2014-04-06 By Robbin Laird
After spending a week in Hawaii with the MARFORPAC staff, and the PACAF staff and the commander, and then two weeks in Australia for visits to airbases and to the Williams Foundation seminar on the evolution of air combat capabilities, I concluded my trip to the region by a meeting with Lt. General Robling, the Commander of MARFORPAC.
Shortly, the Marines will start their first rotational training in Australia. Naturally, Australia was on his mind in discussing the future.
Question: What our closest allies and we are actually doing is actually building deterrence in depth structure for Pacific Defense and part of that is clearly creating converging capabilities. Is that a fair judgment?
Lt. General Robling: It is to me. It’s not about just building relationships in the region. It is about collective security in the region.
Building collective security requires, in part, a process of building partner capacity, and working convergent capacities to shape effective and mutually beneficial relationships which underlie the evolution of collective security.
Our working relationship with Australia is a case in point.
Even though they see themselves… rightly… as an island continent, they’ve really got to be part of the entire region’s ability to respond to crisis, both natural and manmade. To do this, they can’t stay continent bound, and must engage forward in the greater Asia Pacific region.
By becoming part of a collective Pacific security apparatus, they get the added benefit of defending their nation away from their borders. The Australian military is small in comparison to the US, but it is a lethal and technologically sophisticated force.
In the face of a large-scale threat, they, like the US and others in the region, wouldn’t be able to defend by themselves. They would have to be a part of a larger collective security effort and ally with the US or other likeminded nations in the region in order to get more effective and less costly defense capabilities pushed farther forward.
This is one reason why their buying the JSF and the “Wedgetail” is so important. These two platforms are amazing force multipliers that bring to the region superior Command and Control and networked strike capabilities. These capabilities will be both additive and complementary to the capabilities other nations bring to collective security in the region.
The JSF with its superior networked sensor suite can collect a lot of information from sources at significant distances, and partner with the capabilities of the “Wedgetail” to help disseminate that information to air, sea, and land forces who need the information.
These capabilities and others make perfect sense for Australia and the greater Asia Pacific’s collective security requirements. In addition, other countries like Japan and Singapore can likewise contribute to this collective security because they too are buying the same types or similar military capabilities.
I like the term deterrence in depth because that’s exactly what it is. It’s not always about defense in depth.
It’s about deterring and influencing others behavior so they can contribute to the region’s stability, both economically and militarily, in an environment where everyone conforms to the rule of law and international norms.
Question: I was asked by a senior Australian official to discuss potential sweet spots between the modernization of the Aussie and American forces. Clearly, one of those is between the evolving USN-USMC modernization efforts and those of the Australians.
And with the changes in the training ranges in Guam and around Guam plus those in Australia, there is a clear area within which the Aussies, Americans and other regional powers can shape that sweet spot in practical terms. Obviously, the Pacific fleet of F-35s can be built from an operational point of view within those training ranges as well.
This makes the Aussie-US relationship not just about training on Australian soil for the Marines but about a much broader dynamic relationship in the re-set of Pacific defense capabilities.
How do you see the relationship?
Lt. General Robling: Your point is very well taken. The President and the Australian Prime Minister in 2011 made an agreement to bolster this partnership. It was about two allies that can benefit further from a stronger more cohesive relationship.
I believe expanding what we do together in the northern training ranges is the next step in furthering this relationship. The training ranges offer us a venue for training together in very high end and sometimes complex scenarios. Due to their remote location, this training is away from encroaching civilian populations, thereby allowing us to train without negatively impacting or encroaching on their daily lives. We all win.
Training over distance is difficult in very many places around the world, and especially in the Asia Pacific region.
In fact, the northern ranges in Australia are ideal for that type of combined training. Complementary to these ranges will be the Joint Training Ranges we are looking to develop on some of the Marianas Islands in and around Guam, Saipan and Tinian. In these ranges, we hope to have the ability to train across a broad spectrum of military operations from small unit maneuver to higher end air-to-air, combined arms, electronic warfare, and missile defense. This training will enable us to shape new joint and coalition approaches to defense while strengthening the collective security in the region.
Question: When I talked with the PACAF staff and, specifically, General Carlisle, it is clear that a change is underway. The US is shifting from thickening bilateral spoke relationships to working new multilateral relationships among those powers with which we have bilateral treaty relationships.
Lt. General Robling: The growth of the Asian economy overall and especially those of our allies and friends has allowed many countries to enhance their security capabilities by buying more technologically advanced equipment.
It is not just about the US and what we bring to the region anymore.
Multi-lateral training and security agreements create a natural transition to working collective security in a way we never considered before.
Question: As new hardware comes into the region, the exercises then allow you to work through joint and coalition concepts of operations and to be able to insert change effectively within a deterrence in depth strategy?
Lt. General Robling: You make a great point. The enhanced capabilities our partners are building through both training and hardware procurement will enable each of them to address individual security challenges while also providing us opportunities for partnerships that will naturally create a deterrence that covers large expanses of this large region.
The focus is not just on separate ground, naval and air forces.
The “AEGIS as my Wingman” concept is a great example of what platforms like JSF and AEGIS can do to individually become more capable by taking advantage of the synergy brought by each taking advantage of the other’s capabilities.
This is exciting because it forces us to think of new ways to collect, disseminate, and then execute operations in ways we have never considered before.
And because the information will be accessible to our partners who are on the network, you can distribute the information to several partners simultaneously, making the collective defense and deterrence in depth concepts even more important to collective security.
I would argue that the commanders of the AEGIS ships haven’t even thought about their role as wingman for fifth generation aircraft, but they will once the JSF is fully operationally and able to link its considerable capabilities with the significant capabilities of their ships.
Question: Your point is clearly that the process is not simply a one-way street with regard to allies in the region. It is about crosscutting modernizations, in which allies are bringing significant capabilities to the party. It is a challenge to re-set the working relationship to shape an approach like the Australian policy maker has in mind, namely to find sweet spots between allies modernization and those of the United States.
This is a challenge which requires a rethink from a bilateral arena where the US is providing capabilities for bilateral defense to one in which cross-cutting modernizations are being forged into deterrence in depth for Pacific defense.
How do you view the allied contribution?
Lt. General Robling: I think that sums up nicely the way ahead. Let me provide you with an Air Force example.
The U.S. Air Force has completely dominated the world with its ability to command and control large formations of technologically superior aircraft in any given battle space. In fact, their ability to provide a Combatant Commander with not just air supremacy but air dominance has been unmatched.
Now, they will be able to partner with some of our friends and allies that are buying strike aircraft like the JSF and command and control platforms like “Wedgetail”. Air supremacy now doesn’t have to come from US assets alone.
Question: My next to final question is about HA/DR or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief challenges. These are part of the challenges in the region but also part of the ongoing efforts to reshape the USN-USMC team to be more effective as a force in the region. How do you view the role of HA/DR within the operational context?
Lt. General Robling: Recently, I had a discussion with a think tank in Australia. After I spoke, one individual asked me if was talking out of both sides of my mouth by emphasizing the Marine Corps capabilities to fight and win on the battlefield, while at the same time emphasizing how important we are to responding to HA/DR disasters in the region.
I simply pointed out that we have only one US Marine Corps; one USN-USMC team. They’re all steely-eyed trained killers, but because of the way we train, equip and organize, we are just very, very good at responding to disasters, and doing so in a way better than anyone else can. I also emphasized that not one of those Marines carries a military occupational specialty code that relates to HA/DR.
Question: My final question is about the impact of the distributed laydown and exercises on equipment needs.
It is clear that as the USAF focuses upon distributed its assets within the region to maximize its effectiveness, that C-17s become a priority asset, not easily available to the US Army or USMC. This must mean for the USMC that the demand on amphibious shipping and MSC, on the one hand, and the KC-130J tanking and lift fleet goes up.
How do you view the impact of the demand signal in this area?
Lt. General Robling: The demand signal goes up every year while the cost of using the lift goes up every year as well. This has me very concerned.
The truth of the matter is the Asia Pacific region is 52% of the globes surface and there are over 25,000 islands in the region. The distances and times necessary to respond to a crisis are significant. The size of the AOR is illustrated in part by the challenge of finding the missing Malaysian airliner.
If you don’t have the inherent capability like the KC-130J aircraft to get your equipment and people into places rapidly, you can quickly become irrelevant. General Hawk Carlisle uses a term in his engagement strategy which is “places; not bases”.
America doesn’t want forward bases. This means you have to have the lift to get to places quickly, be able to operate in an expeditionary environment when you get there, and then leave when you are done.
Strengthening our current partnerships and making new ones will go a long way in helping us be successful at this strategy. We have to be invited in before we can help. If you don’t have pre-positioned equipment already in these countries, then you have to move it in somehow.
And, right now, we’re moving in either via naval shipping, black bottom shipping, or when we really need it there quickly, via KC-130J aircraft or available C-17 aircraft. Right now, we are the only force in the Pacific that can get to a crisis quickly, and the only force that operates as an integrated air, sea and ground organization.
This takes us full circle back to the Australians. They are working to more effectively to integrate their air, ground and naval forces and, as a result, our ability to find and cultivate “ a mutual sweet spot” with them will go up over the next decade.
Editor’s Note: A measure of the evolving possibilities was the presence of two USMC aviators at the recent Williams Foundation seminar on the evolution of air combat capabilities. As Vice Air Marshall (Retired) John Blackburn, an organizer of the conference put it with regard to the presence of Marines in the conference and the coming deployment to Australia:
Having the Marines come onboard in Australia is important as well. It’s really good to see how a truly a joint force is doing its job.
One of the challenges we’ll face in Australia is making sure that the Army, Air Force, and Navy work together in an even more integrated way to produce a better combat outcome.
And it’s one of the key challenges for the Air Force is going to be to communicate that the JSF it’s not just a shiny expensive airplane.
This is a transformation point, a trigger.
It can change the way not on the Air Force works but all the three services work together.
The Marines are a great example of working the different elements of a joint force.
For earlier pieces on MARFORPAC and Pacific defense see the following: