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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.
Figure 1 Intersecting and Converging Capabilities: A Strategic Triangle with a Strategic Quadrangle Keep reading →
This is the third 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.” Think Alaska, for this one. The Editor.