At Attention: The US Navy's Arleigh Burke-class destroyer McCampbell enters port at Commander Fleet Activities Okinawa. The US plans to base more ships in the region. (US Navy)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is looking at new ways to disperse its forces throughout the Asia-Pacific as military planners explore alternatives to the large US super bases in the region vulnerable to cruise missile strikes.
Instead, the Defense Department is reviewing a host of options, including ways to operate combat aircraft in austere locations and strengthening overseas bases.
“I think we ... need to figure out better ways to defeat the enemy’s precision strike,” David Ochmanek, US deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development, said during a March presentation at a Precision Strike Association conference.
“Planners worry about what happens to our forward-based forces when they’re inside the threat range from ballistic missiles and cruise missiles if those weapons are accurate and if they’re deliverable in large numbers,” he said.
The US military has spent the past two years rebalancing its forces toward the Asia-Pacific region as China’s military grows. US officials maintain that the focus on the region is not the Chinese; however, senior defense officials have spent a significant amount of time in the region making military pacts with countries, including Australia and Singapore, to host American troops on a rotational basis.
At the same time, China has been developing a medium-range anti-ship missile, the DF-21D, which could target ships more than 900 miles off its coast.
For years, the US has not had to worry greatly about long-range attacks on its overseas bases. Over time, DoD has consolidated facilities, creating major hubs in Guam, Japan and South Korea in the Pacific, as well as across the Middle East and Europe.
Now, as potential adversaries develop more precise, mid- to long-range weapons, the US should consider spreading out its forces, particularly in the Pacific and Middle East, said Mark Gunzinger, a retired US Air Force colonel and analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“As we look to the future and we think about what our competitors are doing, we’re going to need to come up with a different posture, certainly in the Pacific and ... in other regions,” Gunzinger said.
“We need a more diversifying basing posture in peacetime to reduce the potential of an unwarned attack to bolster our military posture in the Pacific,” he said.
Analysis has shown “promising results” from “dispersing the force more radically,” Ochmanek said.
“We’ve gotten used to basing the force very efficiently — 72, 100, 144 airplanes concentrated on a single forward base,” he said. “That’s going to be a very lucrative target, hard to defend against an … attack.”
Spreading those aircraft out across a dozen bases, further diversifying assets within those bases and selected hardening of facilities is also important, particularly since ballistic and cruise missiles have limited impact points, Ochmanek said.
“That’s going to take some investment, but I think if we do it smart, we can ... get on the right side of that cost exchange curve,” he said.
Hardening could prove useful — particularly in Guam — but it’s expensive, Gunzinger said.
“While hardening is part of the answer, we simply can’t afford to harden everything at our main operating bases,” he said.
Hardening typically involves building bunkers, using reinforced concrete structures or shielding computer equipment from an electromagnetic pulse.
Ochmanek noted that it costs a lot to shoot down a ballistic missile compared to the cost of building a new missile.
“We need to keep ... trying to find more affordable ways to provide an effective defense,” he said.
The Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) says DoD will enhance capabilities by dispersing “land-based and naval expeditionary forces to other bases and operating sites, providing the ability to operate and maintain front-line combat aircraft from austere bases while using only a small complement of logistical and support personnel and equipment.”
“A more resilient posture in the Pacific will be some hardening ... and diversifying of our basing posture, so we’re not as reliant as we are today on a relative handful of main operating bases,” Gunzinger said.
Spreading out forces complicates the planning of competitors in the region, Gunzinger said.
“They would have to attack many different locations because they don’t know where our forces are because we’ve dispersed,” Gunzinger said. “When you complicate an enemy’s planning, that enhances your deterrence posture.”
Views of the US policy in the region vary, said Patrick Cronin, senior director, Asia-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security.
“In general, there is a concern that the United States may be less reliable as a stabilizing or balancing force in the region. Partly this is a perception based on continuing economic and budget problems, and partly it is a perception of deliberate US policy designed to rebuild after a decade of two protracted ground wars,” he said.
“The United States is seeking to avoid costly engagements so that it can invest in future capabilities. By seeking to invest more in future innovation, however, the United States is in effect looking to allies and partners to shoulder greater burdens, particularly for their own defense. Others are waiting to see if the Trans-Pacific Partnership comes to fruition, because it more than any other single action will help shape opinions in the region about the comprehensive nature of US rebalancing policy.”
The QDR strategy document, which is updated every four years, also says DoD will invest in rapid airfield repair capabilities and buy fuel bladders “to ensure survivability of supplies.”
The US could build new main operating bases; however, that would be an expensive endeavor at a time when the Pentagon’s budget is contracting.
“I think a better approach might be to invest in some facilities that are owned by the various host nations,” Gunzinger said.
DoD could upgrade military bases or civilian airfields in the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, Japan and other locations, “so we would be able to operate out of them if necessary and we wouldn’t have to create a new base from scratch,” he said. “[W]e would have equipment there prepositioned so we could deploy to it and operate with our allies and partners in the region.”
In peacetime, the US could hold exercises with those host nations.
Regardless of basing, DoD must also ensure that its force is mobile enough to fight in the vast Pacific region, particularly since there is no NATO-fighting structure.
“There’s such a divide technically, operationally and culturally between us that we have to be able to take all of our operations mobile and network them,” said Greg Glaros, a career naval strategist who now runs a small defense company in Virginia.
Sharing information during a Pacific war would be difficult, particularly since many regional nations have limited capabilities.
The multinational search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — the commercial airliner that disappeared presumably into the Indian Ocean on a flight between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing in March — has shown the technical, operational and cultural divide that exists among Southeast Asian countries, even when they are working for a common goal, Glaros said.
“Stop trying to secure your bases, and start to make your operations mobile and figure out how you’re going to be able to network that information and remove latency and reduce your ambiguity,” he said. ■