Something of a new strategic frontier, offering the US major opportunities mixed with sizable risks, is opening upon the far side of the Pacific.
Asia’s vast Far Eastern rim no longer takes a secondary place in superpower assessments. The region has been steadily gaining on Western Europe and the Middle East in importance.
Now, there is conviction that the Far East, long a sideshow in the Soviet-American rivalry, has become a front-rank commitment as well as a pressure point to be exploited by the United States.
“There was, in the past, a feeling that we were in a bit of a ‘Camp Swampy’ over here,” observes Maj. Gen. Michael Kerby, Vice Commander in Chief of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), from its headquarters in Hawaii. “Now, that has disappeared.”
Transforming traditional perceptions of the Pacific region are two developments that have gathered force throughout the decade.
One is the spectacular East Asian economic boom that looms ever larger in America’s view of its political future. As the Kremlin pursues a major buildup in the Pacific, Washington’s role in the defense of this vital region assumes new significance.
The second factor is a controversial shift of strategic thought. In calculations of how to protect its interests elsewhere in the world, US attention focuses increasingly on Russia’s long Pacific flank.
Military men assert that the ability to open a “front” in that area can help deter or defeat Soviet aggression in Europe.
The sum of these factors, in the view of former Secretary of the Navy James H. Webb, is that the United States is “becoming increasingly tied to Asia, and it is imperative that we match those ties with the military capability to protect our interests.”
The implications of this development for US security policy, say many strategic affairs analysts, are becoming clear even now.
· In military terms, the Pacific Far East seems destined to exert a stronger claim on US forces, weapons, and budgets and leave a far deeper imprint on worldwide defense planning.
· In diplomatic terms, cooperation with allies and friends—in particular, Japan—on forces, bases, intelligence-gathering, logistics, trade, and investment is bound to become even more critical.
The Pacific rim has already been transformed into a vital American interest on par with any other area.
Asia’s Economic Emergence
At the heart of this phenomenon lies Asia’s economic emergence during the 1980s. While no one minimizes the US stake in either Western Europe or the Mideast, the Far East is seen as the pivot of America’s long-term economic future.
In sharp contrast with the sluggish economic performance of US allies in Europe, nearly every Far Eastern nation is enjoying dramatic and overpowering growth, emerging as a major potential market.
Attention at present focuses on Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Even the less-developed economies in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the like are showing new vigor.
In a class by itself is the long-term economic potential of a modernizing China, with a largely untapped market of one billion.
For the US, the rising affluence and dynamism of the Pacific rim have fueled a major economic reorientation. By a big margin, two-way transpacific trade now surpasses trade with Western Europe.
In 1987, US-Asia commerce totaled a staggering $257 billion—thirty-five percent of the US world total. That dwarfs US business with any other global region, including Europe with twenty-one percent.
There is pain, too, as Pacific nations have proved to be tough competitors, piling up huge trade surpluses. This, however, is widely viewed as a transitory phenomenon that nations will adjust to in time.
In light of the nation’s mushrooming economic stake in the Pacific rim, US officers and diplomats maintain that expansion of the US security role is inevitable.
Heavy US military involvement in the region is not new. In fact, five of Washington’s eight military security treaties are with Far East nations—Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia.
In reality, says a Pacific military officer, the United States until recently evinced “a fairly myopic view in the Pacific”—that is, Washington tended to focus not on Soviet power but on a succession of smaller, local threats.
After the end of the US war with Vietnam, he says, “most of the focus in the Pacific was on the Korean peninsula, and most of that was on the immediate threat to the north.” Lacking, he adds, was a sense of “the importance of the Pacific theater, period.”
That attitude is fading fast. US military assumptions are being transformed by Russian pursuit of a Far East arms buildup that has propelled Moscow toward the top rank of Pacific powers.
In what General Kerby describes as “a very deliberate, smart, and calculated strategy,” the Soviet Union has gone far beyond its earlier, limited garrison force to construct a “rather remarkable” sea and air presence, posing a serious challenge to US and allied interests.
Soviet Far East Buildup
The problem, as it is viewed at US Pacific Command (PACOM) headquarters in Hawaii, is not so much Soviet land power. The ferocious Sino-Soviet feuding in the 1960s triggered a huge Far East buildup of the Red Army, and most of the USSR’s fifty-seven divisions there remain tied down on the Chinese border.
Rather, it is the Soviet capability to project air- and seapower over long distances that now preoccupies most American planners.
This is a relatively new phenomenon, intensified, say most experts, by the two-sided restoration of diplomatic relations in the late 1970s between the US and China, on the one hand, and Japan and China, on the other. The perceived development of a Washington-Beijing-Tokyo confederation fueled Soviet fears.
The result: Between 1980 and 1988, Moscow has put in place the means to attack not only China but also US and allied forces in an arc stretching from Alaska and the Aleutians in the north down through Japan and South Korea to the Philippines in the south, and far out to sea as well.
In terms of naval power, the Soviet Pacific Fleet is shedding its coastal-defense focus to become a blue-ocean warfighter.
US Navy Adm. Ronald Hays, the recently retired commander of American forces in the Pacific, estimates Soviet fleet strength at more than 300 major combatants, an increase of one-third since 1975.
More important than numbers is the quality of the new warships. These include two small V/STOL carriers, the Kirov-class nuclear-powered guided-missile cruiser, and two new classes of guided-missile destroyers.
Of greatest concern, the Pacific is now home to some 120 Soviet cruise missile and torpedo attack subs, among them the stealthy, extremely quiet Akula boat.
Equally impressive has been the emergence of Soviet airpower. PACAF officers point out that Soviet Pacific air forces, now estimated to total some 2,000 combat aircraft, boast virtually all the newest and most modern Soviet aircraft. With MiG-31 Foxhound and Su-27 Flanker fighters on hand, the interceptor force has come far.
The greatest threat, however, is posed by Soviet medium- and long-range offensive aviation. US intelligence concludes that more than 200 advanced Su-24 Fencer fighter-bombers—the USSR’s answer to the USAF F-111—are now deployed in the Pacific area.
Long-range striking forces include all Soviet Bear-G bombers, plus a significant number of Bear-Hs armed with AS-15 air-to-surface missiles. Dozens of Backfire bombers are assigned to naval aviation.
All told, say PACAF intelligence officers, the Soviet capability to deliver ordnance with aircraft has increased fourfold since 1980, and no letup is in sight.
“Five or six years ago,” notes one military officer in the Pacific, “PACAF would have described Soviet tacair power in Northeast Asia as primarily defensive in nature. But now, they have an obvious offensive capability. We believe that it’s an intentional move.”
The implications are many and uniformly troubling. The Soviets have been observed using their Bear-H bombers with AS-I5 cruise missiles to simulate strikes against Alaska. Shorter-legged Bear-Gs undertake mock attacks against US facilities and naval vessels throughout Far Eastern areas. There are coordinated naval and air tactical operations.
Overall, concludes a military planner, “We perceive that the Soviet threat has increased a great deal. We see a more active role for our forces simply because of the Soviet ability to project power.”
Worrisome as the Soviet buildup is, strategic affairs analysts say it should be kept in perspective.
Few believe that the Soviet Union has overtaken the United States as the preeminent Pacific power. Analysts maintain that the US, with its long tradition of seapower and combat aviation, enjoys a natural advantage over Moscow in the Pacific arena’s sea and air environment.
That conclusion is underscored by Admiral Hays himself, who flatly asserts that “a net assessment of the Pacific theater favors us.”
A prime source of American confidence these days is the clear superiority of the US Pacific Fleet. With more than 300 major warships—hall the entire US Navy—the fleet is at no disadvantage to the Russians in numbers. For sheer firepower and quality of its weapons, moreover, the US Navy far outclasses its Soviet competitor.
The Soviet Navy, for example, can deploy nothing comparable to the seven big-deck aircraft carriers, with their multipurpose air wings, that the US could deploy to the Pacific in a major crisis. US attack submarines still are superior in combat capability.
Equally impressive are the five tactical fighter wings of Pacific Air Forces. With only 275 combat aircraft, the force is not large, but it would weigh heavily in the balance of any major shooting war in the Far East.
The Soviet air forces have nothing to match the modern, sophisticated F-15C interceptors and F-16C multirole fighters, all of which have taken on upgraded avionics and weapon systems. Better US pilots and more realistic training are viewed as an additional edge.
All five wings, two each in Japan and South Korea and one in the Philippines, are strategically located on the Pacific rim, giving them fast response capability. In fact, these wings represent Washington’s most responsive and flexible power in the region.
The US Fifth Air Force, with 14,000 personnel manning and maintaining two wings at three major US installations in Japan, rates as the makeweight of the fighter fleet. Largest of the three numbered US air forces in the Pacific, the Fifth can call on two squadrons of hard-hitting F-1 6C multirole fighters based at Misawa AB in northern Japan, three squadrons of F-15C air-superiority fighters at Kadena AB on Okinawa, southern Japan, and a squadron of RF-4C reconnaissance craft.
In South Korea, the US Seventh Air Force, with 10,000 personnel at five major installations, deploys two full squadrons of F-I6Cs for interdiction, two squadrons of F-4s, and a squadron of tank-killing A-10s.
Rounding out the PACAF force is the US Thirteenth Air Force, headquartered at Clark AB in the Philippines. Its 8,000 Air Force personnel are responsible for two squadrons of F-4s, one performing the Wild Weasel radar-suppression mission, the other in the air-to-ground role.
Backing up the tactical fighters is a formidable force not directly assigned to PACAF Other major Air Force commands control about one-third of the 60,000-strong Air Force complement that is in the Pacific.
Tactical Air Command, for example, flies some of its E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System sentry planes out of Japan to support the theater in its entirety. Similarly, the Strategic Air Command has authority over SAC B-52 heavy bombers assigned to Andersen AFB on Guam. Military Airlift Command keeps its C-141 and C-5 airlifter crews in constant motion throughout the Pacific region.
All signs are that the US forces have kept pace, at least, with Soviet technological advances. That seems destined to continue.
Big Steps Forward
For PACAF, the biggest step forward in the next few years will be introduction of advanced F-15E multimission fighters into the Pacific. At present, PACAF is scheduled to receive significant numbers of the F-15E, a potent new version that will be equipped to carry out long-range interdiction while losing little of the F-15’s prowess in air-to-air combat. The aircraft is expected to add greatly to PACAF’s ground-attack capabilities.
Apart from their receipt of advanced fighters, the combat wings in the next few years will start fielding the AIM- 120 AMRAAM and the LANTIRN (Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night) ground attack system.
In the Navy, recent years have brought introduction of modem systems such as the Ticonderoga-class Aegis air defense cruiser, the F/A-18 strike fighter, the Tomahawk land attack cruise missile, two battleships, and more destroyers.
In PACOM’s relatively small contingent of forward-deployed land forces—two Army divisions, one in South Korea and one in Hawaii, and a Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa—both firepower and mobility have been improved.
Apart from the contribution made by US national forces, the Pacific military equation includes another factor that tends to favor the United States. This is the air, sea, and land forces of major allies.
Though frequently criticized as a piker on defense, Japan is applauded by military officers for hay-mg come far in a very short time, especially in airpower.
The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force, formed around ninety-six Mitsubishi-assembled F-15Js, today can put aloft more combat aircraft than the US has permanently based in Japan, Korea, and the Philippines combined.
Similarly, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force has more than twice as many destroyer-type ships, critical for antisubmarine warfare, as the US Seventh Fleet that patrols the Western Pacific.
South Korea, too, can discharge major military power with its professional and highly trained force of 615,000. Primarily oriented to land combat, Seoul is now improving its air arm and has taken on most of the local air defense burden.
Other allies, such as the Philippines and Australia, make more modest but still important contributions to regional defense.
Offsetting these factors, somewhat, are the huge militaries of Soviet allies Vietnam and North Korea.
China studiously maintains its independence of both superpowers in pursuit of its own interests. However, Beijing’s primitive but vast armed forces sharply limit Soviet options in the Far East while imposing few constraints on US freedom of maneuver in the most critical areas.
All in all, in Admiral Hays’s assessment, the United States at present finds itself in an “adequate” position to defend its vital interests in the Pacific rim from Soviet and Soviet-backed military challenges.
He warns that Washington will be compelled to work harder in years ahead to maintain a favorable strategic position in a region that already is of critical, and increasing, importance.
It is not only the perceived Soviet menace to growing American interests in the Far East that is attracting the attention of Pentagon military planners to the Pacific rim.
The region is now taking on added importance in American eyes for a second, and most ironic, reason. It is this: The enormous, thinly populated Pacific flank of the Soviet Union itself, though it is the site of formidable military power, has increasingly come to be viewed as something of a Soviet Achilles’ heel—not in the Pacific but thousands of miles away in Europe or the Middle East.
The USSR’s use of its preponderance of forces in those regions, military leaders insist, can be deterred or diluted by US willingness, and demonstrated capability, to launch a devastating air and sea offensive aimed at opening a second front in the Soviet Far East.
Thus, US power in the Pacific is viewed as having military utility that goes far beyond narrow, theater-defense considerations.
Under this theory, the Soviet Union would seek at some point in wartime to shift surplus land and air forces westward from the Far East to overwhelm NATO defenders in a decisive European battle.
The idea now is that, by intensifying Moscow’s insecurities about its sensitive eastern border, the US could prevent the Kremlin from transferring forces to the European battle. Instead, the thinking goes, the Soviet Union would opt to keep them in place, and perhaps even be compelled to reinforce its Far East frontier with European units.
In this view, destruction of Soviet forces arrayed against the Pacific theater would represent an ancillary benefit.
This concept of “horizontal escalation” is not new. It has been developing since the mid-1970s, primarily within the US Navy. Military men, however, are more outspoken than ever in their support of it, at least in the Pacific.
Typical of the comments of many officers is this explanation from General Kerby:
“Our first responsibility is to deter aggression. If the National Command Authorities approve our participation, the best contribution that can be made in the Pacific theater, should the war begin in the European theater, is to tie down Soviet forces deployed in the Far East, to prevent their redeployment to the European front. It gives us the capability to take some pressure off of Europe.”
In short, the idea would be to make certain that the Soviet Union would not be able to ignore a threat in its Eastern region.
As many see it, the question of who opens the second front is of purely academic interest, given what they view as the likelihood of Soviet attack worldwide.
Others aren’t so sure. Some officers can find little incentive for the Soviet Union to strike first in the Pacific. Whatever the pros and cons on this specific issue, this much is beyond dispute: Senior US military officers today consider direct US escalation of this form a legitimate, serious option in wartime, and they are training their forces accordingly.
“A major portion of our work here,” reports an Air Force officer in the Pacific, “is to fix those [Soviet] forces here in this theater so that they can’t be used to augment the Western European front. That’s a kind of cornerstone of our strategy here in the Pacific theater.”
Naval officers report that the notion of employing the Navy as a strategic counterweight to Soviet military power in Europe has become an even more crucial element in US naval strategy.
In assessing the plan, experts cite three fundamental and deep-seated Soviet concerns that US military planners seek to manipulate.
• The Chinese Giant: Russians are only too aware that China has never relinquished its territorial claim to parts of Soviet Siberia that lie just across the border between the two nations. Still primitive, but potentially rich, Siberia might yet be put under Chinese pressure— particularly in a conflict that results in destruction of much local Soviet military power.
• Insecure Borders: In addition to its worries about a resurgent China, Moscow is viewed as harboring major concerns about the general security of its frontiers. “Why else would they keep half of their maritime forces deployed to the Pacific?” asks an American planner. “If we go in there and bomb Vladivostok and cruise three miles off their coasts at will, then we have made them naked and vulnerable.”
• Strategic Vulnerability: The Soviet Union knows that its fleet of strategic missile-firing submarines (SSBNs) are put at risk by the US Navy’s superior antisubmarine warfare capability. What’s more, the Navy states explicitly that it would target Soviet SSBNs in the Far Eastern Sea of Okhotsk and try to sink them as quickly as possible. This type of close-in undersea campaign, pressed hard enough, could deprive Moscow of part of its strategic reserve force.
“I would want the risk of an unpredictable and creative US military attack to be a factor in the Soviet planner’s mind, yes,” acknowledges a Pacific officer. “I would love it if a Soviet planner were agonizing over this prior to committing aggression.”
The concept of horizontal escalation is controversial. Some claim that such an operation would lead to a rapid escalation of conflict, impede diplomatic efforts to bring the war to a close, and perhaps lead to nuclear confrontation, to name but a few of the charges critics raise.
Most serious, however, are questions about whether horizontal escalation would prove effective in a military sense. Analysts cite three imponderables.
First, they ask, could the United States induce its Far Eastern allies to provide the support that would be crucial to success
Sustained, effective air and sea attack against the Soviet flank is considered inconceivable without the assistance of Japan, the Philippines, and China, the first two for logistical help and the third as a political counterweight to Soviet land power. China’s response—supportive, neutral, or hostile toward the US—could well be the decisive factor in Soviet calculations.
The biggest question mark is Japan, a nation whose constitution permits only tightly constrained defensive actions. “The Japanese have to play logistically,” maintains one US planner. “If they don’t, then we’re in a world of hurt.”
In the face of what would surely be intense Soviet pressure in a crisis, would Tokyo stand behind Washington? Or would it buckle under Soviet threats? Reports one Pacific analyst: “It comes up in a lot of the exercises that we run.
There is a lot of feeling among some that they wouldn’t give us permission to act. There are others who say they would be very supportive.”
Second, would US forces actually be able to inflict a painful defeat on Soviet forces in the Far East
Implicit in the strategy, say military men, is a belief in local American military superiority. While that is probably true in the Pacific generally, the doubt increases as US attacks move closer to Soviet territory.
Likely targets are heavily defended. Experts note that there are three big naval bases in the Eastern USSR—Vladivostok and Sovietskaya Gavan on the Sea of Japan and a third, Petropavlovsk, on the Kamchatka peninsula. All are surrounded by extremely dense rings of air and sea defenses that are certain to pose formidable dangers for ships and aircraft.
Finally, some critics question whether even a successful campaign is likely to have the desired effect on Soviet force deployment decisions. Strategic analyst John Mearsheimer put it this way in the journal International Security: “The Soviets could afford to absorb a temporary beating in the Far East while they were rolling up NATO’s forces in Central Europe. A setback on the periphery would not weaken their European effort in any meaningful way, and later they could move massive force to deal with problems on their periphery.”
Amid all the controversy, Pacific officers hasten to make a point that is often overlooked. Far from being a reckless and unsound dogma, such war-widening attacks are considered options that would only be put into play under workable circumstances.
“But we’ve got to work on it and train on it,” concludes a Pacific planner.
Overall, the rising strategic importance of the Pacific, in its own right and as part of US global strategy, presents Washington with a challenge in several areas.
In military terms, say experts, the US will have to find a way to augment its Pacific forces to cope, in the future, with what shapes up as a permanent and growing Soviet presence.
For example, the Pacific Commander’s so-called “Integrated Priority List,” a classified summary of defense priorities, outlines a broad array of requirements in the near future. They include better antisubmarine-warfare capability, improved area air defense of the region, and long-range strike aircraft. On the latter score, Pacific military leaders continue to press for assignment of F- ill long-range interdiction aircraft.
Apart from better weapons, the Pacific Command has need of better staying power—munitions stockpiles, war reserve spares, and the like.
In light of current budget austerity, analysts note, finding the funds for such improvements will be increasingly difficult, as will any possible shift of US assets from other parts of the world to the Pacific.
In diplomatic terms, the challenge appears even stiffer. All too apparent is the growing political and economic conflict between Washington and its key Pacific allies. Tension with Manila, for example, is raising severe questions about continued US naval and air access to the key Subic Bay naval base and Clark AB in the Philippines (see also “Bases in Jeopardy,” by Jed C. Snyder, on p. 64 of this issue). Washington’s efforts to persuade such economically powerful allies as Japan and South Korea to assume a larger share of the common defense rapidly are also viewed as politically difficult.
Finding solutions to these problems, however, is regarded as a necessity if the US is to exploit the possibilities and minimize the risks now emerging on the Pacific frontier.