The pivot to the Pacific started more than a century ago. The United States first became a Pacific power in 1898, the year the US first annexed Hawaii and then gained Guam and the Philippines (as well as Puerto Rico) from Spain after a “short, victorious war.”

The United States is at a turning point as it contemplates the way ahead for its defense and security policy in the Pacific. With the decline of the physical number of platforms and assets, our ability to project dominant power out from the West Coast of the United States and Hawaii is increasingly in question.

The simple, inescapable reality imposed by the sheer size of the Pacific Ocean is that the continental United States is many miles from the Western Pacific. In previous articles for AOL Defense, I have looked at the US and the Pacific seen from a perspective east of Hawaii, but now turning to Hawaii and further west, where the challenge is to shape a credible presence and projection of power in the region for the 21st century.

If the projection of power is seen to be about pushing platforms and capabilities out from the continental United States (CONUS), Alaska and Hawaii, we face significant challenges dealing with the growth of Chinese power and the needs for interoperability and support to empower both our allies and the United States operating in the region.

But if a different approach is shaped, one which rests increasingly on a plug-in strategy, the challenge is manageable. US allies are shaping new defense and security capabilities for the 21st century, investing resources into the re-crafting of their capabilities going forward. How can these efforts be combined more effectively going forward so that both the allies and the US end up collectively with significantly expanded but cost-effective capabilities?

Evolving Capabilities and New Approaches

The evolution of 21st century weapon technology is breaking down the barriers between offensive and defensive systems. Is missile defense about providing defense or is it about enabling global reach, for offense or defense? Likewise, the new 5th generation aircraft have been largely not understood because they are inherently multi-mission systems, which can be used for forward defense or forward offensive operations.

Indeed, an inherent characteristic of many new systems is that they are really about presence and putting a grid over an operational area, and therefore they can be used to support strike or defense within an integrated approach. In the 20th Century, surge was built upon the notion of signaling. One would put in a particular combat capability – a Carrier Battle Group, Amphibious Ready Group, or Air Expeditionary Wing – to put down your marker and to warn a potential adversary that you were there and ready to be taken seriously. If one needed to, additional forces would be sent in to escalate and build up force. With the new multi-mission systems – 5th generation aircraft and Aegis for example – the key is presence and integration able to support strike or defense in a single operational presence capability. Now the adversary can not be certain that you are simply putting down a marker.

This is what former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne calls the attack and defense enterprise. The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create an a grid that can operate in an area as a seamless whole, able to strike or defend simultaneously. This is enabled by the evolution of C5ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance), and it is why Wynne has underscored for more than a decade that fifth generation aircraft are not merely replacements for existing tactical systems but a whole new approach to integrating defense and offense. When one can add the strike and defensive systems of other players, notably missiles and sensors aboard surface ships like Aegis, then one can create the reality of what Ed Timperlake, a former fighter pilot, has described as the F-35 being able to consider Aegis as his wingman.

By shaping a C5ISR system inextricably intertwined with platforms and assets, which can honeycomb an area of operation, an attack and defense enterprise can operate to deter aggressors and adversaries or to conduct successful military operations. Inherent in such an enterprise is scalability and reach-back. By deploying the C5ISR honeycomb, the shooters in the enterprise can reach back to each other to enable the entire grid of operation, for either defense or offense.

US allies in the Western Pacific already possess Aegis systems and will most likely add F-35s to their operational inventory, if the United States can have the imagination to shape an integrated attack and defense enterprise with those allies, significant capabilities for defense can be made available to both allies and the United States at the same time. For the allies, their own capabilities would be individually augmented, but the foundation would also be created for de facto and explicit integration of those assets across the Western Pacific. By being able to plug into the F-35 and Aegis enabled honeycomb, the United States could provide force augmentation and surge capability to those allies and at the same time enable forward deployments which the United States would not own or operate.

In effect, what could be established from the United States perspective is a plug in approach rather than a push approach to projecting power. The allies are always forward deployed; the United States does not to attempt to replicate what those allies need to do in their own defense. But what the United States can offer is strategic depth to those allies. At the same time if interoperability and interactive sustainability are recognized as a strategic objective of the first order, then the United States can shape a more realistic approach than one which now rests on trying to proliferate power projection platforms, when neither the money nor the numbers are there.

Now let us apply this approach to a strike and defense enterprise to some fundamental geo-political realities. As things stand now, the core for the US effort from Hawaii outward is to enable a central strategic triangle, one that reaches from Hawaii to Guam and to Japan. This triangle is at the heart of America’s ability to project power into the Western Pacific. With a 20th century approach, one which is platform-centric and rooted in step by step augmentation of force, each point of the triangle needs to be garrisoned with significant numbers of platforms which can be pushed forward. To be clear, having capability in this triangle is a key element of what the United States can bring to the party for Pacific operations, and it remains fundamental. But with a new approach to an attack and defense enterprise, one would use this capability differently from simply providing for push forward and sequential escalation dominance.

Rather than focusing simply on the image of projecting power forward, what is crucial to an successful Pacific strategy is enabling a strategic quadrangle in the Western Pacific, anchored on Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore. This will not be simple. Competition, even mutual suspicion, among US allies in the Western Pacific is historically deep-rooted; as a former 7th USAF commander underscored, “history still matters in impeding allied cooperation.” But in spite of these challenges and impediments, enabling the quadrangle to do a better job of defending itself and shaping interoperability across separate nations has to become a central strategic American goal.

This will require significant cultural change for the United States. Rather than thinking of allies after we think about our own strategy, we need to reverse the logic. Without enabled allies in the Western Pacific, the United States will simply not be able to execute an effective Pacific strategy. Full stop. We are not about to have a 600-ship navy, and putting Littoral Combat Ships into Singapore is a metaphor for the problem, not the solution.

Robbin Laird, a member of the AOL Defense Board of Contributors, is an international defense consultant and owner of the Second Line of Defense website.

Figure 1 Intersecting and Converging Capabilities: A Strategic Triangle with a Strategic Quadrangle
The quadrangle can be populated by systems which form a C5ISR grid, in turn supporting a honeycomb of deployed forces. The population of the area with various sensors – aboard new tankers, fighter aircraft, air battle managers, UAVs, ships, and submarines – creates the pre-condition for shaping a powerful grid of intersecting capabilities. Indeed, an attack and defense enterprise in the Western Pacific can be shaped which the United States can easily plug into, if indeed we prioritize interoperability and mutually leveraging one another’s capabilities.

This will require culture change, and not only by the Asian powers. The United States will have to recognize other nations’ capabilities as part of the overall enterprise, and not as separate national forces with no real relevance except for exercises or ritualistic partnership statements. We are at a Ben Franklin moment: We either all hang separately or we hang together.

And there are clearly changes afoot among our allies, which enable a collaborative attack and defense enterprise to be shaped over the next decades. All are likely F-35 buyers; Aegis is a core reality in the region; and the key players are all shaping new C5ISR capabilities. There is money being invested, but the challenge will be to ensure that we are shaping a collaborative strike and defense enterprise, not stovepiped platform centric national capabilities.

Among the changes afoot in the region is a new working relationship between Japan and South Korea. Although the old historical memories are a barrier, clearly the threats in the region are driving Japan and South Korea to a much closer relationship. Aegis and F-35 are among the likely glues for such collaborative con-ops. When one remembers that the F-35 is not simply a strike aircraft, but a premier C5ISR asset highly integratable with Aegis, a significant practical foundation will be there for collaboration, whether you have a treaty relationship or not.

Australia is a leader in the region in adding new sea and air capabilities, which can enhance the ability of the region to defend itself. Not highly noticed in the United States but significant nonetheless are the new radars aboard the core frigates in the Australian Navy. Recently in the RIMPAC 2012 exercise, the Aussies showcased this new radar, which allows for the Navy to operate in heavy sea states but able to identify threats at a distance. To cite the Australian Associated Press:

“The navy says the new multi-phased array radar system has been installed on the Anzac-class frigate HMAS Perth, and identifies, tracks and guides missiles to several targets at the same time.

“The Minister for Defence Materiel, Jason Clare, has inspected the radar on HMAS Perth during exercises off the West Australian coast and says the latest weapon in the navy’s arsenal means Australia’s Anzac frigates will be a lot more capable.

“He said it was also a great Australian success story, because the technology was developed in Australia by CEA Technologies.

“Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Ray Griggs said HMAS Perth had just returned from testing the system in Hawaii with tremendous results, showing the new system can defend the ship from modern cruise missile attack, enhancing the Anzac-class frigates’ capabilities significantly.”

And Australia is adding several new air capabilities – E-737 Wedgetail aircraft, UAVs, F-35s and related systems – that call out for integration across the C5ISR enterprise. And such integration will provide a solid anchor for a regional defense as well.

New Balance Between Strike and Presence

We need to rethink AirSea battle. The original AirSea Battle construct, as well as teams to work the problem, were put together prior to the President articulating a pivot to the Pacific strategy.

But are the two the same thing or is the first a subset of the second? The answer to this is crucial in setting not only operational objectives and agendas, but shaping procurement choices going forward for the decade to come.

If China and North Korea are the foci, then re-enforcing precision strike enterprise is the priority. The objective is to have as many forces which can be deployed forward to strike Chinese or North Korean assets in time of war. Precision strike coming by air, ground, and sea forces would be the means to strike as many aim points as possible to create escalation dominance and to win the “air-sea battle.” If this is the approach then more traditional approaches will be prioritized and funded, such as the Carrier Battle Group, air expeditionary strike groups, and new systems like long range bombers which can load up on capabilities to deliver large strike packages are prioritized.

But what if the air sea battle really is about shaping a presence force with significant reach back to support a different kind of force structure and set of objectives?

Then precision strike deployed on as many platforms as possible – old and new – is not the means to the end. Rather, a different set of ends could well drive the new approach. The key focus becomes presence forces able to operate across the spectrum of security and military operations. These forces need to be effective, agile, and scalable, with both significant interoperability within the region and reach back to surge forces operating on the fringes of the Pacific.

Assuming the approach is not primarily about striking Chinese and North Korean assets, but to constrain adversary operations in the Pacific and beyond, the tools needed are presence, partnership building and operations, and ability to put in place distributed, forward-deployed capabilities which can rapidly reach back to additional capabilities able to augment them.

The augmentation requirement can be solved a couple of ways. One is by strengthening the capabilities of allies, which as a senior OSD official put it “are always forward-deployed.” This approach will be significantly enhanced as allies buy F-35s, build global sustainment hubs, and link these F-35s with other sensor, C5ISR and strike assets, such as Aegis.

The objective of US forces is then to “plug into” allied forces to provide for escalation dominance and escalatory control. It is not to push dominant forces into various regions as a first and required step. With today’s Carrier Battle Group concept, we have to push a CBG forward to shape a war winning strategy at all, not simply to provide presence and escalation dominance. In effect, this provides very limited options.

Far superior is an approach built around deploying additional Navy-Marine amphibious groups. With the Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit or with the Expeditionary Strike Group, we get presence, deployment flexibility, and, with the coming of the F-35B to the ARG-MEU, a significant military asset with reach-up and reach-back capability. This is a more realistic approach and an operationally based reality

This is the fundamental choice. We can continue the 50-year legacy of building platforms and payloads for those platforms. Or we can begin a new approach which augments presence, using distributed US assets which can network with allies to establish lily pads for normal operations and lay the foundations for escalation dominance in a crisis.