In his June 4 speech at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates referred to the paramount role US forces play in the Asia-Pacific in ensuring stability and security, arguing that this facilitates constant progress and sustainable development in the region.
But he also took the chance to underline the emerging challenges to the US presence there, specifically disruptive technologies that are able to hinder free navigation and access to vital sea routes or lines of communications.
Gates avoided naming any specific challengers, but it was clear he had China in mind. After all, as has been noted on a number of occasions in The Diplomat, China’s military modernization has been of concern to US scholars and defence planners for a number of years now.
As Adm. Robert Willard testified before the US Congress in March 2010, ‘Of particular concern is that elements of China’s modernization appear designed to challenge our freedom of action in the region.’ China’s very active conventional ballistic missile programme, as well as its growing capabilities in cyber warfare, pose a genuine challenge to US forward bases and assets in the region.
The Chinese focus on anti-access and area denial strategies is an asymmetric strategy aimed at denying access to intervening forces in a crisis. The big disparity between the US and Chinese forces notwithstanding, the Chinese strategy appears to be sufficient to threaten US forces by raising the potential costs of intervention, thus constraining US freedom of movement in the region.
This development has been well covered. What was different this time is that Gates actually provided a roadmap for a US response to this shift.
Reassurance of alliesand updating of US relationships: One of the main concerns is to ensure US alliances remain robust, and to avoid any doubts about the US commitment to the region. Gates reaffirmed, for example, the US intention to maintain an enhanced presence and close co-operation with allies and partners through joint military exercises and multilateral training efforts. At the same time, the United States will seek new opportunities for co-operation, with a view to updating relationships with regional players. An example is the US Navy’s establishment of a new presence in Singapore as a staging location for its latest class of warship.
Modernization efforts, defence posture and operational doctrine: Gates stressed the importance of ground-breaking developments in air superiority and long-range strike capacity that could ensure secure deployment and mobility in defence of US allies or vital interests. In addition, the US Air Force and Navy are expected to produce a new operational doctrine, the so-called AirSea Battle, which will allow for successful joint operations and offer a response to the Chinese A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) strategies. In the same spirit, the United States has opted for a defence posture characterized by dispersal of forces, which, according to Gates, is ‘more operationally resilient and politically sustainable.’
Of course key challenges remain in trying to implement this strategy, namely budget constraints and adaptability of forces. Gates’ optimism over US adaptability notwithstanding, the first decade of this century has seen a significant effort on the part of US forces to prepare for a different kind of conflict, one aimed not at big conventional, but rather smaller, non-traditional threats.
How the United States copes with reallocating resources to the shift from land and counter-insurgency warfare to asymmetric maritime threats will largely determine how successful US forces will be over the next decade.