A Rising China Is Driving the U.S. Army’s New Game Plan in the Pacific
New missiles and large-scale exercises part of long-term strategy to deter Beijing.
FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii—As an organization based solidly on dry land, the U.S. Army’s increasing focus on the Pacific might seem puzzling to some.
But with China continuing to expand its military, building islands in the South China Sea, and spreading fear among neighbors, the Army wants to up its game in the region with more firepower and additional rotations of U.S. troops—not only to reassure key U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Thailand that the United States has their back, but also to prevent a potential war.
“China is the priority,” said Gen. Robert Brown, U.S. Army Pacific commander, during a March 19 roundtable with a handful of reporters at Fort Shafter in Hawaii.
The push to ramp up presence in the Pacific is in line with the U.S. military’s strategic shift from the counterterrorism fight in the Middle East to competition with potential near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis laid out the approach in a National Defense Strategy last year.
“We’re kind of at an inflection point,” said Army Vice Chief of Staff James McConville in an interview, citing almost two decades of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Great power competition is not great power conflict,” McConville stressed. “What we are doing is positioning ourselves so we can compete. Really, you want to compete from a position of strength.”
But the Army’s new road map for countering China is contingent on persuading Congress to fund it. And there are many skeptics on Capitol Hill and in the broader community who are unconvinced that Beijing really poses a military threat to the United States and its allies.
Stephen Orlins, the president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, took issue with the Pentagon’s aggressive stance toward China, saying that the area where Washington should really be competing with Beijing is in the economic and diplomatic domains.
“What we’re doing, in effect, is we’re demonizing China,” Orlins said during a February event in Washington, D.C. “I don’t disagree that [China is] an economic competitor and a diplomatic competitor. But when we brand them a strategic competitor … that diverts spending from what we really need to compete with China to the strategic side.
“What we’re seeing is an exaggeration which has terrible policy consequences for America,” he said.
Orlins acknowledged that China’s actions in the South China Sea have violated international law but said that does not mean it poses a “strategic threat” to the United States.
But while a near-term military clash is unlikely, Ely Ratner, the executive vice president and director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, argued that it is critical for the U.S. military to maintain an effective defensive posture in the Pacific as a check on China’s growing influence. He cited concerns that “the lack of American deterrent could lead to instability over Taiwan or otherwise.”
“I am much more worried about a creeping Chinese sphere of influence, often in what military strategists call gray-zone tactics—nibbling away below the threshold of military activity, which they’ve done in the South China Sea,” Ratner said. This “could have a whole set of knock-on effects into the economic sphere and the political sphere.”
For its part, the U.S. military is increasingly concerned not just about China’s efforts to modernize its military, but also about what it sees as Beijing’s underhanded economic practices. Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China is developing infrastructure and investing financially in countries across the world, particularly in its Pacific backyard. But the investment has come with strings attached for some countries, including unsustainable debt, decreased transparency, and a potential loss of control of natural resources.
In December 2017, Sri Lanka handed over control of the newly built Hambantota seaport to Beijing with a 99-year lease because Colombo could no longer afford its debt payments to China. Adm. Phil Davidson, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, cited the case in an appearance before the Senate last month.
“China represents our greatest long-term strategic threat to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and to the United States,” Davidson said.
Part of the Army’s efforts to deter China focuses on strengthening alliances and partnerships in the region as a counterweight to Beijing’s increasing influence. This means more rotations of thousands of soldiers at a time from the mainland through short-term Pacific deployments, Brown said during the press conference.
The Army already has roughly 85,000 soldiers in the theater, mostly in South Korea, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii—which is home to the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s headquarters.
It also potentially means more, larger-scale exercises in the region. In an interview, Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy said the service included in its budget request for fiscal year 2020 money to beef up the existing Pacific Pathways exercise—which in its first iterations involved Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan—and establish a new, division-level exercise called Defender Pacific, designed to show the capability to deploy a much larger force.
Another way to strengthen partnerships is through selling foreign militaries U.S. equipment, McCarthy said.
“We can teach them and show them and help them grow their capabilities,” he said.
But another part of the strategy is building up the Army’s own arsenal in the Pacific. As a land-based service, the way the Army fights in the Pacific is with long-range missiles and artillery—extremely long-range.
At least until August, when the United States officially withdraws from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, the Army’s conventional and nuclear missile capability is limited to 500 km (about 300 miles). China has never been a signatory, which has allowed it to build up a vast arsenal of conventional weapons that now threaten freedom of navigation in the region, including the DF-21 “carrier killer.”
But the INF Treaty does not cover a new type of weapon, hypersonic missiles, which travel at least five times the speed of sound and could reach 1,000 miles or farther.
The Army is hoping to use this fact to its advantage. In this year’s budget request, the service said it is planning to spend more than $1 billion in fiscal year 2020 to develop a land-based hypersonic missile. Meanwhile, the service’s new Strategic Long-Range Cannon could be fitted with a hypersonic round that could travel vast distances. These capabilities could be fielded in 2023, McCarthy said.
If the United States withdraws from the INF Treaty, the Army’s Precision Strike Missile, a replacement for the legacy Army Tactical Missile System, could be adjusted to extend its range beyond the current INF Treaty limit of 499 kilometers. That capability could be fielded in 2022.
In addition, the Army is currently developing an extended-range artillery cannon, designed to reach up to 70 kilometers, about 40 miles.
The Army could potentially position these missiles on any of the Pacific theater’s 25,000 islands, Brown said.
In addition, the Army is establishing a “multidomain task force” concept designed to fight on the modern battlefield, which involves not just the traditional air, land, and sea domains, but also cybersecurity and space threats. In a conflict, such a task force would allow the Army to penetrate China’s sophisticated defenses, which push America’s traditional capabilities such as aircraft carriers and non-stealth fighters further from its shores.
Finally, the Army is also looking at deploying a Security Force Assistance Brigade a specialized unit designed to train, advise, and assist partner nations, to the Pacific. The Army’s first such units are focused on Afghanistan.
McCarthy stressed that the Army currently does not have any concrete plans to deploy the new missiles, task force, or Security Force Assistance Brigade to the Pacific. That decision will ultimately be made by the secretary of defense, in conjunction with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the combatant commander—Davidson—as part of the force allocation process, if leaders ask for those capabilities.
But Brown said U.S. allies in the region, even ones with more peaceful postures, such as Japan, are open to the possibility of additional U.S. troops and weapons.
“They have reacted in a more positive manner than I’ve ever dreamed of,” said Brown, noting that regional allies have recently been alarmed by North Korea’s missile testing and China’s aggression. “There is tremendous cooperation and excitement, because they have the same dilemma—they are facing a very capable potential adversary.
“It’s a huge advantage for us when you look at China, it doesn’t have those types of relationships,” Brown said.