Meanwhile, the U.S. armed forces have embraced the U.S. Marine Corps’ emerging concept of expeditionary advanced base operations, which envisions small bodies of missile-armed troops flitting from island to island in winsome amphibious craft. Controlling turf is a worthy goal in its own right, but marine commanders mainly anticipate using islands as firing platforms for mobile anti-ship and anti-air weaponry. Nimble amphibious forces will be hard to uproot from their island bastions even as they make things tough on hostile forces that dare to come within reach.
Japanese and U.S. amphibious services, then, have put forward like-minded warfare concepts and started putting them into practical effect. They commenced practicing techniques for combined amphibious operations long before Keen Sword 21. In fact, a boat unit from the JSDF Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade embarked with the USS America expeditionary strike group for maneuvers in the Philippine Sea last February, before the madness that is coronavirus set in.
The upshot is this: the allies seem to have in mind not a standing presence on the Senkakus, let alone a permanent base, but the capability to land there in a hurry, establish potent defenses and defy a PLA that is not especially well versed in amphibian combat to evict them. There are pros and cons to such a come-and-go scheme. One hopes Tokyo and Washington have agreed on triggers that should set it in motion. Otherwise, they could flounder while negotiating in a moment of crisis—and unwittingly grant the PLA the time to purloin and consolidate its island redoubt.
Let’s invite the ghost of Helmuth von Moltke to U.S.-Japanese councils of war.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. His books have been named to the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Indo-Pacific Command professional reading lists. The views voiced here are his alone.
This article was first published last year and is being reposted due to reader interest.