U.S. Air Force expands Asia Pacific presence

U.S. Air Force expands Asia Pacific presence

The United States has worked to enhance its military positioning in the Asia-Pacific as part of its strategic “pivot”. Last month, the Saipan Tribune wrote that the U.S. Air Force seeks to lease 33 acres surrounding the airfield on Saipan to support regional operations. The airfield would serve as an alternate “diversion” airfield, in the event that operations on the principal Air Force Base (AFB) on the island of Guam are limited.

According to an environmental impact study for the proposed airfield, the U.S. Air Force has no emergency airfield on U.S. territory in the Western Pacific outside of Anderson AFB on Guam. Securing the lease and developing the airfield on Saipan (or nearby Tinian) would improve military readiness in support of the U.S. military’s new operational concept known as Air Sea Battle.

Air Sea Battle 

The Air Sea Battle (ASB) concept has roots in a Cold War strategy called Air Land Battle that sought to sap the strength of rear echelon enemy units before they could be brought to combat. Air Land Battle featured cooperation between the Army and Air Force to attack in depth. Similarly, ASB seeks to create an integrated and networked force across military branches as well as across “domains” (air, land, sea, space, cyber).

The Department of Defense (DoD) sees this concept as an “important component of DoD’s strategic mission to project power and sustain operations in the global commons.” ASB integrates different military branch capabilities in varied domains and develops a framework to communicate and coordinate responses. The goal is to be able to “disrupt, destroy, and defeat” an enemy’s ability to identify and carry out attacks on U.S. assets. While ASB does not consider complete destruction of enemy defenses, it does focus on gaining and maintaining full freedom of action for U.S. forces.

This concept directly addresses anti-access and anti-denial strategies that some see as a counter to U.S. military power. Anti-access involves denying the movement of military units into a combat zone, while anti-denial focuses on hindering the ability for units to operate within the zone. Many see these concepts underpinning Chinese strategy in the Asia-Pacific.

A large part of anti-access and anti-denial involve missile forces, which China has developed extensively. China’s new (since 2010) anti-ship ballistic missile capability, dubbed a “carrier-killer,” could potentially threaten U.S. carrier battle groups. Therefore, building up forward operating bases and airfields in the Asia-Pacific region gives the U.S. military flexibility and deeper operational capacity, if forces from the mainland U.S. were denied access or movement in the region.

This concept is not without its critics however. A researcher at the National Defense University, T.X. Hammes, proposes another concept called “Off-Shore Control.” Focusing on potential conflict with China, this theory turns anti-access tactics against China to deny Chinese movement beyond the so-called “first island chain” off the mainland. It uses submarines and air defenses to contain Chinese naval units, while shutting off trade and sea lanes to China.

Hammes raises the question of what kind of strategy underpins ASB – how would the U.S. attempt to defeat China and how would it frame victory? As an operational concept, ASB does not fully address those issues, leaving some doubt around how far a crisis response might escalate events.

Political Risk Implications of Military Strategy

From the perspective of political risk, U.S. military strategy has potential implications for long-term business plans. At a high level, the U.S. commitment to freedom of navigation and access to exclusive economic zones ensures strong and stable supply chains and enables sourcing inputs offshore.

It is important to recognize how trade hinges upon peaceful and unimpeded access and how that access is protected. Bolstering the U.S.’ presence increases the ability to project power in the Pacific and protect U.S. economic interests.

On a tactical level, long-term investments should take into account how the U.S. plans to respond to crises. What happens if a local territorial dispute escalates and there are trade- and economic implications? The Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute between China and Japan provided a recent example. In 2010, when a Chinese fishing trawler rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel, Japan briefly detained the captain of the Chinese boat and China responded by blocking exports of rare earth metals (used in numerous tech products) to Japan.

While a military conflict involving the U.S. (and/or China) is unlikely, it represents a significant tail risk to the supply chains that flow through the area. Just as a business might anticipate regional political risk, identifying possible military contingencies in a volatile area should inform investment plans (such as whether to build a redundancy in a supply chain or search for another material source).

For businesses, keeping abreast of overarching U.S. military strategy can help pinpoint foreign military risks as well as indicate how the U.S. might defend economic interests abroad.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Ned Pagliarulo

Ned Pagliarulo works for a Japanese press company, reporting on economics and government statistics. Ned received a BA in History with a minor in Japanese from Georgetown University in 2012.