Leviathan Seeks To Maintain Littoral Access In The Pacific Century

This month marks the formal de-embarking of 200 U.S. Marines to their new forward base in Darwin, Australia. The symbolic choice of the Marines, in a region still cognizant of their brutal triumphs half a century ago, and their new location are a political exclamation point emphasizing the reality of American strategic re-positioning. Negotiations are underway for heightened American military presence in the Philippines, too.

15-20 years over late. It’s a start.

China, Anti-Access, Area Denial, Power Projection

American allies remain dubious about her staying power. How will Asian priorities rank over time with endemic American self image as the status quo, global, NotSoBrightian ‘indispensible power’? Can you blame them? Wars with Iran or Syria will sink American Pacific engagement faster than a Long Lance torpedo – or Chinese hypersonic missile. Basing two new, smaller, brown water capable Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) out of Singapore also reverberates in historical memory. After all, the British sent the token force of Prince of Wales and Repulse to Singapore as well. All know how that turned out.

Aside from doubts about overall American ADD, two Asian concerns are American intellectual commitment and provisioning actual capabilities. A key American component of the strategic repositioning is the new meme of ‘Air-Sea Battle’.

It’s big think. Like its predecessor from the late 1970s-1980s, Air-Land Battle. That meme sought to re-invigorate American doctrine to engage successfully the Soviets with combined arms after 10 years squandered in the Mekong. Air-Sea Battle posits integrated naval, space and air power as key for agile power projection, jettisoning ponderous continental land campaigns.

It’s easy to see Air-Sea Battle as the 21st century update of Americans inventing amphibious warfare in the 1920s to address potential conflict with Japan. And in keeping with American amphibian nature. Geographic realities haven’t changed. Technology has. Integrating naval presence with ISR, space and air platforms is the new frontier. Asians will watch how Americans elaborate and build upon Air-Sea Battle for clues about our seriousness about the region.

Air-Sea Battle is custom made for Pacific applications and counterbalancing unfolding Chinese influence. The Chinese think of their military projection similar to the Japanese a century ago – based on circles of islands. The first circle, closest to Beijing, encompasses Taiwan as well as Japan. Securing this zone they believe will be possible within a decade. The second would envelop the Philippines and neutralizes Guam. The goal, of course, is not to have to fight the U.S. but deter it by regional anti-access fait accompli.

If Air-Sea Battle is the why of American Pacific presence, overcoming [Chinese] anti-access/area denial (A2AD) is the how. Wondered what’s driving the Pentagon’s increasingly frantic search for weaponized electronic warfare? Sure Iran, etc. play a role. Long term? A2AD and Air-Sea Battle are front and center.

Stealth’s days as trump card are over. To maintain American access against access denial systems such as pinpoint MARV warheads and hypersonic anti-ship (the so-called ‘George Washington killer’) missiles, any platform must be supplemented with electronic suppression, offensive and defensive, as well as stand off capabilities. In Pentagon speak, this is called merging ‘domains’ – here, space, naval, air operations and intelligence.

Think of it this way. Back in the 1970s, the F-15 Eagle was the most advanced, powerful fighter of all time. (Spooked by misunderstanding the MiG-25, but that’s neither here nor there). An unprecedented 20% of the F-15’s systems were electronic. Today, the F-35 (averaging over the 4 blocks and the 365 to be procured, down from 1,600) sports 90%. The F-22 is 70%. Naval platforms, including the new Gerald Ford (now, now) class carriers as well as the smaller LCS class show similar increases. Americans tend to think of this as increased capability. And it is. But it’s also vastly expanded vulnerability. DARPA and DoD generally concede America can not defend her computer networks (including contractors’) from foreign intrusion, shifting instead to ‘point defense’ of critical information rather than networks as a whole. Now imagine that problem for all of these platforms.

Asians will look not just at how Air-Sea Battle doctrine evolves but the electronic and cyber packages that are deployed with the above mentioned platforms. Whether it be in increased information fusion, tactical (jamming and spoofing missiles, etc.) and operational (system penetration and takedown) skills, U.S. presence and actual A2AD capabilities will determine the credibility of the American Pacific commitment.


Another clue about America’s Pacific seriousness is how she handles Afghanistan. America (and thus NATO) is scheduled to begin draw down in 2014. This summer will mark probably the last full offensive campaign. Will America be smart enough to leave?

Putin last week addressed his Duma and defended his decision to allow NATO logistical access to Afghanistan, notably in the town of Lenin’s birth, Ulyanovsk. Putin declared ‘God bless ’em’ (NATO) for fighting. Otherwise it would be Russians doing it along the Tajik border. Similarly, Beijing and Moscow also now fret at the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) about an American withdrawal, seeking to ensure (ensnare) a continued American presence. Talk about free riders.

A wise America would transfer Afghanistan’s non-international terrorism domestic future (and its costs) to Moscow, Beijing and Islamabad’s lap. A modified version of the old Counter Terrorism vision contra COIN. Who thinks that actually will happen?


  1. says

    As aside, House tries to shut down military use of alternate energy.


    Putting this here, but was tempted to start a new post on recent House defense irrationalities.

  2. says

    First ever Russian-Chinese naval exercises as Marines finally leave Okinawa for Guam, Hawaii and parts-yet-to-be-determined. Given inevitable Chinese directed fire capabilities, a base in Okinawa may have become a hostage rather than an asset soon. The dance continues.

    On the ISR front, the Air Force is now making a big push that its airframes are wearing out. Expect to see this ‘crisis’ join the budget cutting circus. Technophiles argue the answer is cheap, distributed sensor grids with automated, cheap unmanned nodes. Riddle us this Batman, have you ever met *anyone* who claimed they had more than enough bandwidth?

    Addendum: Platforms, supra, refers to AWACs, C-130s, etc. excepting RC-135s. The bandwidth reference relates to an inevitable bottleneck for any proposed alternative automated distributed structure. Although in truth manned or unmanned, spectrum needs will be insatiable.

  3. Dr Leo Strauss says

    “LCS is a warship. It is a WAR ship . . . of course, it’s not going to go into the Straits [of Hormuz] . . . The only thing that would survive in the Straits if a war started would be a submarine.”

    Navy Under Secretary Robert O. Work (April 2012)

  4. rkka says

    “One wonders what sort of guarantees Putin will negotiate in return for letting us get our stuff out of Afghanistan.”

    And if he thinks they’ll be worth the paper they are printed on.

    • Dr Leo Strauss says

      Right, every rising or peripheral Power has gone to school on the U.S. Plus, there’s the Goldilocks personal propensity at play.

      100,000 troops flailing on the other side of the world (plus tens of thousands of contractors) without reliable logistics through Pakistan gives the Northern Distribution Network countries outsized, tangible — if fleeting – leverage beyond paper.

      We can expect the ‘Stans, especially Kazakhstan, to escalate their demands in the months (years?) ahead. Putin and Beijing will play those cards in their Great Game of squeezing out U.S. influence, too.


      Agree with you about the worth of a piece of paper. Remember the Paris Accords?

  5. says

    “For all its downsides, it does facilitate bolting from nominal allies, leaving them in the lurch.”

    What makes Afghanistan’s future interesting is that each of the prospective bagholders are well aware of this American propensity.

    One wonders what sort of guarantees Putin will negotiate in return for letting us get our stuff out of Afghanistan.

  6. Dr LeoStrauss says

    You make a good point. History teaches that receding Powers are particularly vulnerable to Clientitis – hard to believe given America’s vulnerability at her putative Noon-tide.

    On the other hand, America is both blessed and cursed by unusually swift historical amnesia. For all its downsides, it does facilitate bolting from nominal allies, leaving them in the lurch. Although last minute spasms for reasons of testosterone – think the Mayaguez – can be expected.

    Re the Pacific stance, one is tempted to recall Royal Navy plans to defeat the American Navy after WW I. Waging war against Britain’s creditor made the notion strategically implausible; American material preponderance made it impossible.

    Kissinger in 1970 famously called for a Pentapolar world. It was unrealistic for a Realist. But it does shed light on American thinking in an era of earlier perceived retreat. Making the best of a bad poker hand. Watch The Atlantic for movement in that direction cloaked as the New Clever. Or if the earlier British notion has traction, perhaps a 21st century echo of 1920s/30s calls for regional or even global disarmament talks as potential gambit.

  7. rkka says

    The trouble with that “solution” is that the US foreign policy elite can be relied upon to start undermining it the instant the last US soldier leaves.

    They might even start funding their buddies the glorious Afghan Freedom Fighters again…

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