Recent Adjustments in U.S. Military Deployments in Asia-Pacific

Recent Adjustments in U.S. Military Deployments in Asia-Pacific

Introduction

Following the 2020 Taiwan Presidential Election, the world has been suffering the impact of non-conventional threats. Interaction between nations, economic or diplomatic, has come to a standstill because of the outbreak of the COVID-19 Pandemic. China and the U.S., among the most seriously affected countries, are no exceptions. Despite that, the two countries do not slacken their show of force against each other, with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launching a string of drills in the Western Pacific region while the U.S. military making some new strategic adjustments for the region. All these developments only make the Asia-Pacific region remain a place with turbulent undercurrents running against each other. 

Post-pandemic Asia-Pacific Situation

After Donald Trump took office as U.S. President, relations between the U.S. and China have been strained most of the time but the two sides still follow the rule of “fighting without breaking” and are thus able to avoid a full-scale military confrontation. Despite the trade war and war of words between them, especially their differences over the long-running Hong Kong protests starting in June 2019, the two countries still continue engaging with each other through dialogue and negotiation. However, antagonizing the other side militarily and politically remains the “main characteristic” of recent Sino-U.S. interaction. The outbreak of the COVID-19 Pandemic has further deepened inherent conflicts between the two countries. These conflicts, in the wake of recent U.S. military deployment adjustments and the PLA’s corresponding responses, have gradually been turned from war of words between leaders of the two countries into concrete military moves.

Right after the 2020 Taiwan Presidential Election, the PLA, in a departure from its normal practice at a juncture of the kind, started to actively enhance its readiness for war and military exercises. Its dispatch of Liaoning carrier-led naval ships to conduct “far-sea long-voyage” missions in sea areas surrounding Taiwan after the Lunar New Year period sparked much discussion. In its editorial entitled “As the world enters an eventful year, Taiwan should take care” on April 10, 2020, China’s Global Times sent a clear message to Taiwan by referring to this famous quote “Don’t say I didn’t warn you” in the conclusion. The same quote had been used by the Chinese media several times before, all prior to the start of a war, such as the 1969 Sino-Soviet Border Conflict (Zhenboa Island Incident), the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. It represents an ultimatum. Notably, as the U.S. military suffers a temporary drop in combat strength because of sailors infected with the virus, whether the PLA will take advantage of the occasion to take action is something we are worried about.

Notwithstanding the confirmed cases of infection, the U.S. military has demonstrated its prowess in the Asia Pacific region by a series of moves starting after the Lunar New Year period, ranging from naval ships cruising through the Taiwan Strait, drills in the South China Sea, to B-52 bombers and electronic reconnaissance planes flying to the vicinity of Taiwan. These moves have certainly prompted responses from China. As a result of the confirmed cases of infection, some U.S. naval ships, especially aircraft carriers, were unable to operate normally. However, according to our current projection for the most possible form of conflict between China and the U.S., aircraft carriers are no longer a decisive factor. And some infected sailors got the infection after disembarking, not likely to result in cluster infections on board. Under such circumstances, combat strength of a ship could be restored quickly. Moreover, the U.S. military has changed a lot in its mode of operations at sea, capable of posing a considerable threat to the PLA with its underwater forces (like submarines) or shore-based strike power (like land-based anti-ship missiles), the performance of which is based on data links with allies (like Japan and Australia). It means that even if U.S. carriers suffer a temporary drop in combat power because of the pandemic, it is too subjective to consider the U.S. military will create a power vacuum for the PLA to take advantage of. 

U.S. Military Deployments in Asia Pacific

U.S. military deployments in the Asia Pacific region are directly related to advances in military technology. The U.S. still maintains its Freedom of Navigation operations as part of its continued concern for the Indo-Pacific region. Starting from 2019, it has responded to China’s combined use of coast guard ships and maritime militia vessels by sending coast guard cutters to escort U.S. naval ships cruising in waters surrounding China, forming a so-called “high-low-mix.” It is aimed as a flexible response to China’ s diversified use of all armed elements available so that a head-on confrontation with China’s armed forces can be avoided. These moves have effectively achieved the effects of “national flag display” and “gunboat diplomacy,” but they tend to have “diminishing marginal utility” after having been used against China for too many times. It is especially because China now sends ships and electronic reconnaissance planes to follow U.S. warships passing through the region. Sometimes first-line commanders may make wrong judgments because of varying conditions at sea, likely to spark a conflict accidentally. Oceanographic conditions are always a great challenge to seafarers of all countries. Therefore for the U.S. military, passing through the Taiwan Strait has limited effects. In recent months, U.S. naval ships have passed through the Strait in a high-profile manner, which included making their passage known to the public through the Internet and media or turning on automatic identification signals. It is meant to intimidate China through a combined use of tangible and intangible means and to serve as a “reassurance” to U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific.

It should be noted that the U.S., besides dispatching naval ships to the Asia Pacific region, also conducts joint military exercises with allies in the region and maintains constant military exchanges with them. The aim is to form a new “containment” strategy toward China and prompt U.S. allies in the region to bring into play their “regional defense” functions, which can not only reduce the number of troops the U.S. needs to deploy but also effectively save defense expenditure for the U.S. Many military drills originally scheduled for 2020 have been cancelled due to the pandemic. However, quite a few exercises held in the second half of 2019 serve as examples that show the development mentioned above is already underway. In the middle of October 2019, for example, the U.S., the Philippines, and Japan jointly launched an exercise in the South China Sea, which included some common types of maneuver and, most importantly, amphibious landing drills. The content of the exercise showed that it was meant as a response to a potential armed conflict in the South China Sea. A joint military exercise between the U.S., the Philippines and Japan in May 2019 and the many military cooperation programs between the U.S. and Australia in recent years are all part of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” of the U.S. The U.S. has been emphasizing its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” but the precondition for it is assured military security. It is the reason why the U.S. holds joint military exercises with countries in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Links to U.S. Military’s Operational Systems and Joint Exercises

As a matter of fact, traditional joint military exercises, besides serving military cooperation purposes, are mainly intended to strengthen ties between allies and their diplomatic interaction. Although some joint exercises carry more diplomatic meanings than military ones, they are still significant from a military perspective. This has something to do with some new types of war that the U.S. is getting itself ready for.

In the third offset strategy that the U.S. came up with in 2014, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), cyber warfare, network-centric warfare that goes through systems, and application of new technology like space technology to the battlefield are singled out as ways to deal with global changes. Under the guide of this strategy, different services of the U.S. military have developed their own unique strike modes, such as Penetrating Counter Air of the air force, Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air and Distributed Lethality Concept of the navy, and Multi-Domain Battle of the army. These new concepts will produce new types of war for the U.S. military in the future. Technology and information are to be integrated in a better way so as to win next-generation war with technological superiority. Similar ideas have been put into practice in the joint military exercises that the U.S. held with allies in recent years.

The evolution of war types and the integration of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance systems have turned the former coordination between services into joint operations between them. An effective integration of all military forces, ranging from army, air force, navy to electronic warfare elements, will ensure a victory by moving ahead of the enemy. Therefore, how to effectively integrate our own forces and even promote cooperation with allies may be more important than matching the opponent in quantity. The U.S. now relies on its joint operations systems based on advanced reconnaissance and surveillance systems. In the event of war, the U.S. does not need to have a physical presence on the battlefield. It just needs to send target information gathered from its systems to friendly troops who can launch precision strikes as long as they get the information sent from the U.S. through data links. Similar concepts of operations have been put to the test in the U.S.-led 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise.

In the 2018 RIMPAC Exercise, the U.S. military demonstrated its Multi-Domain Battle capability, which lies in forming a Multi-Domain Task Force made up of forces from different services, a task grouping based on mission demands. The task force may even involve troops of allies. In the exercise, the U.S. military worked jointly with its Australian counterpart, with an Australian E-8A providing target information to High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARs) of the U.S. Army and land-based anti-ship missile units of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force (JGSDF), which launched missiles against targets while U.S. submarines also fired torpedoes and anti-ship missiles to ensure destruction of the targets. In the “Orient Shield” Exercise between U.S. Army and JGSDF in September 2019, the concept of Multi-Domain Battle was realized in the form of a combination of land-based artillery and shore-based anti-ship missiles.

It means that in a potential armed conflict in the region in the future, the U.S. does not need to maintain a physical presence. It just needs to ensure that operational systems of allies can support each other to achieve combat purposes. Of course, allies also need to upgrade their operational systems and platforms to be able to link to the U.S. military. New concepts of operations shall be needed to accomplish the objectives mentioned above. 

Recent U.S. Military Deployments in Asia-Pacific

The U.S. military now demonstrates its strength by a frequent presence in the Asia-Pacific region, a move starting since February 2020. The actual number of troops that the U.S. military can deploy for the moment may drop down a little bit because of the pandemic, but in terms of integration of new technology-enabled operation systems of allies, the U.S. has taken a step further, leading to an increase in fire projection. After all, there is no need for the U.S. to occupy China, let alone have a total war with the PLA. On the part of China, the strategic goal is just to safeguard its interests in the Asia-Pacific region, with no intention to defeat the U.S. at all. Chinese President Xi Jinping had even said, “The Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate two countries.” Therefore, on the part of the U.S., the goal is to achieve “offshore balancing” through fire projection at a low cost and curb the PLA’s force projection in a way that the PLA can not easily cross the First Island Chain into the Pacific Ocean.

Nevertheless, the PLA’s growing strength, as seen from the various kinds of medium-range ballistic missiles that the Rocket Force has in its inventory, may not be enough for the PLA to launch a strike against U.S. carriers, but still quite enough if the targets are U.S. bases on Guam or in Japan. It is the reason why the U.S. military starts moving some units backwards. After all, the U.S. military has been transformed to transcend the Cold War-era strategy that sought to intimidate the enemy through forward deployment of troops to offshore bases. Instead, highly-mobile small units, which are rapid reaction forces with high-tech equipment and strong fire power, have become the replacement. Therefore, the newest strategic adjustments of the U.S. military demonstrate this mode of thinking: There is no need to place troops in forward bases likely to suffer first waves of attacks and it is better to reserve strength in rear areas. What should be deployed to the frontline is electronic reconnaissance equipment and shore-based firepower. Deployment of troops is now based on the “Dynamic Force Employment” concept, which makes it harder for outsiders to predict how troops are deployed and what missions they are tasked with. Given the condition, it is impossible for the potential enemy to locate the target and launch an attack. This may be the reason why the U.S. has withdrawn from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. During the Cold War, the U.S. depended on inter-continental ballistic missiles to reach a balance of terror with Soviet Union. However, in the current strategic context, intermediate-range ballistic missiles, if deployed on some islands in the Pacific Ocean and certain Asian countries, could pose a real threat to China.

In recent months, B-52 bombers and electronic warfare aircraft of the U.S. military had flown over areas close to China’s territorial waters, an apparent show of force to China. Even if the B-52 bombers based on Guam have totally withdrawn, the U.S. military can gain instead an advantageous position by not placing all those planes in one single base. With a possible deployment of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the future, Guam may be turned into a fire projection base rather than a force projection one. At the same time, capabilities of forces of U.S. allies in the region are also to be strengthened. A security network can be established in the Asia Pacific region through integration of information systems and military sales, such as the SM-3 missile that AIT Chairman James Moriarty mentioned during his recent visit to Taiwan. Taiwan has a vital role to play in the network. 

Conclusion:

Taiwan's Role For Taiwan, the PLA has always been a threat regardless of cross-strait relations. Although the PLA activities in the neighborhood of Taiwan may not be necessarily be targeted at Taiwan since they can be caused by entanglements in international relations, Taiwan does feel the threat. Some people even argue that as the PLA has extended its force projection range (of the navy and the Rocket Force) to somewhere beyond the First Island Chain, whether Taiwan can still play the role of an unsinkable carrier and remain a pivot of the First Island Chain is in doubt. If the PLA exchanges fire with the U.S. military between the First and Second Island Chains, the Taiwan military can be of help by bringing into play its geographic position like that in the interior lines of operations, helping troops of friendly countries deal a heavier blow to the PLA. It is similar to the Guadalcanal campaign in the Pacific War during World War II. Initially the U.S. troops did not gain control of the sea surrounding the island of Guadalcanal. They were even unable to intercept Japan ships, collectively known as “Tokyo Express,” sailing from Rabaul to deliver supplies. However, they controlled the airport on Guadalcanal, which they quickly restored after having been bombarded by the Combined Fleet of the Japanese Imperial Navy several times. The airport was used to gain an advantage over the Japanese navy, successfully keeping the Combined Fleet at bay. Control of the airport was key to the final triumph, making it possible for the U.S. military to maintain force projection capabilities (of the navy and air force). So, how to maintain combat capacity after the first wave of attacks from the PLA will be of vital importance to Taiwan. Taiwan needs to ensure that its air power, land-based anti-ship missiles and naval fleets can survive the attacks. We may even share battlefield information with allies. This is the regional cooperation between countries that the U.S. has been underscoring in promoting its strategy for the region in recent years. It is expected that integration of resources of allies and sharing information and intelligence between allies will achieve synergy effects to pose a considerable threat to the PLA and maintain peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

Dr. Ying-Yu Lin[林穎佑]

Adjunct Assistant Professor, National Chung Cheng University Institute of Strategy and International Affairs

Conclusions and recommendations of Taiwan Perspective articles are solely those of their authors, and do not reflect the views of INPR.

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