Why land power trumps in the national rebalance toward Asia
By Maj. Robert Chamberlain
The American Army is an organization in search of a strategic purpose. American conventional involvement in the war in Afghanistan is drawing to a close, the security establishment has rejected armed nation-building as a viable national strategy, and the projection of military power seems to take the form of drones and air support to local proxies. Simultaneously, the withdrawal from land wars in the Middle East and the prioritization of East Asia has led to a decline of the doctrinal focus the organization has spent a decade refining — counterinsurgency, or COIN — and the concomitant rise of the new strategy du jour, Air-Sea Battle. In this brave new world, it’s not clear what land power does and, thus, what the Army is good for.
As a service with a limited presence in the air and on the sea, this is all a little nerve-wracking. How does an organization that projects land power contribute usefully to an off-shore doctrine and a defense focus on the waters around the Chinese coast? It has been suggested that the Army advertise itself as the only solution to state collapse, capable of rushing in to manage the consequences of a North Korean implosion. Others argue the Army should maintain its COIN focus and commitment to stability operations. Still more turn their focus to the special operations forces (of which the Army provides 60 percent). My assessment is not nearly so modest: If Asia is the central theater in which American national objectives will be challenged in the coming decade, then land power is the key to decoupling economic and military competition in the region, and the Army is the best organization to lead a defense strategy that supports peace, stability and growth.
The current obsession with the rise of China and the active debate about its implications for the world and the appropriate Western response have afflicted the American foreign policy establishment with an acute case of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, China’s growing military capacity and willingness to employ force or threats of force to resolve regional disputes is alarming and may indicate an armed confrontation is in the offing. On the other, China’s active participation in the global economy, substantial financial interests across the region, and heavy investments in the U.S. may indicate that it is essentially a status quo power more interested in wealth than conquest. The truth almost certainly lies somewhere in the middle and, thus, the appropriate American strategy is to prepare for war while encouraging trade. The challenge, then, is to ensure that the pursuit of one goal doesn’t inhibit the other.
The grand strategic solution to this challenge is “containment-lite.” In this approach, America seeks out smaller regional states threatened by China’s growing power and facilitates their balancing strategies by offering a much less threatening alternative than simply bandwagoning behind China’s regional aspirations. Thereby, American power in Asia is pooled with smaller states and incipient Chinese militarism is checked. However, unlike the Cold War, Chinese membership in regional organizations is encouraged, expanding Chinese trade is welcomed and Chinese economic growth is applauded. The goal is to raise the cost of militarizing international disputes such that the only rational Chinese alternative is to seek pacific resolution through the tools of economic or diplomatic power.
This solution is not without controversy. In “Asia’s New Age of Instability,” Michael Wesley suggests that smaller states in the region can’t pay their share militarily against China, larger states aren’t interested in a partnership with the West, and the American public is uninterested in costly foreign wars in defense of a local ally. By contrast, I argue that small states will contribute progressively more as the Chinese threat emerges, that larger states will respond to growing threats nearby by considering alliances that previously would have been unthinkable, and that the “rally round the flag” effect makes U.S. intervention credible in domestic political terms. But I will set those debates aside and ask the reader to assume that it is possible to form new alliances in the region and that public opinion is no barrier to short- to medium-term American military action. Instead, I wish to consider what tools of American power best facilitate “containment-lite,” which requires that they must demonstrate military resolve without communicating aggressive intentions.
LAND POWER — THE BEST DEFENSE
Before addressing the specific land power polices that would best advance American interests in East Asia, I will discuss the strategic ends within containment-lite that military means and ways must provide. The whole purpose of the strategy is to encourage China’s peaceful rise, underwrite regional stability, and firmly delink military and economic modes of competition and dispute. The military contribution to these goals must therefore balance martial and diplomatic logics; the path to military superiority in the region could lead to strategic failure if it induces Chinese militarism, arms races and a “fait accompli” crisis strategy. Instead, American military power should operate according to a defensive realist logic — increasing the security of allies without threatening China directly. Supported, but not dominated, by Air-Sea Battle, it must be able to allocate forces in such a way as to signal resolve and diffuse regional crises by removing the credible threat of Chinese military action against smaller states. Air and sea power cannot accomplish these missions alone — the linchpin of a successful American defense strategy in Asia is its use of land power.
The most obvious advantage of land power among the islands and peninsulas of East Asia is its heavily defensive character. Unlike Central Europe during the Cold War, where vast armored forces threatened the interests of each superpower and prudent defensive measures were indistinguishable from growing offensive capability, land theaters in Asia are separated from one another by vast bodies of water. This is a truly excellent situation from the U.S. perspective, since it means that land conflict can be localized — U.S. forces in Korea do not threaten China with the specter of rapid military defeat, nor would American reinforcements to allies in Southeast Asia or elsewhere in the region. In fact, we have multiple 20th-century examples of local wars in Asia staying relatively local, despite superpower involvement. Thus, the deployment of an American brigade to assist in the defense of an ally signals resolve and contributes military capacity without threatening China directly in a way that the deployment of a carrier task force or an air wing simply cannot.
Land power is uniquely advantageous for a strategy of containment-lite, due to its ability to achieve regional stability without increasing Chinese insecurity. However, the American land power strategy in Asia must encompass much more than the rapid deployment of combat units into crises. Land power must address the full spectrum of regional defense needs, which require careful cultivation of defense partnerships and capabilities in order to match the right force with each emerging contingency. The use of land power in Asia must also inform American doctrine and procurement strategies, as the Army returns to its conventional mission while expanding other capabilities. The chief of staff of the Army refers to these three elements as Win, Shape and Prevent, respectively. Together, they form the three components of America’s strategic solution.
THE SPECTRUM OF LAND POWER
It is hard to think about land power without the boom of a cannon, the rumble of a tank or the endless rows of soldiers on parade. But the full conventional capability of the United States is only one aspect of land power, and one that should be imagined alongside the shuffling of paper, the snapping of clipboards and a small headquarters element winding their way through an airport. Land power strategy must shape the security environment prior to the arrival of conventional forces, which could either facilitate victory or perhaps even forestall a conflict altogether.
The most limited form of land power engagement is back-channel coordination. In concert with other American diplomatic initiatives, this approach enables concerned regional powers with which the U.S. has no formal relationship to lay the groundwork for future engagement. It is the time for staff officers to have confidential discussions about future anticipated defense needs, how the recipient power understands U.S. policy objectives, and how American land power could help check Chinese militarism. This is also an opportunity to establish interoperable systems and procedures that will prove invaluable as American land power involvement moves up the scale.
A more overt tool of land power is foreign military sales, military aid packages and technology transfers. These require virtually no uniformed presence or formalized relationship, but still facilitate the spread of military resources that can check Chinese adventurism. Moreover, to the extent that the Chinese threat is a function of air power or theater ballistic missiles, military systems of a purely defensive nature can be exported.
Further down the spectrum is the explicit integration of contingency planning between the U.S. and the local ally. This requires careful consideration of disembarkation points for U.S. reinforcements, their planned contribution, the command relationships of the forces in the field and all the myriad other details that create battlefield friction. In addition to personnel from the embassy, this might also entail the rotation of headquarters elements through joint war-game exercises.
Next are the types of conventional army interactions that are normally associated with land power: major joint exercises, rotating units or even a permanent presence. These sorts of actions are easily understood and retain the desirable stabilizing properties of land power, but are also rather expensive. In the contemporary budgetary environment it is imperative to maximize the cost-effectiveness of American defense initiatives. By preparing the ground through early shaping operations and staff integration, the U.S. will retain the flexibility to move forces quickly throughout the region while avoiding the costs of keeping units permanently on station.
PROCUREMENT AND POSTURE
In addition to a shift in defense strategy that prioritizes the stabilizing effects of land power over the inherently threatening alternatives that I will discuss below, it will also be necessary to build a land power capacity that is designed to address both Pacific geography and Chinese capabilities. This represents both a return to the modern Army’s conventional roots and a significant evolution in how it understands its role.
The Chinese regional military threat is primarily conventional and must be checked by conventional capabilities. While it would be foolhardy for the U.S. military to completely forget the lessons of the past decade and refuse to prepare units for counterinsurgency and stability operations, it would be equally myopic to decide that these operations ought to be an organizational priority in years to come. When China has used offensive military force to assert its political will, it has not been a particularly subtle affair in terms of either manpower or effect. Thus, a doctrine and equipment set that is built around small platoons running around the battlefield in up-armored Humvees and MRAPs is a recipe for disaster. The People’s Liberation Army will not be defeated by COIN, and if America wishes to lend credible assistance to its allies, it will need to do so in terms of a conventional capability, supported by adequate training and equipment, that can defeat the PLA on conventional terms. The beauty of land power, however, is that the ability to defeat an expeditionary force from China that advances down one of the growing number of paved arteries that connect the region’s industrial centers does not necessarily entail the ability to advance deep into Chinese territory and threaten China itself. Unlike air and sea power, the force can be tailored to meet the requirements of a limited war and return the system to stability.
However, many American allies in the region and many countries potentially threatened by Chinese power are islands. If China chooses to employ military threats against these states, the threat would almost certainly take the form of sea, air or missile attack. Traditionally, these have been the purview of our vast and powerful Navy and Air Force. But the trouble with relying on these services is that keeping enough air and sea power in the region to sink the Chinese navy or cripple the Chinese missile fleet is an inherently threatening and destabilizing force posture.
I propose that, rather than relying on our ability to achieve dominance in the air and on the sea to thwart potential Chinese military adventurism, America develop a land-based anti-access/area-denial capability of its own. This entails the expansion of theater missile defense initiatives, further development of the U.S. air defense capability, and investment in land-based anti-ship systems. All these capabilities, with the exception of some elements of missile defense, are currently met in Air-Sea Battle by the Air Force and the Navy. That means what the U.S. perceives as defending its allies, the Chinese could legitimately perceive as an expansion of power in the region. By contrast, land-based A2/AD systems are purely defensive. Once the attacker has been defeated (the planes driven off, the missiles shot down, the ships sunk, etc.), the system has no further capability. For example, a Joint Strike Fighter could shoot down incoming aircraft and then be re-armed to attack ground targets. The same is simply not true for land-based air defense.
ALTERNATIVES TO LAND POWER
One approach to regional defense, which has captured the imagination of American policymakers in the aftermath of the Libyan revolution, is to supply American firepower to local allies through the use of precision strikes guided by small special operations teams. In a conventional scenario, this approach would have our allies fight on their land while we contributed firepower and technological capability from air and sea.
This is the Rumsfeldian dream reborn — the low-cost policy option that leverages American technical know-how and the ultimate expression of the “send a bullet, not a man” philosophy of casualty-aversion. The tools for implementing this vision are myriad: strike aircraft deployed from bases in the region or carrier groups, missiles launched from destroyers and submarines, or even long-range bombers flying from Diego Garcia or Missouri.
The issues with using this approach in Asia are twofold. First, this particular strategy has never been tried in the face of a robust air-defense network. It is one thing to bomb Taliban loyalists and Libyan pickup trucks. It is quite another to attack a military with the full suite of air-defense options — from shoulder-launched missiles to integrated radar systems — at its disposal. As the Israel Defense Forces learned to their dismay in 1973, the assumption that the skies will remain open is a dangerous one indeed. Second, this option is enormously destabilizing. Specifically, it will encourage militarizing and winning any dispute as quickly as possible. I will elaborate this point further.
Consider, for example, the lessons of Libya from the perspective of the target of U.S. bombing. One obvious policy alternative open to American targets is to give in to U.S. demands, but another more appealing alternative exists: One could simply win as quickly as possible. American firepower is immense, but it is not all-powerful. If one can win the ground campaign quickly and decisively, then one has the ability to disperse one’s forces, absorb some casualties, and wait for the Americans to give up and leave or try to introduce ground forces of their own. But, of course, the initial American reliance on air power will likely entail the loss of uncontested ports of entry. Thus, the target has the advantage of opposing an amphibious assault using modern weapons, which holds out the prospect of massive losses to the U.S. Given the increased cost of reversing the military outcome, the U.S. is more likely to simply accept the new status quo and move on. Therefore, you, as the target, have every incentive to go as quickly as possible in order to present America and its allies with a fait accompli.
The solution to this problem, from an off-shore firepower perspective, is simply to place more firepower in the area in order to compound the difficulties an aggressor would face in achieving a quick victory. Of course, more firepower would simply encourage the aggressor to move that much quicker, thus requiring more firepower, and so on. This is a classic conflict spiral, which has the twin disadvantages of being costly and destabilizing. It will increase Chinese militarism and fail to control American defense outlays, which is to say that it utterly fails to achieve the overall strategic goal of delinking military and economic disputes, fostering stability and discouraging militarism.
AIR-SEA BATTLE: THE NEW CONVENTIONAL WISDOM
Air-Sea Battle, the doctrine being created by the Navy and Air Force to support the rebalance toward Asia, offers a different approach. In “Air Sea Battle: Promoting Stability in an Era of Uncertainty” and “Air-Sea Battle: Clearing the Fog,” the service proponents of this doctrine argue that projecting American power in the region will require the ability to get there in the first place. With the growing Chinese investment in A2/AD technologies, there is serious concern about America’s ability to credibly project power. In order to ensure that the U.S. military can remain a viable instrument of national policy in Asia, this doctrine proposes to integrate air and sea power in such a way that American forces can arrive safely in the region and undertake whatever missions are necessary.
To that end, Air-Sea Battle requires that A2/AD systems are attacked simultaneously and in-depth by all available means. It is not enough to simply shoot down incoming ballistic missiles — the U.S. will also attack their launch platforms, the radars that guide them, the facilities that power the radars, the computers that make it all work, etc. This would seem to necessitate attacks against the Chinese mainland, which raises two important possibilities for the evolution of this doctrine.
In one evolution, which I will call “Offensive Air-Sea Battle,” proponents of firepower are able to successfully make the case that, as long as one is going to attack China to facilitate the further introduction of forces into the region, one might just as easily use this capability to deter Chinese militarism altogether. If China is a rational actor, then using offshore firepower to threaten Chinese assets raises the costs of military action by China, thus encouraging them to seek alternative means by which to achieve their national goals. Land power becomes a costly redundancy, and the optimal solution for U.S. regional defense needs is simply to invest further in the ships and aircraft that can project power against Chinese forces and industry.
From a Chinese perspective, this is obviously extraordinarily threatening. Even implicit threats of force against Chinese cities would have to be met with a robust counterthreat to valued American assets. On the low end, this could mean a naval buildup and an investment in missile capabilities to threaten U.S. bases throughout the region. On the high end, it could mean an expansion of the Chinese nuclear arsenal and a more aggressive nuclear readiness posture. In any event, the emergence of a new arms race and increasing military tensions would represent a significant failure of U.S. policy. And while this policy is not currently under open consideration, history has shown repeatedly that the siren song of air-power-based compellence has an almost irresistible attraction for policymakers.
The other evolution, which is the current trend in Air-Sea Battle among the services, is what I call “Defensive Air-Sea Battle.” In the defensive approach, Air-Sea Battle is not meant to compel anyone to do anything. It merely overcomes A2/AD barriers and allows American forces to arrive safely in theater. This is all well and good, but it raises two additional issues. First, how much air-sea capability is enough? Second, what is the American land contingent meant to being doing upon arrival?
On the first: In purely military terms, more is almost always better. As long as one can sustain a force logistically, then, all else being equal, greater numbers often lead to faster victories, lower casualties and a wider margin of error in dealing with unanticipated developments. However, in the larger strategic sense, more power can sometimes lead to less security. This is because of the ever-present “security dilemma,” in which an increase in one state’s military capability threatens another, thus inducing the second state to expand its own capability in response. Even if both states have benign intentions and seek only their own survival, they nonetheless end up spending progressively more on arms without ever enhancing their own safety. In fact, the system may become less secure, as each state becomes increasingly well-armed and prepared for war.
A twist on the security dilemma proposed in the political science literature is that if a military system had only defensive purposes, it would be less threatening. Conversely, if a system had only offensive purposes, it would certainly induce a robust response. Further, if one could tell defensive from offensive technologies, the system would be more stable, but if the two were indistinguishable, then a security dilemma would occur because one state’s defensive preparations would look like a potential threat to another and vice versa.
The problem with the two possible evolutions of Air-Sea Battle I’ve identified here is that the offensive can’t be distinguished from the defensive. If disrupting Chinese A2/AD capabilities requires a simultaneous attack that involves strikes against the Chinese mainland, then, by definition, a greater investment in Air-Sea Battle represents a greater ability to attack China. The policy implication, then, is that not only must Defensive Air-Sea Battle remain doctrinally modest, but the associated procurement and deployment strategy must remain modest as well. It does no good to doctrinally commit to limited aims if doing so entails a massive arms increase and triggers the strategic outcome (militarization and instability) the doctrine was meant to avoid.
The second issue with Defensive Air-Sea Battle is that it really isn’t a strategy at all. It’s a handy operational template that pre-coordinates the necessary assets to facilitate the projection of American power into East Asia in the face of enemy A2/AD capabilities. This is all well and good, but it is hardly an acceptable basis for American regional defense strategy. How America ought to deploy its power in order to delink military and economic competition, encourage the peaceful rise of China and foster Asian regional stability remains an open question, one which can only be addressed by the prudent development and employment of land power.
RETURNING TO REALISM
After a decade of nation-building and revisionist adventures, America seems to be returning to a realist foreign policy. Prudence is once again the supreme virtue, security and stability the guiding lights. The hinterlands in the arc of instability, where transnational terrorism networks go to regroup, are the purview of special operations and drones; the bulk of American military power is being refocused on missions of central national importance. Chief among these is ensuring the peace and prosperity of East Asia. With the renewed focus that the “rebalance toward Asia” implies must come new thinking. Dominance in the air and on the sea may demonstrate the extent of American power, but it also creates a zero-sum security environment. In the world of Air-Sea Battle, America and China may find themselves locked in a security competition that serves the interest of neither state.
By contrast, land power represents a flexible tool that is uniquely suited to the Asian security environment. The Navy remains the essential guarantor of global commerce and the freedom of the seas, and the Air Force gives policy-makers an unparalleled set of global strike options. But only the Army and Marines can provide a security commitment to America’s partners in Asia that does not simultaneously threaten China itself. Land power is the only avenue by which America can enhance regional security and stability, deter Chinese militarism and encourage Chinese commitment to the global status quo. It is land power, and land power alone, that can bring America’s Asia policy back to reality.
Maj. Robert M. Chamberlain is an instructor of international relations in the social sciences department at the U.S. Military Academy. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of West Point, the Army of the Defense Department.