China holds a major advantage over the United States in the great-power struggle for influence over the Pacific region.
It’s simple. China is closer than the United States is to the disputed territories of the China Seas.
“The U.S. military has a problem in the Western Pacific: the tyranny of distance and time,” analysts Thomas Mahnken, Travis Sharp, Billy Fabian and Peter Kouretsos, explain in their new study for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.
“Delivering military force across the vast Pacific Ocean has never been easy, even for a country as blessed in resources and ingenuity as the United States,” the analysts write in “Tightening the Chain: Implementing a Strategy of Maritime Pressure in the Western Pacific.” “The problem has worsened as America’s chief regional rival, China, has improved its ability to harm American interests quickly with limited forewarning.”
“American forces located outside the conflict area would have to penetrate China’s anti-access/area-denial network to restore the status quo ante, a daunting proposition.” Chinese forces would be particularly numerous and capable along the “first island chain” that stretches from Japan to The Philippines.
To blunt China’s advantage, Mahnken, Sharp, Fabian and Kouretsos recommend the Pentagon pursue “a military strategy of maritime pressure, which includes a new inside-out defense operational concept.”
“The strategy of maritime pressure aims to persuade Chinese leaders that attempting military aggression in the Western Pacific will fail, thus discouraging them from trying it. The strategy gives the [People’s Liberation Army] a taste of its own A2/AD medicine, improving America’s prospects in both peace and war.”
Some troops -- in particular, U.S. Army and Marine forces with mobile rocket launchers, supported by a few U.S. Navy ships and small contingents of U.S. Air Force warplanes -- would hunker down on and around islands near China, preparing to hit Chinese troops from inside China’s own expanding lines.
“Implementing this inside-out defense concept will require some U.S. forces to operate and survive within range of Chinese missiles,” the analysts note. “This forward posture would differ from the current expeditionary model focused on marshaling massive combat power and then gaining dominance in all domains before counterattacking decisively.”
Land-based strike forces deployed along the first island chain would anchor the defense against a Chinese attack. Upon warning, the forces would move to pre-selected, dispersed positions after potentially linking up with pre-positioned equipment.
Forward-based air forces would disperse to expeditionary airfields under new adaptive basing concepts. Naval forces would sortie to locations behind the first island chain or hug the coastlines to reduce their signatures.
Using land-based forces to contest Chinese offensive operations will free up U.S. surface ships and aircraft to perform higher-priority tasks, such as striking critical nodes in China’s surveillance and sustainment systems.
The ships and aircraft could operate from the less-threatening environs beyond the first island chain. They would plug gaps in forward defenses and exploit opportunities created by land-based strike networks.
Coordinated properly, the joint force could achieve the virtues of mass without the vulnerabilities of concentration by spreading its combat power over many smaller points of operation rather than focusing it in a few bigger bases.
Not coincidentally, the Pentagon already is preparing to implement a strategy similar to the one Mahnken, Sharp, Fabian and Kouretsos recommend.
The Army and Marines both are acquiring mobile anti-ship missiles. The Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force are training to disperse small groups of warplanes to many small island airfields. The Navy is acquiring small robotic warships that could be ideal for risky coastal missions.
The potential consequences are serious if the United States doesn’t prepare a strategy for countering China’s geographic advantage, the analysts stress. “The United States must discourage the Chinese leadership from believing it can initiate a local conflict in the Western Pacific and prevail quickly on favorable terms.”