By Drake Long —
Secretary of Defense (and former secretary of the Army) Mark Esper has signaled a new strategy for the U.S. Army based on great power competition.
Expectations should be tempered as to what the Army can offer.
While Secretary Esper mentions both Russia and China when talking about why the Army needs to modernize, the latter appears to be the intended target of the more ambitious reforms. The new doctrine of multi-domain operations (MDO), while relevant to a hypothetical conflict with Russia’s armed forces, is more clearly applicable to the increasing threat of the combined People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as it pursues its own doctrine of anti-access and area-denial around China’s coasts and in the South China Sea. Many of the investments that Army Futures Command, which Secretary Esper stood up in 2018, focuses on are precisely to counteract China’s own modernization.
The feasibility of pivoting the Army toward great power competition with China or Russia depends on how much one believes the Army can extricate itself from its long-standing presence in the Middle East. Certain signs warrant some skepticism of this. In addition to the ambiguous yet tense situation with Iran, there is always the possibility that another state collapse or massive insurgency a la Iraq 2014 would drag the U.S. military, and especially the army, into another conflict against a non-peer foe.
But Secretary Esper’s policies are ultimately part of a larger drive for the U.S. military toward great power competition as laid out in the most recent National Defense Strategy. Therefore, while there may be periodic rubbernecking at the Middle East or potentially West Africa, one thing is certain: the Army is going to the Pacific.
Patrick Shanahan, the former Acting Secretary of Defense, talked at length on the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept at the Shangri-La Dialogue in early June, but there is an inherent uncertainty in where the Army fits into Indo-Pacific security. For reference, one could look at China’s equivalent, the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF), and how it has tried to adapt for a predominately maritime Asia.
It has not gone very well. Amphibious operations outside of a Taiwan invasion scenario are not the PLAGF’s forte, nor are they likely to be in the future as that role is handed over to the growing PLA Marine Corps. The few times where the PLAGF tried to exercise creativity and show its usefulness in the South China Sea fell flat and appeared impractical at best. In acknowledgement of the more realistic scenarios for its use, the PLAGF is being pulled away toward different areas of the border, such as that closest to India.
However, the U.S. Army instead appears to be inadvertently imitating not the PLAGF, but the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), which on paper appears a smarter option. The PLARF, traditionally land-based, has adopted a stance of “using the land to control the sea,” intending to use anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) for anti-access/area-denial in the South China Sea alongside an arsenal of other artillery meant for enemy air bases.
The U.S. Army is making a push for long-range missiles for maritime targets, along with greater control over conventional hypersonics and air-and-missile defense systems. Intentional or not, this is a similar shift to what the PLARF has made, although the U.S. Army has nothing like the DF-26 or DF-21 (dubbed the ‘Guam killer’ and ‘Carrier killer,’ respectively). It remains to be seen if withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty will change that.
This leaves us no closer to answering the biggest question for a new U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC) presence: where exactly will it be? To be blunt, for the United States in the Pacific, there is a lot of sea to control and very little land. Forward-deployed assets like long-range artillery or ASBMs have the option of going to South Korea, Japan, Guam, the Northern Marianas, or potentially Palau. The most likely area for conflict with China would be in the South China Sea, making the utility of most of these countries/bases for the U.S. Army minimal (and in the case of Japan and Guam, the primary service branches based there would be the Navy and Marine Corps anyway). Even assuming the Army drastically increases the range of its missiles by ditching INF requirements (and convinces South Korea and Japan to host said missiles), there are considerable issues with the lack of depth these bases provide in the event of a war that involves the PLARF, who would almost certainly target these bases in either a first strike or counterstrike scenario. And it is unlikely, at this point, for the U.S. Army to achieve any kind of parity with the PLARF even without INF constraints.
Any missile-or-artillery based strategy for the Army, then, is likely to disappoint. This is compounded by the plain question of whether a mobile, artillery-based role for the Army (as demonstrated by the “multi-domain task force” during the Pacific Pathways program) could not already be filled by the Marine Corps. So far, there is no reason to think otherwise.
The alternative is for USARPAC to essentially become a logistics wing for the other branches in the Pacific, and while this may not be as glamorous, it is more likely given the realities of what INDOPACOM needs. In the event of a war with China key logistical hubs for the Navy and Air Force like ports and airports may be destroyed or at the very least rendered inoperable. The Department of Defense (DOD) has been clear-eyed about seeking out additional basing options (Darwin) and airstrips (Tinian) for just this contingency. A USARPAC primed to repair runways or prep facilities to support naval and air operations would offer something tangible in a wartime scenario—but would essentially be discarding the past few decades of Army experience and its lessons learned.
Currently, certain training drills like the U.S.-Singapore Tiger Balm exercise allow the Army to share its capability with Southeast Asian militaries on the challenges they are most likely to face in the future: transnational threats and urban operations. By moving and redesigning Army capability away from counter-insurgency and toward great power competition with China, the Army may ironically be phasing out its expertise that is most in demand (or at the very least, ceding it to SOCOM). Interest in this expertise among Southeast Asian nations is liable to increase in the future, especially as foreign fighters from the Syrian conflict spread abroad.
While renewed emphasis toward the Pacific has become a priority for DOD in recent years, a more sober look at how great power competition with China will actually unfold would reveal a minimal role for Army personnel with precision fires and a bigger role for personnel dedicated to maintaining the critical infrastructure underlying U.S. power projection that would come under attack. A decision on whether USARPAC is the right element to fulfill this role, and whether it might come at the expense of other objectives of the U.S. military in the Pacific, ought to inform the DOD’s prioritization of the Army in a strategy against China.