At the recent Singapore Airshow, and at the Asia Pacific Security Conference that preceded it, the message was clear: China is rising, flexing its muscles — including the outrageous declaration of a South China Sea air defense identification zone — along with its territorial and exclusive economic zone claims, and every nation in the region or with interests in the region is struggling to figure out what to do about it.
The defense industry smells the blood in the water, and the sharks are zeroing in on the opportunities. These opportunities are not novel for the region, but for the West, their lack of historical and cultural perspective creates the illusion of the dawn of a new era.
The ill-conceived, poorly defined “pivot to Asia” announced by the Obama administration has fostered this illusion. Senior officials and military officers with whom I meet in other regions wonder if the US still cares about their countries and regions; (in recent weeks, Mr. Putin appears to be among them). The defense industry and US government, ought to be concerned about the ramifications of that.
The North Korean threat has been present for more than 60 years. Concerns about piracy and avenues for transnational terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, and components thereof, have been with us for quite some time. Does anybody remember President George W. Bush’s innovative Proliferation Security Initiative? (Still in effect, by the way).
The proliferation in the region of submarines with a variety of capabilities has been a concern for many years.
China’s seemingly undisciplined, irresponsible exercise of military power backing specious territorial and airspace claims justifies stronger alliances and partnerships, and attendant interoperable capabilities.
The intensity of the regional threat environment is exacerbated by an atavistic fear of a resurgent and belligerent Japan. However, Japan’s chest-thumping is not new. The revised US-Japan Defense Guidelines of 1998 were a major step along the road to a more outward military posture.
But the Asian long view of history, which encompasses hundreds of years, makes China the entity of most concern.
While the defense industry would be wise not to put all of its chips in one region, the Asia feeding frenzy is based on real need, hence, real opportunity. But due caution is required to ensure the hooks are not baited with unattainable capabilities. Key opportunities, with caveats, include:
ISR: The need for advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities is universally acknowledged. But these must be interoperable, that is, the data must be capable of being shared.
The quest for remotely piloted aircraft has accelerated exponentially. The US has finally made some steps forward in terms of releasability, but more must be done. Why, to note a stark example, should certain partner nations be prohibited from having an unarmed Global Hawk, because under the Missile Technology Control Regime, this platform is classified as a cruise missile?
MPA: The maritime patrol air capability is closely linked to ISR. Not all nations can afford the Boeing P-8 Poseidon, which is being acquired by the US and Australia. There is no one-size-fits all solution; the gamut of platforms to do the job runs from rotary-wing to large jet aircraft.
Fighter jets: The F-35 is/should be/will be the system of choice for those who can afford it. Meantime, many of our F-16-operating partners are facing the termination of the US Air Force’s F-16 Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite program. It is in our best interest and is, indeed, our obligation to take the lead in defining programs that give our partners the most affordable options to meet their F-16 extended capability needs.
Submarines: Every submariner (I am one) knows that the best platform to counter a submarine is another, more capable submarine. The region is predominantly focused on the South China Sea, with good reason, but I worry about our myopic tendencies. If we allow it, growing Chinese naval power will make the Indian Ocean a Chinese lake. Capable submarines, operated by the US and such partners as Australia, are essential.
Mobility: While not as alluring, there also is a continuing need for appropriate mobility platforms in this region that is so prone to natural and, hence, humanitarian disasters. There are opportunities for new aircraft, such as Airbus Military’s C295 and Alenia Aermacchi’s C-27J cargo planes, but refurbishment of retired US C-130s should be a growth industry.
The above is just a sampling of the menu, and the sharks are indeed lining up at the table. US leadership is mandatory to ensure execution, including expanded releasability, in concert with well-stated US government objectives. Success will contribute to regional security rather than create additional instability. But caution is necessary, lest the feeding frenzy devolves into chaos. ■
Bruce Lemkin, president of consulting firm Lemkin International. He served as deputy undersecretary of the US Air Force (for international affairs) from 2003 to 2010.