By Douglas A. Borer and Shannon C. Houck
Since the mid-1970s, defending the Asia-Pacific Area of Responsibility has fallen primarily to the US Navy. Having no war to fight in theater since Korea and Vietnam, the conventional US Army and Marine Corp assumed a supporting role for intermittent troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, during the last twenty years, the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) have been highly active in the counter-terrorism fight throughout Asia while simultaneously building foreign partnership capacity across the region. Today, in late 2022, with the rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a Naval power, the conventional US Army, Marine Corps, and SOF must all show their relevance to the Navy-lead Joint Force as it prepares for a peer-to-peer fight with a PRC that now has more ships than the U.S. Distributed and networked land-based forces, mostly consisting of very small units, should be seen as platforms of integrated deterrence in the same manner that surface ships, submarines, and aircraft are viewed today.
‘Geography is destiny’ has driven military force planning for ages. On 7 December 1941, Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor, aiming to dismantle America’s power-projection capability in the Pacific. The attack succeeded in destroying what was then perceived the premier strategic warfighting platform: the battleship. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the main power projection platform was actually the aircraft carrier. Luckily, all the American carriers were at sea when the attack came. In the ‘war of platforms’ American industry simply overwhelmed the enemy, building over 100 carriers by end of the conflict. In comparison, Japan produced and lost 25 carriers before surrendering. This numerical imbalance, combined with similar ratios of airplanes and submarines (not to mention superior American intelligence and logistics) set the stage for the ultimate expression of superior American power: the two atomic bombs which ended the war on 2 September 1945. Aircraft carriers and submarines have since been the locus of American military strategy in the Pacific.
Fast forward to the present. On 14 April 2022, a tiny Ukrainian land-based military unit sank the Russian cruiser Moskva with a pair of land-based Neptune anti-ship missiles. The Neptune is a weapon produced by the Ukrainians by upgrading Soviet-era Kh-35 anti-ship missiles. The two missiles were launched from a TZM-360 transport truck combined with an RCP-360 mobile control vehicle. The Moskva was sunk despite being equipped with layered anti-missile defense systems. Reportedly, the Ukrainians distracted the Russians using a Turkish-built ‘Bayraktar’ drone – the same system that has been wreaking havoc on Russian armor, artillery, and other targets since the beginning of the war in February. The diversion may have worked, but a technical assessment is perhaps more persuasive in explaining the success of the strike. In sum, the Neptune flies too low the water for the radars of Russian anti-missiles missiles to easily detect, and it moves too fast for the AK-360 Close-In Cannon to effectively counter (very much like the US Navy’s Phalanx 20mm gatling gun). Bottom line: a pair of relatively low-cost land-based missiles destroyed the most advanced (and expensive) platform in the Russian Fleet. What does this mean for U.S. military operations in the INDOPACFIC? Are U.S. Navy surface platforms similarly vulnerable?
The short answer is: Yes. In wargame after wargame and exercise after exercise in the Western Pacific, Joint-Force commanders are forced to weigh their surface warfare platforms’ (e.g., carrier battle groups) likely survival against a growing arsenal of Chinese anti-ship missile systems and surface combatants that can disrupt the American kill chain. The kill chain is a process that occurs on the battlefield or wherever militaries compete. It involves understanding what is happening (intelligence); decision-making based on that intelligence; and taking actions that create desired effects (ranging from deterrence to destruction of enemy forces). While it is true that U.S. submarines are much less vulnerable than surface ships, the massive sunk cost in the surface fleet amounts to billions of dollars of investment – an investment which may rapidly go the way of the Moskova if war ever breaks out. The reality of their vulnerability was succinctly summarized by defense analyst Dr. Michael Noonan who referred to carriers as the “Fabergé eggs of the sea.” Noonan’s view is echoed in the best-selling book “The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare.” The author, Christian Brose, former senior policy advisor to Senator John McCain, argues that America is at grave risk of losing a future war because the PRC is already a peer, and one that possibly holds the advantage in the areas of artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, and other emerging technologies. Indeed, these new technological capabilities may be poised to overwhelm the existing platform-centric American operational model for defending the Western Pacific. Brose observes, “What will be so essential about these technologies, taken together, is that they will transform the entire kill chain – not just in how militaries act but also the character of their understanding and decision-making.”
As a result, US Admirals must be hyper-focused on any first strike actions against their platforms. This is even more salient because of the growing “math problem” for the American side. The PRC is building ships, aircraft and missiles at a rate that is rapidly outstripping America’s traditional numerical advantage. Thus, as each year progresses, there is a growing “platform imbalance.” Historically the U.S. maintained both a quality and quantity advantage. That is no longer the case.
One partial solution to the “math problem” is to rethink the potential deterrent capacity provided by elements of the US Army and Marine Corps. It has become widely known that Ukraine’s “surprise” success has been driven in part by ‘train, advise and assist’ efforts by the 10th Special Forces Group since 2014 (when Russia easily annexed the Crimea and occupied parts of the Donbas that are presently being contested by both sides). Likewise, conventional US Army and National Guard forces were deeply involved in training Ukrainians on weapons systems and battlefield maneuver prior to February 2022. Certainly, the Russians performed poorly during the first 100 days of the war due to chronic problems with training, logistics, equipment, and morale. However, those are the very same warfighting fundamentals that Ukraine has vastly improved on because of NATO assistance. In Asia, the basic “Ukraine Model” is one that 1st Special Forces Group has already been implementing in its Foreign Internal Defense (FID) activities for decades.
Furthermore, for several years the conventional Army has been developing a concept called Multi-Domain Operations, or MDO:
“MDO provides commanders numerous options for executing simultaneous and sequential operations using surprise and the rapid and continuous integration of capabilities across all domains to present multiple dilemmas to an adversary in order to gain physical and psychological advantages and influence and control over the operational environment.”
At its core, multi-domain operations are like playing chess on three boards at a time. It is highly complex and requires a significant amount of synchronization to achieve success. But because of the centrality of joint operations in MDO, the Army is a potential greater contributor to solving the Navy’s “math problem” than the Navy envisions today.
Likewise, the 38th Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger, is reshaping the Marine Corps to become lighter, more lethal, and focused on enabling the Naval Force alongside SOF. His Concept for Stand-in Forces (SIF), a describes a Marine Corps force that fill the gaps across the islands that SOF cannot cover:
“SIF are small but lethal, low signature, mobile, relatively simple to maintain and sustain forces designed to operate across the competition continuum within a contested area as the leading edge of a maritime defense-in-depth in order to intentionally disrupt the plans of a potential or actual adversary.”
At present the Marine Corps is still working to find the right balance of command, control, and mass required to meet the requirements of a small but lethal force. However, the fundamental weakness of these efforts is that both joint and combined (those with partners and allies) are largely a sideshow in American planning for war with China. Green Berets do not plan and train with Marines, who do not actively plan and train with the big Army and Air Force. Many American ground units cannot even communicate directly with the Navy and Airforce, and neither can American allies and partners. Ground forces are not presently a significant component of America’s deterrent posture.
Let’s get back to the basics. Deterrence has three elements: capability, credibility, and communication. In terms of naval capability, the historic US advantage is now gone. As a result, deterrent credibility is eroded. President Biden has publicly stated the US will defend Taiwan from China, but what can militaries do to make this communication more credible? Certainly, the American side could simply shift combat assets directly to Taiwan, similar to what we do in NATO. However, such an escalatory act might result in the very war it was meant to deter. The challenge here is how to improve deterrence without triggering war.
We suggest the forward deployment in the Pacific islands of a widely distributed network of micro-sized joint units. These units (3 or more personnel) would be equipped with a communications capability to gather and share intelligence and call down remote strikes, but also be armed with weapons like those being used in Ukraine to threaten enemy ships and combatants. The ideal make-up of these units is yet to be determined, but we imagine some combination of SOF and SIF would be logical. Collectively, a hundred or more such units would give the PRC something new to worry about, and deterrence is all about making the other side worry.
If war does break out, like Russia’s Moskva, many of America’s primary warfighting platforms will be destroyed. But if we think of aggregate SOF units dispersed across the Pacific as a human platform, then unlike a carrier, it is an unsinkable platform. Certainly, these island-based land forces can be struck as well, but their survivability is much higher than any capital ship.
Disclaimer: This paper is a scholarly expression of its authors. It does not represent the official viewpoint of the Naval Postgraduate School, US Navy or any other element of American Defense Department and Government.