Former defense officials say US must spread out force posture in Indo-Pacific
The U.S. military must further expand its footprint in the Pacific islands region to create a more distributed force posture and allow greater flexibility across a range of scenarios and political-military challenges, according to two former defense officials.
Eric Sayers, former special assistant to the commander at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and Abraham M. Denmark, former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for East Asia, said spreading out U.S. defense posts means looking beyond Guam and tapping other allies in Micronesia.
“This will involve building facilities in key Pacific islands like Yap, Palau, and Tinian while transforming existing airfields in northern Australia and across Japan into resilient hubs to support distributed and unpredictable military operations,” Sayers and Denmark wrote in an op-ed piece for Defense One, a military-centric online publication.
Sayers is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, while Denmark is the director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The Pentagon is pumping up its might in the Indo-Pacific region and sharpening Guam, the "tip of the military spear," in response to threats from the People's Liberation Army. China has escalated its use of coercion and aggression in areas of significant American interest in the western Pacific.
"After studying how the United States projects military power, PLA strategists identified our reliance on a relatively small number of large bases as a particular vulnerability," Sayes and Denmark said. "To better defend Guam, whose Andersen Air Force Base enables bomber and tanker reach across the entire theater, planners need a medium-term way to raise the cost of a PLA attack."
They endorsed Indo-Pacific Command Chief Adm. Phil Davidson's proposal to build a land-based AEGIS Ashore system that uses an existing radar and the family of standard missiles.
The request for Aegis installation on Guam is a component of Davidson's Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a five-year, $27 billion proposal, submitted to the U.S. Congress in March.
"China’s world-leading investments in precision-strike capabilities from the land, sea, and air reflect Beijing’s effort to be able to attack these bases and delay or deny the ability of U.S. force to operate along China’s periphery," Sayers and Denmark said.
"Therefore, while investments are being made for the future operational challenge, the best way to bolster the blunt force for the near-to-medium term would be to build a layered, multi-domain force around both basing posture and key service mission areas like strike," the added.
Last year, a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) recommended a military buildup in the freely associated states, — Palau, Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia — as they negotiate the extension of the expiring provisions of the Compacts of Free Association.
CRS cited a report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which recommended “renewing and fully supporting” the Compacts, noting that the treaties “provide irreplaceable access to critical geography” as the U.S. seeks to advance its Indo- Pacific strategy.
As for another ally in Asia, Sayers and Denmark said the force dispersal strategy will also require a boost to the United States’ Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines. The defense pact has been inactive due to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's erratic attitude toward the United States and ambivalent sentiment toward China.
"The U.S. military should continue to aim to field and deploy forces that deny Beijing its operational and political objectives," Sayers and Denmark wrote. "There are few new capabilities the Pentagon can deploy in large enough numbers in the next few years that will dramatically affect the geographic-operational balance."
They recommended that the Pentagon consider increasing its strike options across both the military service and geographic domains.
"Each service can make the case that it excels at a specific mission, but an effective strategy for the PLA of 2025 would be to build redundancy and resilience across key mission areas," Sayers and Denmark said.
For example, they added, the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army deploying anti-ship and land-attack systems that can operate from the air, surface, land and subsurface would be a robust blunt force challenge to PLA planners.
"A distributed strike architecture can be deployed relatively soon and would create a large targeting dilemma for the PLA that would contribute to conventional stability while reassuring regional allies," they said.