Imperatives of the Pacific Frontier

Oct. 1, 1988

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.”

Keeping Perspective

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.

“Horizontal Escalation”

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.”

Controversial Strategy

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.