Is There a Place for the U.S. Army in East Asia?

When most Americans think about conflict with China, they often envision legions of Chinese soldiers easily defeating the U.S. — if only by the sheer number of bodies they could throw into any war. (Unless you’re a Red Dawn type.) In reality, China currently threatens its region neighbors — Taiwan (of course), Vietnam, Japan and others — over territory. Largely, over a bunch of islands. So the obvious way the U.S. can help its regional partners stand up to China is air and naval assets, right? There’s not really any use for ground forces unless you were to foolishly attempt an incursion into mainland China, right? Well, Maj. Robert M. Chamberlain, an instructor of international relations in the social sciences department at the U.S. Military Academy, lays out a strategy for the land-based U.S. Army in East Asian conflicts.

“[M]any American allies in the region and many countries potentially threatened by Chinese power are islands. If China chooses to employ military threats against these states, the threat would almost certainly take the form of sea, air or missile attack. Traditionally, these have been the purview of our vast and powerful Navy and Air Force. But the trouble with relying on these services is that keeping enough air and sea power in the region to sink the Chinese navy or cripple the Chinese missile fleet is an inherently threatening and destabilizing force posture.

I propose that, rather than relying on our ability to achieve dominance in the air and on the sea to thwart potential Chinese military adventurism, America develop a land-based anti-access/area-denial capability of its own. This entails the expansion of theater missile defense initiatives, further development of the U.S. air defense capability, and investment in land-based anti-ship systems. All these capabilities, with the exception of some elements of missile defense, are currently met in Air-Sea Battle by the Air Force and the Navy. That means what the U.S. perceives as defending its allies, the Chinese could legitimately perceive as an expansion of power in the region. By contrast, land-based A2/AD systems are purely defensive. Once the attacker has been defeated (the planes driven off, the missiles shot down, the ships sunk, etc.), the system has no further capability. For example, a Joint Strike Fighter could shoot down incoming aircraft and then be re-armed to attack ground targets. The same is simply not true for land-based air defense.”

Essentially, he argues that the Air Force and Navy’s actions in the region are more destabilizing than the Army and Marines. Mainly because land forces in East Asia can be only defensive (as they are based on the contested islands or their mainlands) where the other branches are both defensive and offensive in the view of China. This is true, especially if, as he notes, there may be little need for actual basing of American soldiers in theater. Much can be achieved through cooperative military training, equipment transfers and sales and other means to support our allies with little need for soldiers on the ground.

He duly emphasizes our economic ties with China and the military’s job in ensuring our military posture in the region (even with the Pacific pivot) isn’t overtly threatening.

“The current obsession with the rise of China and the active debate about its implications for the world and the appropriate Western response have afflicted the American foreign policy establishment with an acute case of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, China’s growing military capacity and willingness to employ force or threats of force to resolve regional disputes is alarming and may indicate an armed confrontation is in the offing. On the other, China’s active participation in the global economy, substantial financial interests across the region, and heavy investments in the U.S. may indicate that it is essentially a status quo power more interested in wealth than conquest. The truth almost certainly lies somewhere in the middle and, thus, the appropriate American strategy is to prepare for war while encouraging trade. The challenge, then, is to ensure that the pursuit of one goal doesn’t inhibit the other.

. . .

The whole purpose of the strategy is to encourage China’s peaceful rise, underwrite regional stability, and firmly delink military and economic modes of competition and dispute.”

Obviously, you should read the entire piece, as it goes deeper in its explanation of his land-based strategy and critiques of Air-Sea Battle (which I still don’t completely understand). I mean, I understand it. But I don’t.

Two issues I want to note about the article are his assumptions that:

1. We can decouple military and economic relations with China. This is both a political and military issue. Political leaders need to look at our sources of funding (how much are the Chinese funding our military?), and military leaders have to ensure no moves occur that might threaten trade routes in the area. Decoupling is nice in theory, but I’m not certain how it works in reality — and getting back to realpolitik is Maj. Chamberlain’s overarching goal. Further, how involved is the Chinese military in that country’s  industrial and “commercial/private” sector?

2. He writes,

“I propose that, rather than relying on our ability to achieve dominance in the air and on the sea to thwart potential Chinese military adventurism, America develop a land-based anti-access/area-denial capability of its own. This entails the expansion of theater missile defense initiatives, further development of the U.S. air defense capability, and investment in land-based anti-ship systems.”

In this case, I’m wondering if he’s suggesting further investment in continually failing “Star Wars”-type programs or relying on fairly proven current and evolving technologies (like PATRIOTs, etc.). The latter I can understand, the former I’m highly wary of — especially if we’re trying to reign in spending.

3. We must be very careful about the number of ground troops deployed to the region. Our ability to rapidly deploy ground forces is itself a deterrent — and much more threatening if the soldiers are in your backyard and not halfway around the world. In this case, introducing the third leg of the table may cause it to topple over.

Those issues aside, I think his argument makes perfect sense. As a complement to air and naval forces in the region, land-based units definitely have a place in defending our allies from Chinese aggression.

 

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