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.
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?