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Is the US ready for a war in the Pacific?




By James C. Pearce

American society is still scarred by wars of its recent past. With the exception of Desert Storm, none ended in a decisive victory for the world’s largest and most professional military.


Soldiers returning home from the Middle East, Vietnam and Afghanistan have struggled and been neglected. And when America last fought in the Pacific during World War II, it saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. One can perhaps understand why the average American has precious little appetite to start raining fire again.  


However, the rise of China and the lessons from Ukraine have prompted a rethink, renewal and reform in the U.S. military. Of course, nobody wants to see an all-out conflict in the Pacific. And if you are on Team America (which I firmly am), you hope the answer to this question is an unequivocal “f*** yeah!”


Yet, it’s abundantly clear that America cannot defend both Europe and Asia. America is, at present, only capable of fighting a war on one front. In fairness, the U.S. is no longer asked to defend both continents and it isn’t the intention either.


The 2018 National Defense Strategy ended the “two-war” standard. The Biden administration accepted this change and in the event Donald Trump wins re-election, that is extremely unlikely to change. Moreover, most experts think a conflict with China in the Pacific remains unlikely – the cause would probably involve an invasion of Taiwan or greater militarization of the Indo-Pacific.   


But the U.S. faces a number of obstacles if push comes to shove in God’s paradise. Most defense experts, including the Pentagon’s top officials, agree that America would be unprepared for any conflict in the Pacific.   


First is a general recruitment shortage coupled by a much smaller reserves list. The U.S. is not alone in this problem. The UK’s top general recently remarked that the UK is not ready for a war with Russia and might require the creation of a civilian army. I’m not exactly a fan of the former president, but Donald Trump is right when he says Europe needs to defend itself better; a lot of German and French equipment performed badly against Russian firepower (even if the Ukrainians were poorly trained at using it).   


Yet, Asia is the Pentagon’s priority. U.S. intelligence services rate China as the number one threat (rightly in my view). Russia is now rearming in Asia fast. By contrast, relatively few new U.S. forces have flowed into Asia or the Pacific. Drills took place last year as tensions over Taiwan heightened, but that was pretty much the extent of it.


During a congressional hearing last spring, Mark Milley, a retired U.S. Army general, said: "There is nothing more expensive than fighting a war. Preparing for war is also very expensive, but fighting a war is the most expensive. Preparing for war will deter that war.”


Due to the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, the Navy rather naturally has a stranglehold over the area. The Air Force and Naval Air Force have a solid presence, but what is noticeably lacking are ground forces. Launching any attack, offensive or defensive, would be problematic initially.   


General Charles Flynn, the commander of the U.S. Army Pacific based in Hawai’i, rebutted the lack of ground focus recently. “Humans have this unique tendency to live on land,” Flynn said in comments to The Economist. “At the end of the day, decisions are going to be made by the pointy end of a gun.”    Next is the question of manufacturing. While the military budgets have increased under every president since the end of the Cold War, American military manufacturing has stalled, is often over budget and behind schedule.


According to a 2022 Pentagon report on Chinese military might, the country has about 340 ships and submarines. The U.S., meanwhile, has fewer than 300 warships. The right kind of long-range missiles, sky power and satellites will also require greater production and rapid activation.    


As I recently wrote about the AUKUS alliance, building new navy ships can take years. Shifting priorities, new technological developments and labor costs and shortages affect this, but it means when the conflict starts, the U.S. will face immediate problems in battle, not to mention when building more vessels. To make matters worse, there is also a shortage of shipyards and skilled labor. The aviation sector also needs a good kick up the butt (but I’ll let Neil deGrasse Tyson fill you in on that one).   


It’s not all bad news. American jets and ships are far superior to Chinese assets. The Chips Act and Inflation Reduction Act were important steps to prepare for any potential conflict in the Pacific. Biden could still, theoretically, get any military spending and or legislation concerning the Pacific passed through Congress, even if it has to wait until next year when Republicans likely lose control of the House (albeit by a small margin). America also has the manpower and human resources.   


The question is how to mobilize the personnel necessary. Why is more effort not being made to bolster these forces before the fact? It is politics-related. Republicans are betting big on the southern border ahead of the presidential election. Another part is fewer people see the military as a worthwhile career option nowadays. Just 0.04 percent of the population currently serve in the military; more Americans are behind bars. The vast majority of service men and women also have no college education and come from working class families.   


The economic damage and disruption that a potential war can have would also be vast. America is not ready for that. The stock market is at an all-time high. Moving onto a war footing, or the appearance of that, will scare investors stiff. Estimating the number of goods needed for a conflict in the Pacific is also tricky. Never mind munitions, security and other military equipment, just feeding the population and paying their 401K will be costly.   


Finally, America would likely need (and expect) the support of its allies in any conflict with China. AUKUS’ viability would finally be tested. New Zealand would be expected to step up and so would Japan – which could bring North Korea into the conflict. Yet, asking NATO members like Sweden, Portugal, Denmark or Slovenia to send troops over Guam, Hawai’i or Kwajalein will be a tough sell.   


In short, you don’t want the start of a conflict to be the catalyst for any of what’s necessary for another war in the Pacific. America should prepare itself now.


Dr. James C. Pearce previously worked at the University of Liverpool and the College of the Marshall Islands, and lived in Russia for almost a decade. He is the author of “The Use of History in Putin's Russia”, and has written on Russian memory politics, historical narratives, education policy and historical anniversaries. Send feedback to jcpearce.91@gmail.com.





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