Small Wars

This Week at War: The New Pacific Theater

The United States and its allies take the first steps toward countering a growing China.

Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Greg Johnson/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Greg Johnson/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

The U.S. and Australia try a new military deployment plan for the southwest Pacific

This week Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to San Francisco to meet with their counterparts from Australia. The occasion was the anniversary of the ANZUS mutual defense treaty, signed 60 years ago in San Francisco’s Presidio. That treaty was signed near the start of the Cold War, while the United States and its allies were locked in bloody combat against the Chinese army in Korea. This week’s event in San Francisco was an effort to update the defense pact, with China again looming over the meeting.

Six decades later, the Korean War still seems to have a strong influence on the positioning of U.S. military forces in East Asia. U.S. ground, air, and naval forces remain concentrated in Japan and South Korea in the northwest Pacific, seemingly focused on the prospect of renewed fighting in Korea. North Korea’s continued belligerence since 1950 created a requirement for a U.S. military presence in the northwest Pacific. Over the decades, the United States, Japan, and South Korea built up a basing structure to support this permanent deployment, which they have long settled into.

But China’s improving air and naval power and its assertion of claims in the South China Sea are very likely moving the most important defense mission 2,000 miles south from where U.S. forces in the region are now concentrated. This mismatch is presumably not lost on the U.S. and Australian ministers gathered in San Francisco.

In addition to pledging greater cooperation on cyberdefense (a problem increasingly blamed on sources in China), the United States will gain greater access to Australian military training areas, pre-position military equipment in Australia, obtain access to Australian facilities and ports, and establish options for more joint military activities in the region.

This step-up in military coordination with Australia follows similar U.S. diplomatic forays around the South China Sea. In 2005, the United States and Singapore signed a strategic framework agreement on military cooperation that was expanded this year with an agreement to deploy new U.S. Navy littoral combat ships to Singapore. The deepening of this agreement will enhance the ability of the U.S. Navy to support the multilateral military training exercises it leads every year with partners around the South China Sea.

However, Washington appears to be taking a notably different approach in the southwest Pacific. Unlike its agreement with Japan and South Korea, the new agreements with Australia and Singapore, along with other low-key arrangements with the Philippines and others in the region, do not call for the permanent basing of U.S. combat units in these countries. Both the United States and its partners in the region have an interest in maintaining the "forward presence" of U.S. military forces in the region. But the permanent bases and garrisons in South Korea and Japan have become corrosive, especially on Okinawa, where the local population has become hostile to the U.S. military presence. In addition, restrictions on training areas in Japan and South Korea are impairing the readiness of U.S. forces there and reducing the utility of their presence.

The model the U.S. planners appear to have in mind for Australia, Singapore, and around the South China Sea involves regular and frequent training exercises, temporary access to host countries’ facilities, and frequent consultation by staff officers and advisors. For training exercises or in response to crises, U.S. air and ground forces would fly in and meet up with pre-positioned equipment, with naval forces arriving soon thereafter. This method would avoid the political friction the United States has encountered in Japan and South Korea and allow U.S. soldiers to remain at bases inside the United States that have better training facilities and provide better living arrangements for soldiers and their families.

This new method of providing security for the southwest Pacific remains mostly a theory and will face increasing pressure if Chinese forces eventually threaten easy access to the region. But if the model succeeds, it could call into question the utility of maintaining the existing garrisons on Okinawa and South Korea, which in any case are increasingly untenable as the Chinese missile threat expands. The trick for U.S. military strategists and diplomats will be implementing this more flexible deployment model while simultaneously reassuring regional partners that U.S. security commitments are as firm as ever. As pressures increase, that trick may not be easy to pull off.

Does the Army need to prepare for another Afghanistan-sized training effort?

It took 20 hours this week for Afghan police and international troops to subdue the Taliban insurgents who attacked several high-profile sites in downtown Kabul, including the U.S. Embassy compound. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker described the attack as "not a very big deal," while the coalition military commander, Marine Gen. John Allen, conceded that the Taliban "did get an IO [information operations] win on this." Eleven Afghan civilians, four police officers, and 10 insurgents were killed during the battle.

Although the attack did not display much Taliban expertise or have much lasting effect, it raises questions about whether the effort to train Afghan security forces is on track. Last week the Rand Corp. released "Security Force Assistance in Afghanistan," a detailed study of the training program and its lessons for future large-scale training efforts. The report described the immense challenges specific to the Afghan case and cataloged numerous suggestions to improve the program.

The Pentagon and the rest of the U.S. government have learned quite a lot about security force assistance from Afghanistan. There is a near-consensus among policymakers that successful assistance programs elsewhere in the world should be an effective and low-cost way of both preventing conflict and lowering the probability of future U.S. military interventions. The question for the Pentagon is whether the Afghanistan case, with its high level of difficulty, should be the standard scenario that U.S. forces prepare for.

The Rand authors found numerous shortcomings with the Afghan security force assistance program during the time of their field research. That research wrapped up in 2009 just at the time U.S. policy in Afghanistan was undergoing a major overhaul, many changes in top leadership occurred, and a large infusion of additional troops, equipment, and money came in. The researchers found that the assistance effort in Afghanistan lacked a tight linkage to the actual security requirements in the country, lacked appropriate measurements for tracking progress, and did not match up well with the enfeebled capacities of the rest of the Afghan government. In spite of the steep challenges of training an indigenous army in war-torn and largely illiterate Afghanistan, much has improved since 2009, some perhaps due to the interaction between the researchers and the training staff in Afghanistan.

U.S. policymakers have high hopes for using security force assistance to build up regional deterrence, help partners prevent insurgencies and lawlessness, and reduce the demand on U.S. forces for global security. Security force assistance and foreign internal defense training are normally tasks for special operations forces. But the training requirements in Afghanistan and Iraq were so large that conventional forces were drawn into the effort. The U.S. Army established new doctrine and wrote training manuals for conventional combat units reassigned to assistance duties.

But a sharp reduction looms for the Pentagon’s budget, with the Army facing a substantial cut to both its force structure and very likely its training budget (indeed, the assistance effort in Afghanistan is getting a big cut). The Army envisions its combat forces having mastery of "full spectrum operations," which could range from complex high-intensity offensives to "wide area security," peacekeeping, support to civil authorities — and security force assistance.

But reductions in manpower and money for training will likely require officials to set priorities and make choices. Regarding security force assistance, Pentagon leaders will have to make a judgment about how many training resources should be consumed preparing conventional ground combat units for training duties. Do policymakers predict another "worst case" Afghanistan-scale assistance scenario, requiring training resources far above the capacities resident in the special operations forces? If so, in what other areas of conventional readiness are they willing to take risks?

Over the past decade, U.S. soldiers have learned a lot about training indigenous security forces. Skill at security force assistance is a major U.S. asset just like aircraft carriers, fighter jets, and missiles. And it will have to compete with those other assets during the looming budget crunch.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.