The United States has refocused its strategic priorities in an oft-talked about “Pivot to Asia” and has made a deliberate decision in new defense strategic guidance not to size the military for large scale counter-insurgency operations, but instead to posture to deter conflict in Asia where there is a clear anti-access, area-denial threat. Such a shift has implications and raises questions about the appropriateness of retaining force structure and concepts developed for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan across all the military services.
Since fiscal reality dictates that the United States must downsize its military and focus on a more limited set of priorities, is it appropriate for the United States Air Force to create and sustain an institutional irregular warfare capability?
If the key strategic pre-occupation of the United States in the forthcoming decades is maintaining a force posture credible to defeating aggression on the high-end of the spectrum in Asia, what is the place of irregular warfare?
And what are the changes required to make the fundamental components of Air Force irregular warfare – air advising, air diplomacy and aviation enterprise development – more aligned with larger U.S. strategies?
An institutional Air Force irregular warfare capability directly supports U.S. foreign policy objectives in the Asia-Pacific and represents an asymmetric strength the envy of our competitors. Institutionalization of USAF irregular warfare capability is important, because it supplies exactly the sort of “low-cost, innovative” strategies called for in the defense strategic guidance and provides a tool to address the larger deeper problem: shaping the conditions for continued advantage.
America’s problem in Asia is more than just maintaining a favorable balance of military power. Such a balance is certainly critical to regional stability and global security. Asia is, after all, the heart of the global economic engine of growth, and it is U.S. military strength that ensures customary freedom of navigation in the global commons and deters newly powerful states from using force to settle conflicting claims. Asian states appreciate the positive historic role the United States has played over the past 50 years, but some hand wring about the ability of the U.S. to continue to play that role. While the importance of maintaining military balance is undeniable, the larger challenge is a competition for leadership, legitimacy and influence. Legitimacy is dependent on the actions available to the U.S. to continue to be perceived as present, committed and the security partner of choice.
The great military theorist Carl von Clausewitz enjoined that “war is politics by other means.” But the strategic competition in Asia, if well managed, is likely to be one of posture and deterrence rather than war. Rather, the United States might instead consider the rejoinder of China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, that “All diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means,” and realize that the strategic competition between great powers takes place against a backdrop where competing interests struggle for influence and legitimacy within their own states; the realm of irregular warfare.
According to Joint Publication 1, Doctrine of the Armed Forces of the United States, irregular warfare is a “struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). IW favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capacities in order to erode an adversary’s power, influence, and will.”
And Asia – Southeast Asia, South Asia, North Asia, and Central Asia – all feature non-state actors who seek to erode the legitimacy of various states. Each of those should be considered dangers and opportunities to U.S. and global security. Any such conflict could flare into a crisis, triggering instability that undermines the global economic system or presenting the threat of a failed state with all its attendant costs to blood and treasure. Such internal conflicts can be used by one power against another to distract, entangle and undermine the stability of their partners. Each internal conflict creates an opportunity for a “preferred security partner” to fill a vacuum, and provide critical opportunities that build sympathy and lay the groundwork for access.
All the great powers seem to understand that the game in Asia is about more than just deterrence, but influence. Take for example the recent piece by Yan Xuetong titled “How China Can Defeat America” where he the author states:
“To shape a friendly international environment for its rise, Beijing needs to develop more high-quality diplomatic and military relationships than Washington. No leading power is able to have friendly relations with every country in the world, thus the core of competition between China and the United States will be to see who has more high-quality friends. And in order to achieve that goal, China has to provide higher-quality moral leadership than the United States. China must also recognize that it is a rising power and assume the responsibilities that come with that status. For example, when it comes to providing protection for weaker powers, as the United States has done in Europe and the Persian Gulf, China needs to create additional regional security arrangements.”