Best Defense

The real question isn’t naval presence but how to best empower U.S. partners in Asia

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on April 9, 2014. By Captain Paul Lushenko, U.S. Army Best Defense guest respondent Dear Doug, No one questions the U.S. Navy’s utility. The issue at stake, however, is how to achieve the best balance between the services to (1) provide for regional security and ...

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on April 9, 2014.

By Captain Paul Lushenko, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest respondent

Dear Doug,

No one questions the U.S. Navy’s utility. The issue at stake, however, is how to achieve the best balance between the services to (1) provide for regional security and order while (2) meeting America’s security obligations to its allies and partners, especially Australia, Japan, and South Korea. While the Navy, as both a ‘way’ and ‘means,’ as you point out, can help achieve both ‘ends,’ your analysis is parsimonious to the point of obfuscating, particularly the diplomatic or messaging dividends of deploying land-based forces across the region.

In a region beleaguered by a mélange of threats and vulnerabilities, epitomized by North Korea’s increasingly brazen machinations and natural disasters respectively, the Navy can’t do it all or by itself. Here, think of the U.S. Army’s equally important response to Japan’s 3/11 or its live-environment training exercises on the Korean Peninsula that do much to reassure regional-states — again, especially allies — of America’s staying power.

Among other things, the dispatch of land-based forces is designed to placate allies and partners as well as deter potential challengers, namely the Chinese party-state on account of its reputed revisionism. All of these actors increasingly question the viability of America’s so-called ‘pivot’ or rebalance towards the Indo-Pacific. Such uncertainty is based not only on sequestration and its attendant spending caps, but the recent denigration of U.S. soft power given the country’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and its frustrated management of global security challenges including Syria’s implacable civil war and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll appreciate this recent article published by the New York Times, titled "U.S. Response to Crimea Worries Japan’s Leaders."

Moreover, because the Navy is not necessarily omnipresent — unlike you, I disagree that the Navy can be everywhere at once on the basis of simple math, logistics, and manning — land-based forces provide a tangible and stable deterrent. Do you think North Korea or China’s provocations would be lessened if the Pentagon removed land-based forces on the peninsula and in Okinawa, respectively? Do you think Russia might also abrogate its competing claims to the Kuril Islands vis-à-vis Japan as well?

The answer is no. Such redeployment would undermine America’s regional hierarchy or "hubs and spokes" alliance system that has provided security throughout Asia since WWII, attenuate any offshore-balancing thereafter, and encourage more insouciance regarding the procedural norms that frame regional and international order, including sovereignty and territorial respect. Within a regional context, this is a damning proposition given that it would countermand or unravel the intent of especially Southeast Asian states to shepherd a security order based on consensus and consultation. Since its promulgation in 1967, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, published by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, has provided the basis for resolving regional challenges like competing irredentist claims or lingering war memories through cooperative and diplomatic measures. With respect to ‘HADR’ missions on the other hand, who do you think provides the situational awareness and collects against intelligence requirements that focuses the Navy’s presence and assistance? That’s right, land-based forces.

What frightens me about your analysis, notwithstanding that it is informed by a recent deployment throughout the antipodes, is that it may actually represent a standing position among at least a segment of the Navy. While I concur that funding amid sequestration should be tailored against the most important capabilities, your position represents a veritable gutting of one aspect of the hard-power component of America’s rebalance, albeit an important one — the U.S. Army. Meanwhile, your argument is myopically focused on what America provides the region in terms of materiel, training, and so forth. The more astute point would have been, especially given ongoing shifts in the regional security order embodied by China’s "peaceful rise," how America can best deputize its regional allies and partners. Put differently, what can and should policymakers and senior leaders expect from allies and partners by way of burden-sharing? To me, this seems the more important issue given that, amid a probable continuation of sequestration, such a broader distribution of security responsibilities enables longevity of American influence across the region largely unencumbered by fiscal constraints.

Finally, I think you should have focused on the ‘joint’ pay-offs of investing in both the Army and Navy. Recall, seven of the world’s 10 largest armies are positioned within the Indo-Pacific. Does investing in the Navy alone achieve parity with these forces, especially if it is blinded or ‘fettered’ by China’s anti-access strategy? No.

In the event of a states-based conflict, you’ll appreciate that the historical trend has been that nothing is won until it is occupied. Admittedly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that even this paradigm is now subject to scrutiny, particularly given a movement towards ‘armed politics,’ whereby great powers pursue military action more as policy than to condition political objectives. Nevertheless, it seems that victory (definitions of this hotly contested word aside) is predicated on occupation, something that the Navy, based on its mission and training (the Marine Corps is fundamentally about gaining a lodgment) cannot and will not provide.

In the final analysis, I think you failed to realize that we are as much brothers-in-arms as we are services-in-arms.

Best of luck and stay safe.


Captain Paul Lushenko is the Commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 502D Military Intelligence Battalion, assigned to the 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade at Fort Lewis, Washington. He is a Distinguished Honor Graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and holds a Master of Arts in international relations and a Master of Diplomacy from the Australian National University. Capt. Lushenko is a friend of Lt. Robb, who was his twin brother’s roommate at the U.S. Naval Academy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or government.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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