Countering China’s military challenge, today

Denying the PLA its objectives in the 2020s requires diversification, distribution, and resiliency across posture and mission

By Eric Sayers & Abraham Denmark

In recent years, Defense Department planners have been intent to focus on the military challenge China will pose in the 2030s, when emerging technologies and military hardware promise to offer new operational capabilities to close the military gap with China. However, Washington would be falling into a temporal planning trap if it only organized to address the China military dilemma of 2035.

As the past year has demonstrated, Beijing has escalated its use of coercion and aggression in areas of significant American interest in the western Pacific. Given this, the Pentagon, lawmakers, and the White House need a better strategy and more targeted funding that effectively deters the PLA of 2025. The grave costs, potential for miscalculation, and impact of an eroding military balance on America’s allies necessitates a near-term approach to ensure Beijing does not miscalculate.

Such a strategy need not seek to dominate the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in all domains in all regions at all times indeed, such a goal would be foolhardy. As with the Soviet Union in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. military faces a peer competitor that enjoys significant geographic advantages. Dominance or preeminence may have entered our military thinking in the 1990s when the United States faced no true competitor, but it is no longer a realistic approach and we know of no serious policymakers talking about dominance.

As former Pentagon strategist Elbridge Colby testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee, our “armed forces will therefore need to shift from an expectation that they could dominate the opponent to one in which they must expect to be contested throughout the fight  and yet still achieve the political objectives set for them in ways that are politically tenable.”

The U.S. military should continue to aim to field and deploy forces that deny Beijing its operational and political objectives. 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. 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.

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. 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.

First, we should create a more distributed force posture to ensure key U.S. forces remain in the fight and provide greater flexibility across a range of scenarios and political-military challenges. 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. It will also require reinvigorating the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, which has been dormant following a marked downturn in U.S.-Philippines relations during the Trump and Duterte governments.

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. A land-based AEGIS system that uses an existing radar and the family of Standard Missiles could be deployed within the decade at a relatively low cost, enhancing strategic resiliency by forcing the PLA to devote more attention and resources in an attempt to neutralize it.

According to testimony from Indo-Pacific Command, it would also free up three or more destroyers for other priority missions. And second, the Pentagon should look to increase 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. 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.

As with basing posture, the desired operational situation for China is one where they have to only hold several nodes at risk to cripple American power projection. 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.

These improvements should be funded at least partly through the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which, like its counterpart in Europe, is focused on two things. First, it seeks to address the operational challenges posed by Chinese military power in the immediate future through the Pentagon’s five-year defense plan. For various budgetary and cultural reasons, the areas PDI seeks to invest in have often been overlooked by the military services.

Second, it invests specifically in what the 2018 National Defense Strategy called the “blunt” forcethose that can quickly delay, degrade, and deny the enemy’s efforts. It is this force, often deployed forward in the theater that can raise costs early in a conflict and therefore deter Chinese aggression. The Biden administration can and should redirect the Pentagon’s too-singular focus on the operational challenges of the 2030s.

For this shift to succeed, senior civilian leadership at the Pentagon will need to set a clear direction for the services, joint staff, and Indo-Pacific command that calls for an investment in a near-to-medium term strategy of duplication across basing posture and the long-range strike mission. They will also need to work in concert with the Congress to ensure stable funding for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative in the years ahead.

Eric Sayers is a Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He previously served as a special assistant to the commander at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Abraham M. Denmark previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia.

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