This is the second in a series of commentaries defense consultant and author Robbin Laird, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is penning about how the U.S. can and should shape its forces to perform the Asia strategy pivot. As a key part of that, he’ll be looking closely at what he calls “several neglected aspects of a sustainable power projection force for the 21st century.” The Editor.
The Pacific is vast. While some may bridle and note the obvious nature of this, this simple fact is often either not understood and not reflected upon when strategists consider the region’s nature. This is not the Mediterranean; this is not the Indian Ocean; this is not even the Atlantic.
The Pacific is nothing like its name –”Pacificum” or peaceful in Latin. It is a violent and expansive ocean. Rounding the tip of South America. Ferdinand Magellan, in perhaps one of the more significant “name branding” mistakes in history pronounced the body of water he saw as peaceful.
The Pacific covers more than one-third of the earth’s surface, approximately 165 million square kilometers (roughly 65 million square miles). It extends about 15,000 kilometers (9,600 miles).
A famous World War II typhoon makes that startling point. Historians have debated the number of USN Ships sunk by Japanese Kamikaze attacks during the war. Their counts vary from a low of 34 to a high of 47. A single typhoon on December 18, 1944 capsized three destroyers — the USS Spence, USS Hull and the USS Monaghan, with more than 700 sailors lost. On top of that, 146 carrier aircraft were damaged and struck from the rolls because of damage.
To give one a sense of how to look at the Pacific challenges facing the United States, which has been a Pacific power at least from the time of “owning” the Philippines at the end of the 19th century, we need to turn the globe.
From an American perspective, the Pacific begins in the Alaska and Arctic and arcs down through Australia. Our fiftieth state – Hawaii – sits smack dab in the middle.
From Seattle to San Diego, many key US cities lie in the Pacific Basin. And the economic impact of the Asian relationship is evident everywhere in the region. The impact of maritime trade is central. And these cities and their ports are part of the conveyer belt of goods transferred from Asia to the United States and beyond.
Also underscored are the trade routes for the conveyer belt, which follow the Great Circle Route from the Asian ports south of Alaska and then down the West Coast of the United States.
The defense of these littorals is a major task and challenge. It encompasses looking at the Pacific east of Hawaii and examining the scope and nature of littoral operations. Maritime trade and commerce is a big part of the picture, but one must recognize that such trade and commerce largely comes via the Great Circle Route from Asia, then south of Alaska and then to America’s West Coast ports.
Defense of the littorals requires working safety and security of maritime trade and commerce, managing environmental threats and the management of the fisheries and building a sound and safe security system end-to-end from Asia to the United States. This means that the Ports must be safe from the intrusion of terrorist threats or asymmetric actions by potential adversaries in the Asian region.
Safety, security and defense of the littorals lie at the center of a sound Pacific strategy. U.S. ships and aircraft operating out of the United States need to be free of threats –- the Pacific ports are especially challenged and ballistic missile threats originating from the Pacific can threaten even CONUS-based aircraft.
The Coast Guard plays a special joint agency role in providing for our littoral defense. In that role it is a Title X or defense agency in the United States, not simply a homeland security agency.
If you can not protect the entry points into the United States, the nation will clearly not have an effective foundation for a defense and security strategy in the Pacific.
Threats are embedded in the normal operations of the maritime trade system; managing these threats is a foundation element for the defense of the United States in the Pacific.
As Vice Admiral Manson Brown, the recently departed Coat Guard Pacific commander, underscored in an interview last year:
“Many people believe that we need to be a coastal coast guard, focused on the ports, waterways, and coastal environment.
“But the reality is that because our national interests extend well beyond our shore, whether it’s our vessels, or our mariners, or our possessions and our territories, we need to have presence well beyond our shores to influence good outcomes.
“As the Pacific Area Commander, I’m also the USCG Pacific Fleet Commander. That’s a powerful synergy. I’m responsible for the close-in game, and I’m responsible for the away game. Now the away game has some tangible authorities and capabilities, such as fisheries enforcement and search and rescue presence,” he said.
At the heart of a strategic rethink in building a U.S. Pacific maritime security strategy is coming to terms with the differences between these two domains, the security and military. The security domain is based on multiple-sum actions; military activity is by its very nature rooted in unilateral action. If one starts with the military side of the equation and then defines the characteristics of a maritime security equation the formula is skewed towards unilateral action against multiple-sum activity.
But there is another aspect of change as well. Increasingly, the United States is rethinking its overall defense policy. A shift is underway toward preparing its forces for global operations for conventional engagement in flexible conditions.
Conventional engagement is built on a sliding scale from insertion of forces to achieve political effect to the use of high intensity sledgehammer capabilities. Policymakers and specialists alike increasingly question the utility of high-tech, high-intensity warfare capabilities for most conventional engagement missions.
In parallel to the relationship between those two domains is the relationship between the Coast Guard and the Navy, rooted in a sliding scale on levels of violence. This needs to be replaced by a new look, which emphasizes the intersection between security operations and conventional engagement, with high-intensity capabilities as an escalatory tool.
To protect the littorals of the United States is a foundational element for Pacific defense, and allows the U.S. to focus on multiple sum outcomes to enhance defense and security, but at the same time it lays a solid foundation for moving deeper into the Pacific for military or extended security operations when needed.
A reflection of such an approach is the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum. Again one must remember the central place the Great Circle Route plays in trans-Pacific shipping and the immensity of the Pacific. Given these conditions, the Coast Guard has participated in a collaborative security effort in the North Pacific designed to enhance littoral protection of the United States.
Among the key participants are the Canadians, Russians, the Japanese, the South Koreans and the Chinese.
Admiral Day, an active participant in the forum during his tenure, notes that members have participated in numerous exercises and several joint operations.
But for the United States to play a more effective role in defending its own littorals and to be more effective in the kind of multi-national collaboration which building Pacific security and providing a solid foundation for littoral defense, a key element are presence assets.
“And it’s presence, in a competitive sense, because if we are not there, someone else will be there, whether it’s the illegal fishers or whether it’s Chinese influence in the region,” said Vice Adm. Manson Brown. “We need to be very concerned about the balance of power in the neighborhood.
If you look at some of the other players that are operating in the neighborhood there is clearly an active power game going on. To keep the US presence relevant, the Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters are a core asset.
The inability to fund these and the putting in limbo of the smaller cutters, the so-called OPCs, or Offshore Patrol Cutters, underscores a central question: without effective littoral presence (for U.S. shores) how does one do security and defense in the Pacific?
The size and immensity of the Pacific means you operate with what you have; you do not have shore infrastructure easily at hand to support a ship. Ships need to be big enough to have onboard provisions and fuel, as well as aviation assets to operate over time and distance.
In short, providing for littoral defense and security on the shores of the United States requires a reaffirmation of the Coast Guard’s Title X role and ending the logjam of funding support for the cutter fleet and the service’s aviation assets which enable that fleet to have range and reach.
In his next piece Laird will examine Alaska and the Arctic, with a focus on Alaska as a key strategic asset for U.S. Pacific operations.