Re-shaping US Forces for a Pacific Strategy


2012-12-18 by Robbin Laird

If the US fails to innovate in its re-shaping of its forces in the Pacific, it will be difficult to be effective and to play the crucial lynchpin role which is essential to an allied focused strategy. 

It will also lead the US to not protect its interests in the Pacific, ranging from the Artic to Australia.  It will lead the US to lose significant economic benefits, which presence and protection of maritime and other 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 has underscored: “According to our allies, virtual presence is actual absence.”

And as General 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, but given the immensity of the Pacific, presence is a challenge.  But keeping assets back in the United States may make sense in preparing for World War III, but makes little sense in the realities of the evolving Pacific strategic environment.

But 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 Robling, the highest ranking Marine in the Pacific.

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.

Sebasing is a key element of providing persistent presence.

And amphibious ships are real 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 lift equation we extend our strategic reach and significantly enhance our ability to enhance partnership capacity.

Dealing with China

At the same time, strategy with the growth in importance of the Arctic and the rise of China has changed the meaning of presence.

With regard to the Arctic, the inability of Washington to commit resources to Artic presence (the Chinese will have more icebreakers than the US shortly) guarantees that others will benefit from the Arctic at our expense.

With regard to China, 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.

The two players alternately place black and white playing pieces, called “stones”, on the vacant intersections (called “points”) of a grid of 19×19 lines (beginners often play on smaller 9×9 and 13×13 boards). The object of the game is to use one’s stones to surround a larger total area of the board than the opponent. Once placed on the board, stones may not be moved, but stones are removed from the board if captured.[5] When a game concludes, the controlled points (territory) are counted along with captured stones to determine who has more points. Games may also be won by resignation.

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

Strategic Directions

This means that the US force needs to be highly connected and interoperable with its allies.  We are not there but 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 maintaining old systems, which reflected historic strategies and engagements.

Some consider the core description of threat against which the US must configure its forces to be something called A2D2.  This is Anti-Access, Anti-Denial.

The difficulty with such a characterization is that the challenger needs to be named: China and a strategy to prevail against what the Chinese are doing and likely to do.

And the threat needs to be much clearer: it is about missiles, their evolution and the need to combine defense with offense in dealing with evolving missile threats.

It also needs to be about 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 provide two illustrations of 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 South Korea 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 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 shift to forces which are more designed for Sitzkreig than 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 General Robling discussed earlier.

In an exclusive interview with the Commander of the 7th USAF, 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 and Information War aircraft.  But the fleet impact of the F-35 is where the strategic impact of a tactical aircraft can be seen.

The discussion of the shift from 4th to 5th generation has often missed the point of what the impact of deploying a significant number of F-35s within a region as central as the Pacific could have on the U.S. and its allies.

And the F-35 can play the role of a linchpin in a 21st century Pacific strategy which is allied-centered and enabled.  Indeed, the F-35 as a linchpin 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 Pacific F-35 Fleet can be sustained through a network of hubs and training ranges. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense 

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

Presence, scalability and reach back 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 which allows the U.S. to play a key lynchpin role and at the same time puts allies in the lead to defend themselves and their 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, a globally sustained fleet, the inversion of the tactical with the strategic, and enabling a wolfpack operational approach to leverage best value out of deployed assets.

I have developed these concepts elsewhere, but will focus here simply on 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 approach is an inherent capability to leverage logistics hubs throughout the Pacific to create a seamless ability 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 be supported during surge operations without having to carry its sustainment capability forward with the surged aircraft, which is the requirement currently.

The opportunity and ability to build hubs and training ranges 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.


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, the core dynamic in the Pacific – the extension of China into the broader Pacific – can be met.

If we don’t, we will follow the Ben Franklin 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 cusps of deploying new systems, the pressures to not understand what we could do are significant.  The rush to the past is often more powerful than embracing change or understanding the challenge of innovation to move into a new century.

Note:  Many of these themes will be examined in our 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.