipelines to its Central Asian neighbors and Russia, including as part of the “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure construction program, it is likely to remain dependent upon the sea for many of its imports. Equally important is that all of China’s main food suppliers are overseas: the U.S., Brazil, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Argentina.[6]

At the same time, since Deng Xiaoping rose to power in the 1970s, China’s economic development has been largely along its coast. This took advantage of sea lanes and maritime traffic to provide easy access to both imports and exports, but it has meant that China’s economic center of gravity is now on the coast, where it had once been more inland. (Indeed, Mao Zedong had specifically focused Chinese economic development in the 1960s inland, in order to safeguard it from potential attack by the U.S. or the Soviet Union.)

Located by the sea, Chinese economic centers from Shenzhen to Pudong and Tianjin are vulnerable to attack from the sea, whether from submarine-launched cruise missiles or carrier air wings. Indeed, one reason for Chinese efforts at anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) is to keep potential adversaries at arm’s length from these new cities and developments.

China Needs to Transit the First Island Chain. For the PRC, this makes the “first island chain”—stretching from Japan, through Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Philippines, to the Strait of Malacca—a paradox. The first island chain can serve either as a shield or a barrier. In the hands of the U.S. or its allies, the first island chain hems China in. Chinese access to the global sea lanes would be restricted; consequently, its ability to import resources would be constrained, while the fruits of decades of investment would be made more vulnerable to attack.

In Chinese hands, the first island chain shields the PRC coast from attack, providing more warning time against any air or missile strike. At the same time, if the various islands are in Chinese hands, any naval force seeking access to China will be channeled into waterways that are more easily monitored, mined, and otherwise defended. China has already begun to develop a sonar surveillance array for monitoring various parts of the littoral. If China controlled portions of the first island chain, such arrays could help rapidly localize any intruding submarines, and allow the employment of a variety of anti-submarine platforms (such as helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft, submarines, and surface ships) to attrit their numbers, both as they enter and exit the area.

Furthermore, if the PRC is able to control one or more of the various channels transiting the first island chain, the Chinese would also be better able to intimidate and deter their adversaries. In the first place, they would be better able to threaten key American allies—Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all depend on the seas for their own fuel and food needs. China has one of the world’s largest submarine fleets, with five nuclear-powered attack submarines and more than 50 diesel-electric or air-independent propulsion boats—more than sufficient to interdict various sea lanes that supply these island nations, as well as threaten American and other naval forces.

The ability to take one or more islands is also likely to cause other states to appease or otherwise concede power to the PRC. In this regard, Asia’s history differs from Europe’s. Where European states have tended to balance against rising hegemons (Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolf Hitler, the Soviet Union), Asian states have little history of balancing against China. There is little history of regional alliances forming to counter various Chinese dynasties, or the rise of Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries. Recent Philippine overtures to China suggest that some Asian leaders may prefer to “bandwagon” (accede to Chinese interests), rather than “balance” (actively oppose Chinese actions).

The ability of the PLA Navy (PLAN) to move relatively unhindered into the central Pacific would also further complicate American efforts to seize the initiative. China has already invested substantial resources into A2/AD capabilities, ranging from anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles to submarines, long-range strike aircraft, and associated long-range sensors. The ability to apply those forces farther into the central Pacific would create a potential meat-grinder for key American surface and subsurface forces, both as they approach the Chinese mainland, but also as they withdraw to replenish.

Indeed, the ability of the Chinese to deploy substantial forces into the central Pacific (the waters between Guam and the first island chain) would place American logistics and support forces at risk. The loss of one or more underway replenishment ships (such as oilers and stores ships) would rapidly curtail the ability of American surface forces (including aircraft carriers) to operate, as ships’ magazines rapidly ran low.

An American Ground Force Response

One solution to the problem is to ensure that China is unable to transit the first island chain, by sinking or otherwise bottling up the Chinese fleet. Even if the Chinese can keep the U.S. outside the first island chain, it would not necessarily allow the PLAN greater freedom of action. But the same proliferation of Chinese A2/AD capabilities that threatens U.S. capabilities will also make blockading the Chinese a far harder task than in the past. Not only is the PLAN modernizing, so are China’s air and missile forces. These are supported by an expanding, and increasingly capable, Chinese satellite network, as well as counter-space capabilities, to deny adversaries comparable informational access. The ability of the U.S. Navy and Air Force to close the various straits and channels is therefore likely to be seriously challenged, and entail significant casualties.

The ability of the Chinese to challenge American access to the waters within the first island chain, however, does not obviate the problems that confront the Chinese, that is, their own need to get beyond that same physical barrier. China’s ability to keep the U.S. out of the waters west of the first island chain does not automatically translate to a Chinese ability to operate easily east of that same chain. The Chinese would have to try to secure at least some of the channels themselves, by force if necessary.

This situation suggests that, in the event of conflict, the United States should be prepared to deny China the ability to take one or more of the links in the first island chain. Even if the U.S. Navy is denied access to the western Pacific, the ability to nonetheless control the bulk of the islands would prevent the Chinese from exploiting the situation. This is complicated by the reality that few states in the region are likely to welcome a standing American military presence. While Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea has led to regional interest in greater mil-to-mil interactions with the United States, the weight of Chinese economic relations limits any regional willingness to form outright coalitions against Beijing.

Domestic political conditions further constrain policy options. The current uncertainty around U.S.–Philippines relations and the extensive interaction of their armed forces underscores the need for a more flexible American approach. Sudden changes in local governments and their policies would militate against permanent bases and garrisons abroad.

While part of the responsibility would inevitably fall on the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army could play a substantial role as well. If the United States can deploy the modern equivalent of coastal artillery forces to the islands that define many of these channels, along with attendant intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, the Chinese would still find transiting the first island chain to be a costly operation. Such a force, however, would have to be mobile, in order to deploy in time of crisis, given the low likelihood that it would be permanently stationed anywhere south of Okinawa. The political realities of most of the states in the region, which jealously guard their sovereignty, make it very unlikely that any of them would welcome the stationing of American forces there.

The Marine Defense Battalion. A comparable problem confronted American defense planners in the interwar period. The United States had advanced bases in the Pacific that required defending, but for which there were insufficient resources to provide a permanent force. The result was the Marine Defense Battalion. Organized in the interwar period, these battalions were intended to help defend key Pacific outposts from possible Japanese raids or even invasion. While a number of these battalions were organized, they mainly saw action at Wake and Midway Islands, although some were deployed to Iceland, Hawaii, and Johnston Atoll and fought at Guadalcanal.

These battalions were organized to man five-inch coastal defense guns, three-inch anti-aircraft guns, searchlights (radar not having become commonly deployed yet), and machine guns for countering enemy landing forces. The battalions deployed to Wake and Midway had about 25 officers and 420 enlisted personnel each.[7] In some cases, the defense battalion was also reinforced by a section of Marine Corps fighter aircraft (typically, Grumman F4F Wildcats) and associated ground crew and support elements.

The flaw with these forces was that they had no infantry component. Every person had an assigned duty, with no reserve provided to counterattack or otherwise provide flexibility. The battalion also had no organic transport of which to speak. “As configured in 1939 and 1940, a defense battalion could achieve mobility on land only by leaving its artillery, searchlights, and detection gear and fighting as infantry.”[8] When Japanese forces were able to land on Wake Island, the Marine defense battalion had no means to counterattack and try to dislodge them.

The Armored Cavalry Regiment. Today’s conflicts will require substantially more forces, with more diverse capabilities. A single battalion is unlikely to field sufficient capabilities to undertake anti-shipping operations, engineering activities (for instance, digging bunkers and other prepared defenses), air defense tasks, and self-defense. A larger organization will likely be required, in order to both field substantial capabilities for preventing adversary maritime mobility and self-defense against air and missile attack as well as possible land attack.

This would suggest that a useful model may be the armored cavalry regiment. During the Cold War, these organizations were roughly the size of a brigade, numbering nearly 5,000 troops. They included three armored squadrons (battalion-sized forces), a fourth squadron equipped with helicopters, as well as organic artillery and combat-engineering elements. Such a force served to buy time for the main elements of larger, corps-level formations to deploy while identifying the main axes of enemy attack.

In the Pacific theater, the role of such a force would be very different. It would be to supplement local defenses for interdicting enemy naval traffic, especially through key choke points such as straits and channels, while maintaining the ability to defend oneself against air, missile, and amphibious attack. In such a context, the force would not have to be nearly as heavy (that is, focused on armored attack and defense), but would still need to retain the ability to conduct higher-intensity conflict against airborne and heliborne assault, as well as amphibious elements. At the same time, though, air and missile defense capabilities would be essential, as would the ability to conduct ISR missions in a non-cooperative environment.

It would also need to be strategically mobile. Given the political reluctance of most Asian nations to allow permanent basing of U.S. forces, the objective should be a force that could deploy within a few days with sufficient capability to make a difference, and yet have stand-alone capabilities. The objective should be to have such a brigade capable of deploying anywhere in the world in 96 hours (the same planning assumption used for the creation of the Stryker-equipped brigade combat team). The shift from a Stryker-oriented force to air defense and anti-ship elements would probably not reduce the airlift requirements substantially, however. A minimum Patriot engagement package, for example, composed of two launchers, 16 missile canisters (for immediate firing and reloads), and associated personnel and equipment (such as radars), will still require five C-5 or seven C-17 sorties.[9]

The Expeditionary Coastal Artillery Brigade: A Notional Force Structure

In this context, then, it is suggested that the U.S. Army consider establishing expeditionary coastal artillery brigades to counter Chinese A2/AD capabilities. Such brigades should be modeled on a combination of the armored cavalry regiment and the Marine Defense Battalion—a self-contained unit with a variety of capabilities that would be able to establish both a sea-denial capacity and a self-defense capacity in support of local allies.

Such a force would notionally consist of:

  • A battalion of containerized anti-ship missiles, mounted on truck chassis;
  • A mixed air defense/missile defense battalion (Patriot and THAAD);
  • A Stryker battalion;
  • A mixed attack helicopter/observation helicopter squadron;
  • A combat engineering company;
  • A mixed UAV element (perhaps five medium altitude UAVs, such as the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, and 15 tactical UAVs, such as the RQ-7 Shadow);
  • An artillery battery of high-mobility artillery rockets; and
  • Associated headquarters elements, including electronic warfare, command and control, and logistics.

Such a force would have sufficient firepower to defend itself, and enough anti-ship capability to inflict casualties on any transit of restricted waters (or attempts to engage in a forced entry-type amphibious assault). The provision of attack and observation helicopters, as well as UAVs, would allow the unit to both maintain situational awareness over the horizon, as well as provide data to other U.S. forces (such as naval units and air units).

Such a force would clearly be defensive in nature, consistent with the political role of providing support to local states without necessarily exacerbating tensions in time of crisis. But with the provision of ground forces, any attack on them would have significant strategic repercussions—arguably greater than an attack on naval or air forces. At the same time, however, as ground forces, they could disperse (and with combat engineers, fortify themselves), so that their vulnerability would be reduced.

Organizational and Personnel Considerations. The fielding of coastal artillery forces would potentially entail reactivating the coastal artillery specialty within the field artillery branch. This would minimize the bureaucratic problems which would otherwise attend the creation of a new branch or service. At the same time, creating several brigade-sized elements would ensure that officers interested in pursuing such a specialty would have a career path that they could follow. As past analyses of military innovation have stressed, the ability to attract smart, capable officers rests, in part, upon ensuring that there is a viable promotion path to higher command.

Recommendations for Congress

In order to field such a force, Congress must:

  • Fund development of containerized anti-ship missile systems. Many of the systems and units proposed for the notional expeditionary coastal artillery brigade, including attack helicopters, Strykers, and artillery rockets, may be drawn from the current global response force. The one new piece of equipment that the proposed expeditionary coastal artillery brigade would require is a containerized anti-ship missile system. Such capabilities are not exotic: China, Japan, and other nations already field land-based versions of their anti-ship missiles. The current AGM-84 Harpoon and the new Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile could be readily modified into land-based versions. The essential requirement for the expeditionary coastal artillery brigade would be developing a suitable transporter-erector-launcher, and acquiring it in sufficient numbers. In this regard, a cheaper and less-risky alternative would be to acquire systems from allies, such as the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile.
  • Support integration of ISR capabilities. Another essential capability for the success of an expeditionary coastal artillery brigade would be ISR capabilities that could maintain surveillance over broad expanses of open ocean and littoral waters. Without such capabilities, the long range of modern anti-ship weapons cannot be fully exploited. Whether the brigade would field its own ISR assets, or instead rely on strategic systems, such as Global Hawk, it is essential that its commanders be able to integrate information from a variety of sources to attain sufficient situational awareness.
  • Support the creation of a test-bed brigade. There are a number of variables that could make the proposed organization problematic: How well could it be logistically supported? What would be required to make it strategically mobile? How long could it sustain operations? As important, how would such a force be integrated with air and maritime capabilities, and what kind of doctrine would be required to make effective use of such a brigade as part of a joint force? Answering these questions will require extended study, and likely experimentation in the field. Such efforts, in turn, will involve devoting financial and human assets to this purpose.
  • Expand the Army’s budget and manpower. The Army’s current resourcing makes it hard-pressed to meet its current requirements, which include helping to defend South Korea, reinforcing NATO, and preparing for operations in the Middle East. To form one or more expeditionary coastal artillery brigades, even on an experimental basis, would require significant resources, both in terms of equipment and human capital. These demands can only be met if Congress, and the White House, are prepared to cooperate in expanding the Army’s budget so that it can have the additional necessary resources.

For the United States, devising ways of counteracting China’s A2/AD strategy is likely to be a major factor in the coming decade. This will likely require disrupting the Chinese strategy as a whole, rather than focusing on individual weapons and technologies.

—Dean Cheng is a Senior Research Fellow for Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Brian Linn, Guardians of Empire (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[2] “China Eclipses US as Biggest Trading Nation,” Bloomberg News, February 10, 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-02-09/china-passes-u-s-to-become-the-world-s-biggest-trading-nation (accessed November 8, 2016).

[3] U.S. Energy Information Administration, “China Is Now the World’s Largest Net Importer of Petroleum and Other Liquid Fuels,” Today in Energy, March 24, 2014, http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=15531 (accessed November 8, 2016).

[4] Lucy Hornby, “China Scythes Grain Self-Sufficiency Policy,” The Financial Times, February 11, 2014, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6025b7c8-92ff-11e3-8ea7-00144feab7de.html#axzz4CFekaGru (accessed November 8, 2016).

[5] Fred Gale, James Hansen, and Michael Jewison, “China’s Growing Demand for Agricultural Imports,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Information Bulletin No. 136, February 2015, p. 9, http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/198800/2/eib136.pdf (accessed November 8, 2016).

[6] Ibid., p. 4.

[7] Charles D. Melson, “Condition Red: Marine Defense Battalions in World War II,” Marines in World War II Commemorative Series, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/wapa/extContent/usmc/pcn-190-003133-00/sec3.htm (accessed November 9, 2016).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Terrence K. Kelly, Anthony Atler, Todd Nichols, and Lloyd Thrall, Employing Land-Based Anti-Ship Missiles in the Western Pacific (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013), p. 15.


Dean Cheng
Dean Cheng

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center