The renowned nineteenth-century author Robert Louis Stevenson, during his 1888 voyage across the Pacific, penned these words:
“The vessel plowed her path of snow across the empty deep,
far from all track of commerce,
far from any hand of help.”
Fitting words back then, perhaps still fitting today. Long forgotten or ignored by America, the key to a friendly and renewed access to these far flung Pacific island states is in the soft-stepping approach of a light footprint. And building soccer fields can provide just that footprint—one with a potential that touches on humanitarian and hard-security concerns as much as on sports.
At first glance the Pacific appears vast and remote, yet upon further scrutiny, one can make out the myriad of islands that populate the world’s largest body of water—especially south of the equator.
And not far off from those pioneer days of early aviation, one remembers reading about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra searching in vain for a small speck of sand in the Gilbert Islands.
One can also appreciate the vision of Pan American’s founder, Juan Trippe. He had the gall to navigate over the empty reaches of the Pacific in the mid-1930s when he launched his fleet of China Clipper flying boats, where great distance and lack of suitable landing fields prohibited the use of conventional transport aircraft. Here, planes found refuge in their boat hulls as they flew and floated from San Francisco to Hawaii and beyond, hopping from one island to the next, all the way to the Far East.
It is not surprising that Pan Am’s refueling bases became vicious and contested battlegrounds during the opening salvos of our entry into the Second World War—as evidence by Imperial Japan's appetite for Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines, followed by a close call at Midway.
Then came a brutal six-month defense of the Australian life-line to America. A long and winding sea-lock of logistics was anchored, island by island, across the South Pacific, culminating at the tip of the spear—the place we would stop Japan's territorial grab—Guadalcanal. Turn-of-the-century adventure writer Jack London, wrote a short story, “The Terrible Solomons,” in which he articulated the harsh aura of this rock rising out of the Coral Sea:
“It is true that fever and dysentery are perpetually on the walk-about, that loathsome skin diseases abound, that the air is saturated with a poison that bites into every pore, cut, or abrasion and plants malignant ulcers, and that many strong men who escape dying there return as wrecks to their own countries.”
The Guadalcanal campaign started as an emergency stopgap, but became a nasty and desperate struggle for a threadbare airstrip dug out of the steaming jungle. One can only imagine the island native, hiding in the cool shade of a palm tree as he witnessed the heavy trod of thousands of U.S. combat boots as they pounded ashore, followed by the arrival of endless convoys anchoring in the bay—smoke belching from funnels set upon steel hulls and the constant drone of warbirds soaring above his village.
Soon stockpiles of weapons and equipment were deposited on the beach, hauled, stacked and inventoried in newly erected warehouses. Roads, ramps and runways were carved out of coral, all preparatory to the coming reconquest of the Pacific—a blueprint to be repeated painstakingly, over and over again, then cleverly termed the “island-hopping campaign” of World War II.
Novelist and ex-Navy man James Michener aptly described our American journey through a tropical and logistical labyrinth in his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Tales of the South Pacific.
Though the battles were few and far between, and not every isle or atoll witnessed hostile action, the supply chain certainly left its indelible mark on most—for it usually takes seventy pounds per man per day (an ancient calculus from Caesar's legions) and a train of at least ten men in the rear to keep one combatant at the front. As territory was conquered or retaken, and fighting advanced toward Japan, there would be a sudden drawdown (perhaps a small contingent to look after what was left behind) on whatever island was until then the key facility.
This operational order was routinely scripted and redundantly rewritten, then slung from island to archipelago, until the plan was abandoned entirely when the war ended, the half-buried dead and the rusted detritus of close combat as monuments to our just cause. At least the Australians were prescient enough to install the “Coastwatchers” network in their neighborhood as early as the late 1930s, keeping their hand in the game ever since.
During the Cold War, we further abused our welcome with atomic testing (woe betide the people of Bikini Atoll), something the French still seem keen to pursue. Nowadays we pay minimal lip service to our Pacific cousins, and not much more.
But for us, such extreme negligence has left the United States government with minimal, at best, to poor relations with these far-flung island nations, though to be sure some trade and tourism is promoted, with some islands better at it than others. And with the newly enlarged Panama Canal, the shipping lanes will shift down, and pass heavily through the southern seas again.
Enter the twenty-first century, and with it the age of realpolitik. The United States and NATO have been preoccupied with fighting Islamic terrorism; one shall not mention Iraq, but certainly the Arab Spring, Syria, Ukraine and Iran are worth noting—even North Korea. The old Russian bear has been prodded and poked awake by the raucous and irksome “color revolutions,” and is now rummaging for scraps outside his cave. So it is understandable to wonder where we stand in the Pacific region, despite the oft-cited “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia.
But what about China's rapid reemergence as a great power—a hundred years of humiliation, a horrid and hurtful history of maltreatment by the great colonial powers of Europe, Japan, Russia and America? What about China? After all, we trade with them! We owe them lots of money! They espouse a peaceful rise!
To be fair, one can see China's point of view. One might remember reading about Mussolini, ranting to his people that Italy is an island trapped inside a bathtub, her ships blocked from entering the open sea by the British Navy at Gibraltar and Suez.
So if one were to scan deeply out from China’s coastline, one would realize just how hemmed-in it is from what is called the “First Island Chain”—an iron link from Japan, south along Taiwan's western shore, coupling the Philippines, then wrapping around Indonesia and ending at the choke point passing through the straits of Malacca, where free access to the open oceans is limited by U.S. bases and allies along this seaward barricade.
But while we have ignored the soft underbelly of the Pacific, one can be assured that China and other rivals have not. A quick search on Google will reveal articles of their interest, investment and trade with many Pacific island nations —a Chinese satellite tracking station on Tarawa? Russian military advisors in Fiji, bearing a cache of secret weapons?
To reinforce this point, great power aficionado John Mearsheimer wrote an influential essay entitled Why China's Rise Will Not Be Peaceful.
Some stories go so far as to suggest that anti-Chinese riots (in 2006 and 2014) in Guadalcanal’s so-called Chinatown gave rise to the rumor that the Chinese navy would engage in gunboat diplomacy to quell the unrest—a completely rational response to protecting their citizens abroad, as the United States has also done. But then what? A permanent posting of Chinese ships and naval bases?
Peter Navarro, in his pull-no-punches detective story Crouching Tiger, asks the troubling question of whether Chinese ballistic missiles are capable of striking American cities, not only on the West Coast but deeper inland, to places like Chicago, Washington, New York, Atlanta, Miami or Dallas. How would this be accomplished?
Perhaps it would partly be achieved by Chinese submarines slipping through our soft underbelly in the South Pacific. Yet Naval War College professor James Holmes regards antisubmarine warfare capability as “an advantage that will prove durable for the United States for quite some time to come.”
It couldn’t hurt to have a (passive) sonar presence in the Marshall Islands, or New Hebrides. So, for the United States, a return to mutually beneficial relations will require a tender and friendly touch—no need for gunboat diplomacy. No need to occupy ground. Furthermore, this approach needs to be genuine and heartfelt. Sure, there are strategic interests at stake, and the status quo will be challenged, but an open and honest dialogue weighing the pros and cons of our interest and support should be beneficial.
Although U.S. commitments overseas will likely continue to increase into the twenty-first century, it appears inevitable that our abilities to meet those demands will decrease in deployable assets and manpower, due to deep budget deficits and constraints. With that, one must look for more economical means to both address support for our neighbors overseas and to balance our big budgets. So what can we do—rapidly, and without great strain on the national treasury to help our friends in time of crisis?
In short: soccer fields. Yes, soccer fields—lots of them. A vast fleet of unsinkable and inexpensive “ships” (island bases) that will ensure entry, invited or otherwise, and would thus provide a ready-made receiving area for the quick introduction of assistance and vital supplies to the affected areas of a disaster.
Or else, for the quick interdiction of Marines armed with antiship missiles. Toshi Yoshihara, author of Red Star over the Pacific, advocates that we play the Chinese at their own game by denying them access to the Pacific. Large, flat and firm, not to mention numerous, every fútbol field in the Pacific needs to be mapped, charted and logged into a database for immediate cross-referencing.
Enter now the successful deployment of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey—true, to many, a more fitting sobriquet might have been to call the accident-prone aircraft an Albatross. But it would appear now that this enduring curse has lifted like a fog, the ship's crew once again happy comrades, as in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
“The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.”
With a new lease on life, the V-22 Osprey has spread its wings and has soared into battle as well as disaster relief, and has acquitted itself nicely. This peculiar bird is a hybrid: part helicopter, part airplane. With a range of over a thousand miles, the ability to touch down without an airstrip, fly above bad weather and carry heavier load capabilities, it is once again possible to island hop across the Pacific. Perhaps they could conduct rapid response to natural disasters or emergency medical evacuations, rescue a besieged consulate or, in extremis, bring troops to the battlefield in a war.
As that old military adage warns: “Tactics are for amateurs, logistics are for professionals.”
The combination of the enhanced capabilities of the V-22 and the use of existing and/or retrofitted soccer arenas to accommodate their speedy deployment would be one possible answer to a quick and effective response—no extensive naval fleet necessary. In addition to charting approach routes and securing local government cooperation in the planning and conducting of biannual drills, it should be noted that the South Pacific has an established tradition of hosting sporting tournaments, centered around soccer, known as the Pacific Games. A firm understanding of this athletic circuit, occurring every four years at a different island locale, will greatly assist in the planning of any future deployments.
A further extension of the concept (and budget) would be to design and construct new, state-of-the art sports facilities to replace existing fields where possible. This will greatly enhance the safety and logistical throughput of any future visits, along with building good will among the local populace.
Revenue from such projects (using local labor where possible) will help stimulate struggling island economies without the side effects of heavy footprints from American occupation. “No bases, just places” should be our mantra—or better yet, “speak softly, and assume that everyone already knows you have a big stick.”
Sports arenas should be designed to accommodate aircraft parking revetments by the quick storage of removable bleacher seats. The support walls for the bleachers would act as blast shields to protect aircraft from the elements, as well as limiting the damage of any explosion or refueling mishap. High-tech wireless and wiring redundancies should be installed (with a “plug-and-play” capability) to enhance the ability of the press booth to handle a mobile air traffic control unit for the safe and speedy arrival and departure of helicopters and/or tilt-rotor aircraft, such as the Osprey. A short runway extension from the parking lot could handle a C-130 Hercules transport, a master hauler of the short field landing, or the vertical-liftoff F-35B (but that would be more fang than friend).
A large video screen with a robust audio speaker system should be used to communicate critical information to first responders and refugees. Modern concession stands could be used to accommodate the hydration and feeding of thousands. Laying out the necessary space for temporary installation of a state-of-the-art medical facility would also be advisable. Locker rooms could be used to accommodate air and ground crews. Proper ventilation and drainage studies would be needed to appreciate the heavy signature of the V-22, along with absorbing the wind wash. A logistical train required for effective deployment and remote field maintenance would be assumed.
Pre-positioned fuel tanks and spare parts bins beneath parking lots could provide some additional measure of safety when dealing with refueling operations and field repair. Large and locked gates could secure and monitor traffic into and out of the arena, and would facilitate the ease of access for large wheeled supply vehicles—think of the arena in the film Black Hawk Down.
One simple and single converted merchant ship would provide the Navy, Marines or even the Coast Guard with the necessary landing pad and logistics to service a pair of Ospreys. The military might even consider loaning the Coast Guard a few Marine Corps Ospreys (paint them in red and white Coast Guard colors) and use Marine pilots for a short rotational tour in the U.S. Pacific Territories. And why not give those guys and gals at the Fish and Wildlife Service an edge in catching those pesky poachers?
The State Department can pitch in and provide a mobile embassy with consular services aboard, as well as large sick bay where medical NGOs are able to operate. And FEMA can allocate an agent to survey the islands to establish disaster-relief protocols with the locals—using those soccer fields, if need be.
A feasibility study should be granted, to ensure that all problems are vetted and all opportunities explored. But at minimum, an island-hopping endurance flight of Ospreys from American Samoa to Darwin (passing out candy and Zika medical supplies along the way) will go a long way to demonstrate our commitment to the area.
Long-seasoned China wonk Michael Pillsbury admitted he was wrong about China’s peaceful rise. The sudden and illegal island reclamation from reefs in the South China Sea supports this thesis. And a recently retired and outspoken naval intelligence officer for the Pacific fleet, Capt. James Fanell, infamously remarked “I told you so” regarding China's naval aggression in the East and South China Seas, along with the troubling declaration of an Air Defense Zone in the east, followed by one soon to be declared to the south.
So while we make obscene gestures and dig trenches along the Nine- (or Ten)-Dash Line, we concern ourselves almost completely with holding the First Island Chain. Let’s not also forget the second and third, while lending a helping hand to our forgotten island allies of World War II.
JG Randall is a former Marine. He is currently a stockbroker.