Editor's note: Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), a multinational maritime exercise conducted every two years around the Hawaiian Islands, is being held June 27-Aug. 7. This year's exercises mark an important step in the projection of power and interoperability between participating nations as the United States begins its strategic shift toward the Pacific region, particularly with regard to China, the region's rising power, which was not among the 21 nations invited by Washington to participate. This series analyzes the naval capabilities displayed during the exercises and weighs them in the context of regional relationships. Click here for part one and part two.
The United States has maintained a heavy military presence in the Western Pacific since the end of World War II. U.S. interest in the region is extensive. For example, Asia-Pacific countries generate a larger percentage of the world's gross domestic product than those of Europe, so the United States devotes a substantial amount of resources to keep Pacific sea lanes open and to ensure access to regional economies.
For much of the past 70 years, troop deployments on Japan and other Pacific islands constituted the bulk of the U.S. presence in the Western Pacific. But now that Washington has pledged to re-engage with the region, U.S. military strategy will focus not only on retaining and reinforcing its existing regional bases, but also on procuring new ones. An expanded base network will help secure U.S. interests and minimize the difficulty of projecting maritime power over an area as vast as the Pacific Ocean.
In November 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a policy change regarding the Western Pacific. The new strategy has several components, including diplomatic and economic deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but its highest-profile component involves the U.S. military.
Notably, the United States has not hesitated to deploy military forces to the region whenever U.S. interests have appeared threatened. Throughout the Cold War, the United States adopted a containment strategy against the spread of communism backed by military force. Although the United States was concerned primarily about a potential Soviet offensive in Europe, Washington nonetheless devoted massive amounts of resources to two major wars in the region: the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
The wars typified U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific for the latter half of the 20th century. Washington would increase its regional strength whenever it would become embroiled in a conflict, and its presence would decrease whenever a conflict concluded and forces were redeployed elsewhere. Host nations often were more amenable to a U.S. military presence when they felt threatened by a regional power. But in times of peace, the populations of such countries would become less welcoming. With U.S. involvement in the Middle East waning and with Chinese military power on the rise, the United States now is directing more forces to region. Many regional countries, wary of China's ascendency and unpredictability, are increasingly embracing such U.S. support.
However, the United States does not perceive conflict with China as imminent. Several factors, such as economic interdependence, will prevent direct clashes between China and the United States. But Washington perceives a growing risk of regional clashes since China now has the military capability to assert its power in conflicts involving, for example, the Ryukyu Islands or the South China Sea.
The United States faces two issues as it deploys greater amounts of military resources to the Western Pacific. First, the region is extremely far from the United States; operations require long lines of communication, multiple logistical hubs and forward-positioned supplies. Second, maritime operations make up the vast majority of operations in the region, so air and sea assets will play a more important role than they would in land-based conflicts.
Any U.S. military strategy in the region must contend with China's "counterintervention" doctrine, which the United States refers to as "anti-access/area-denial" (A2/AD). The Chinese accelerated development of the A2/AD strategy after the United States sent two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. The incident showed just how incapable the Chinese were of stopping U.S. military intervention. Since then, Beijing has developed and deployed numerous weapons, ranging from quiet diesel-electric submarines to anti-ship ballistic missiles, designed to counter any U.S. vessel that approaches Chinese territorial waters.
To counter China's anti-access measures, the United States developed the AirSea Battle concept, the central tenet of which involves tight coordination of U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy capabilities. The Pentagon already created an Air-Sea Strategy Office to manage the plan.
The Pentagon hopes to outmatch sophisticated anti-access capabilities by developing platforms that can penetrate enemy defenses with stealth technology or by conducting strikes from beyond the range of the defenses. The need for in-theater bases could be lessened by the development of weapons such as the next-generation bomber and the Prompt Global Strike mission (which would allow Washington to strike distant targets over a short timespan), as well as intelligence reconnaissance surveillance assets and long-range cruise missiles. However, such weaponry will take years to develop, as will a comprehensive strategy employing the new U.S. military capabilities.
Ports and Air Bases
In the meantime, the U.S. military must rely on forces and capabilities designed to operate in the Western Pacific. Indeed, while the AirSea Battle concept focuses on the close coordination of naval and air assets, it does not eliminate the importance of ports and air bases across the operating environment.
The most prominent example of such a base is Okinawa's Kadena Air Base. Given the combat radius of the U.S. Air Force's tactical fleet, Kadena is the only air base from which U.S. forces can easily reach the Taiwan Strait. While the United States could launch aircraft from other air bases in Korea, Japan and Guam, such longer-range operations would require additional refueling aircraft. This need translates into lower payloads, lower sortie rates and increased congestion as large planes, such as early warning aircraft and aerial refueling aircraft, take up limited parking and hangar space. Constrained by distance, the U.S. military continues to place high value on regional bases, which allow Washington to pursue its interests under far more favorable logistical and operational conditions.
Presence is another important factor in the deployment of U.S. military forces in or near allied countries. Presence establishes alternative communication channels for the U.S. and its allies and affirms Washington's commitment to friendly countries. The long-term and largely symbolic troop deployment in South Korea highlights the importance of this strategy. While large enough to bolster the South Korean forces in some ways against the North Koreans, the U.S. troops are there primarily to ensure U.S. intervention if conflict erupts on the Korean Peninsula. Manila and Hanoi have also shown an increasing willingness to tolerate a U.S. military presence in their countries to better leverage themselves against a strengthening China.
As the United States refocuses its attention on the Western Pacific, U.S. military strategy will remain centered on maintaining and developing access to friendly ports and air bases. Increased access would provide Washington with the flexibility to project greater power to a specific point even as the bulk of U.S. forces come within striking range of China's arsenal.