If the US fails to innovate in its re-shaping of its forces in the Pacific, it cannot effectively play the crucial role which is essential to a strategy focused on our allies. Without innovation, the US cannot protect its interests in the Pacific, ranging from the Arctic to Australia, and will lose the significant economic benefits which presence and protection of our interests provide.

The protection of the US and its allies is valuable in and of itself. But it is inextricably intertwined with the economic viability of the United States in the Pacific and beyond. As the Commandant of the USMC, Gen. James Amos, has underscored: “From our allies’ perspective, virtual presence is actual absence.”

In particular, as Gen. Charles Jacoby of NORTHCOM adds: “Our presence in the Arctic is crucial to shape our future in the region. Without security and defense, there is little probability of effective commercial development or ability to protect the environment.”

Persistent Presence

Presence is the bedrock of Pacific operations. Given the immensity of the Pacific, presence is also a challenge. Keeping assets back in the United States may have made sense in preparing for World War III, but it makes little sense in the realities of the evolving Pacific strategic environment.

Presence following a 20th century model is impossible. The US does not have enough assets to provide for the extensive coverage which the Pacific requires: The numbers of ships and planes alone has gone down dramatically over the past 15 years.

The challenge of persistent presence was well articulated by Lt. General Terry Robling, the highest ranking Marine in the Pacific, in an earlier interview with us:

“Distance means that I need to have assets forward deployed and operational. This means, for the USMC, an ability to train with partners and allies in what you have called the strategic quadrangle. This means an ability to have enough capable amphibious ships forward deployed to operate with those partners and allies.

“Seabasing is a key element of providing persistent presence.

“And amphibious ships are really part of a whole sea-basing capability and engagement capability. The amphibious requirement in the Pacific goes well beyond our support to South Korea. It is a key element in building partnership capacity and overcoming presence gaps and needs. This is why we need more platforms and more capable platforms of the sort we are building now.

“Many of our partners in the region do not want us to be the Uncle that visited and never returned home. They want us engaged and present but not permanently based in their countries. This means that seabasing and its augmentation is a fundamental requirement.

“When we add strategic lift aircraft, high-speed vessels, or super ferries to the ARG-MEU [Amphibious Ready Group / Marine Expeditionary Unit] lift equation, we extend our strategic reach and significantly enhance our ability to enhance partnership capacity.”

Dealing with China

At the same time, the growing importance of the Arctic and the rising power of China have changed the strategic meaning of presence. In the far north, Washington’s inability to commit resources to Artic presence guarantees that others will benefit from the Arctic at our expense Across the region, the Chinese are pushing out from their mainland to engage in the Pacific and to influence the key players in the region.

Constraining Chinese engagement in the Pacific is a key task facing the US and its allies. In fact, the Chinese military strategy in the Pacific is similar to the Chinese game of Go, in which players’ pieces do not clash directly, as in Western chess, but compete for position to control strategic territory.

To have the upper hand with the Chinese in 21st century strategic engagement, what is crucial is a new kind of presence, linked with highly interoperable, Lego-like blocks able to work with allies, which allow for scalable forces with reachback to US capabilities in the littoral and the homeland.

Strategic Directions

The bottom line: The US force needs to be highly connected and interoperable with its allies. We are not there, not yet, but we can leverage new systems coming on line to increase dramatically our capability to get there. One should measure force development by the strategic goals one wants to reach, not simply in terms of maintaining old systems, which reflected historic strategies and engagements.

Some describe the central threat against which the US must configure its forces as something called A2D2: Anti-Access, Anti-Denial. But the challenger needs to be named: It’s China. We do not need a generic strategy, strategy in a vacuum. We need a strategy to prevail against what the Chinese are doing and likely to do. And the we need to be much clearer about the threat: it is about missiles, their evolution, and the need to combine defense with offense in dealing with these evolving missile threats.

The strategy also needs to address nuclear deterrence. The North Koreans and the Chinese are clearly relying more rather than less on nuclear deterrence to pressure Asians and Americans simultaneously. Many Americans want to pretend that nukes are off the board as a strategic asset, but we have entered what Paul Bracken has called “the second nuclear age.”

The Defense of South Korea

To illustrate what we could do to shape an effective strategy, I am going to look at two “cases”: reworking South Korean defense and leveraging the F-35 global fleet as a strategic asset.

We are in the throes of change in our relationships with our South Korean ally and the North Korean threat as well. By 2015, we are scheduled to alter the command relationships in South Korea to put the South Koreans in a greater position to command their own forces and to shape the allied capability to deal with the North Korean threat.

From the US side, this means that there is a strategic opportunity as well to re-shape South Korean and American forces to contribute more to regional defense and to redesign forces which are currently designed more for static Sitzkreig than for dynamic defense. The Japanese have captured the right concept: allies need to enhance their dynamic defense. And for the US, such developments provide the opportunity to link to the type of forces Gen. Robling discussed earlier.

In an exclusive interview with us, the Commander of the 7th US Air Force, Lt. General Jan-Marc Jouas, underscored the nature of the challenge and the possibilities for transition.

“We need to be able to attack in depth. We also need to be able to attack at the forward edge of the battle space. We need to be operating against targets that will create not just tactical effects, but operational and strategic. We need to be operating cross domain, and by that I mean kinetic and non-kinetic effects, one reinforcing the other.

“One of our greatest advantages is our air operation center that will oversee the entire air campaign, and where I will be situated as the air component commander.

“And any deployment of F-35s to the Korean peninsula will clearly modify the template, including the Marine Corps F-35B.

“The Seventh Air Force relationship with the Marine Corps is the best I’ve ever seen. Their aircraft will be dedicated to the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) at some point, but before then, they will be used as part of our air campaign to the greatest effect that we can deliver.

“The F-35A, B, and C will give us greater flexibility, and greater options in terms of where and how we can operate.”

The F-35 as a Global Fleet

This leads then to the potential strategic impact of joint deployments and developments of the F-35 throughout the region. The F-35 is a C2 (command-and-control) and IW (Information Warfare) aircraft. But it is when the US deploys the F-35 in numbers that we will see the strategic impact of a tactical aircraft.

The discussion of the shift from 4th to 5th generation aircraft has often missed the point of what the impact of deploying a significant number of F-35s in a region as central as the Pacific could have on the U.S. and its allies. The F-35 can play the role of a linchpin in a 21st century Pacific strategy which is centered on and enabled by our allies. Indeed, the F-35 as a lynchpin to interactive allied and American capabilities intersect nicely with the overall strategy whereby the United States is the key lynchpin power in the allied coalitions of the Pacific.

The concepts of operations underlying a new approach to providing lynchpin capabilities are built around the F-35.

Presence, scalability, and reachback are solid foundations for the kind of deterrence necessary in the evolving strategic environment in the Pacific.

The F-35 as an Allied and American fleet brings several key and core capabilities to shaping a new attack/defense enterprise, one which allows the US to play a key lynchpin role and yet, at the same time puts allies in the lead to defend themselves and their own interests.

A global fleet of F-35s in the Pacific provides several significant contributions to shaping a 21st century strategy: a networked fleet, significant interoperability, multiple and diversified basing, enabling a wolfpack operational approach to leverage best value out of deployed assets, and a globally sustained fleet.

I have developed these concepts elsewhere, but will focus here simply on one key element: a globally sustained fleet.

The entire approach of the F-35 enables the sustainment of the fleet in radically different ways from the past. And it is coming at a time when economic pressures create such a need; but if new approaches are not taken money will be invested in maintaining less effective forces.

The F-35 global sustainment approach allows for a more effective and dynamic force at less cost than operating a legacy fleet. At the heart of the new model is an inherent capability to leverage logistics hubs throughout the Pacific to create a seamless system to sustain both allied and American planes.

Presence from this perspective has a whole different meaning. Hub sustainment means that the US can surge aircraft to the region and have them be supported during surge operations without having to haul its sustainment assets forward with the surged aircraft, which is the requirement currently.

Building a training and sustainment infrastructure in the Pacific — with hubs and ranges in Canada and Australia, and hubs in Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam — provides an opportunity to re-shape how sustainment can be done in around the world.

This will bring with it a significant boost to sortie rates and hence operational capabilities.

Conclusion: We Must All Hang Together, Or…

The shaping of an effective Pacific strategy provides an opening and opportunity for the United States and its allies. If the US and its allies can find ways to shape congruent capabilities and approaches, we can meet the central challenge in the region: the expansion of China into the broader Pacific.

If we don’t, we will have ignored Ben Franklin’s warning at the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

There is clearly no guarantee that we will be effective or smart. And even if we are on the cusp of deploying new systems, there are significant obstacles to understanding what we really could do with them. The rush to the past is often more powerful than the drive to embrace change or to understand the challenge of innovation for a new century.

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

Note: Many of these themes will be examined in a forthcoming book (by Robbin Laird, Ed Timperlake and Richard Weitz) Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st Century Strategy, to be published by Praeger Publishers next year.