PacNet #7 – A better regional defense posture for the US and its allies

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The waning of the US’ longstanding military and technological superiority against a nuclear-armed adversary magnifies the importance of the US alliance network, making it more crucial to deterring and defeating regional challengers in a conflict. Potential adversaries, including China and Russia, seek to weaken the US alliance architecture to limit its freedom of operations and access to the region.

Nuclear-armed adversaries’ use of advanced anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capabilities and gray-zone tactics—employing unconventional tools for coercive and disruptive measures to change the status quo but stopping short of provoking outright interstate military warfare—is of particular concern. To overcome those challenges, the US will need as many options as possible, as well as help from its allies to tailor its regional deterrence architecture to check near-peer competitors and rogue states, and show that the US and its allies can act decisively if deterrence fails.

There are, however, issues the US and allies must resolve to maintain and strengthen regional tailored deterrence architecture. The first is a threat perception gap between the US and its allies in Asia. Even when the gap is narrow, there seems to be a difference in how to respond to regional challengers.

The Taiwan Strait is the most dangerous hot spot in Asia, and could set the US and China on a collision course. Southeast Asian countries are on the frontline as they confront China’s actions to make its claims regarding the nine-dash line in the South China Sea fait accompli. Tensions have steadily increased between Japan and China over the Senakau/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea since 2012. Lastly, South Korea is concerned about increasing Chinese military activities in the Yellow Sea, as well as in the East Sea. Regional states are reaching a common understanding that China is using gray-zone tactics to pursue national interests and becoming more assertive as its military capabilities and economic leverage grow.

Nevertheless, there is a perception gap between states experiencing tensions with China and those that have relatively good relations with it. Even among regional states in conflict with China, there is disagreement over whether China is trying to work within the existing international system or will weaponize its economic power and use military force to resolve conflicts and change the status quo.

Another factor precluding a united perception of major security threats is the different relationships countries have with the major regional challenger. While China is not a major energy supplier, as Russia is in Europe, economic interdependence with China complicates national defense strategies. Economic interdependence between China and regional countries is uneven, with the latter relying very much on the former’s huge market. Moreover, Chinese investment in neighboring countries—the Belt and Road Initiative being the most notable example—provides opportunities for economic development and the risk of increasing vulnerability to Chinese influence. The US-built San Francisco system in Asia—marked by a hub-and-spoke network of formal bilateral security alliances and open access to the US market, giving US allies in the region huge security and economic incentives—is not what it used to be. China has become an attractive alternative market and source of development aid, though not as open nor as transparent as the US market and aid.

Maintaining deterrence throughout the full spectrum of a crisis—from gray zone to red zone, where conflicts involve interstate military conflict but lie beneath the nuclear response threshold, and then from the red to black-and-white zone, involving nuclear attacks on the US homeland or an ally—requires the US and its allies to act in unison with a shared understanding of threats and how to manage them. Allied solidarity against a regional challenger throughout a crisis is a key assumption for a Blue theory of victory—a set of approaches that the US and allies should pursue to deter regional adversaries, manage escalation control in crisis and conflict, and safeguard core interests. Differing threat perceptions between the US and its allies—and among its allies—of a nuclear-armed regional challenger will make a Blue victory impossible. US reassurance of its extended deterrence commitment to allies, both conventional and nuclear, will not resolve concerns about entrapment in a military conflict between two great powers.

Reaching consensus on threat perceptions and showing solidarity and resolve in a crisis involves many factors, in the military sphere as well as across political, economic, and social areas. Obtaining critical information in a timely manner and guaranteeing its authenticity through intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations is crucial in developing a common threat perception. Better and wider information gathering and sharing coverage will allow the US and allies to better understand the security environment and a crisis. Obtaining and sharing critical information earlier in a conflict, perhaps even before it escalates from gray zone to red zone, will help the US and allies to establish a common understanding of the regional threat faster, enabling earlier warnings and more time to prepare a response.

Such readiness will make it harder for a regional challenger to establish a fait accompli and carry out surprise armed provocations. While the US possesses state-of-the-art ISR capabilities, it should help allies and partners develop more advanced ISR capabilities of their own to deter and, if necessary, prevail over regional challengers before and during a crisis. The US already has a dense information sharing network in the region, including the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, plus partners like South Korea and Japan that possess capable ISR assets and plan to acquire more advanced capabilities. Nevertheless, more should be done to strengthen partner ISR capabilities and information sharing, allowing information from diverse sources to be cross-checked by allies and partners, thus increasing confidence in shared intelligence and narrowing the threat perception gap.

Bolstering conventional military capabilities, especially related to denial strategies, should also be emphasized for future collaboration between the US and allies. The Trump administration seems to look at blunter approaches and renewing focus on its nuclear capabilities for deterrence purposes. But nuclear capabilities are no panacea for escalation control; finding ways to reinforce its conventional superiority together with regional allies and partners would provide better, wider, and more practical options to manage escalation and respond to provocations. Since strategic competition between the US and China is different from that of the US-Soviet fight during the Cold War, allied conventional capabilities in Asia should focus on supporting denial strategies and tactics rather than aiming to obtain superior counterforce capabilities that could result in misperception and miscalculation by the Chinese leadership. These could include an advanced allied counter-missile strategy, maritime-denial strategy, anti-submarine warfare tactics, and enhanced force mobility concepts that would impose higher costs on potential challengers while preserving allied forces. Investing in conventional denial capabilities with greater interoperability will not only improve tailored deterrence architecture in Asia but also buy time for the US and partners to share crucial information and choose appropriate countermeasures helping to contain a crisis.

The US 2018 National Defense Strategy stressed the importance of strengthening its alliance network, which helps the US against regional adversaries by improving understanding of the theater security environment and broadening options and tools. While allies will look to the US to maintain and enhance its tailored extended deterrence architecture and ensure that it has escalation control over potential adversaries, allies and partners will be asked for more burden-sharing and increased levels of interoperability, as the US cannot bear increasing costs alone at a time of economic slowdown and fiscal austerity. To prevail over nuclear-armed adversaries, the US and its allies and partners should use limited resources wisely, investing more in allied ISR and conventional denial capabilities to narrow the threat perception gap among partners and increase the costs regional challengers have to bear for their provocations.

Gibum Kim (gbkim83@kida.re.kr) is an associate research fellow at the Center for Security and Strategy of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely his own.

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YL Blog #26 – Extended Deterrence in the Age of Trump: Hardware, Software, and Malware

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2019 US-ROK-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue offered an excellent forum to gauge the current strategic thinking and debates in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul. The event comprised experts’ remarks apropos the extended deterrence in the Asia-Pacific and trilateral cooperation, as well as a two-move tabletop exercise (TTX) that brought alliance management issues to light.

The “hardware” component of extended deterrence was discussed at length, particularly the post-INF developments and implications for the region. The majority of participants agreed that INF withdrawal, albeit problematic in its execution and style, will positively contribute to countering Russian and Chinese previously unchecked advances. Putting aside the basing question, participants agreed that new missiles would strengthen the deterrence posture.

The second element, the “software,” which relies on assurance and credibility, needed more discussions and deliberations. Assuring allies that the United States will honor its treaty obligations in case of an attack is infinitely more challenging than developing a certain type of military equipment. This is what strategists and policymakers grappled with throughout the Cold War. They succeeded by supporting allies economically and politically, and by signaling unified positions despite serious disagreements that were dealt with behind closed doors. In regards to adversaries, the United States consistently communicated that an attack on an ally will automatically precipitate a devastating American response. This, indeed, is the underlying logic of deterrence: an aggressor-state is dissuaded from launching an attack on an ally, knowing that the United States will retaliate on its behalf which would negate any potential gain from launching an attack in the first place.

Since it is a part of the red theory of victory, it comes as no surprise that China, Russia, and North Korea are working hard to break the U.S. alliance structure. What is frustrating to watch is our commander-in-chief making comments that undermine allies’ confidence and play right into our opponents’ hands. For lack of a better analogy, I treat these comments as “malware.” One tweet might not unravel the alliance structure per se, but allow enough of them to roam in your system, and soon enough one will have to scrap the old and install a new infrastructure altogether.

In the recent past, few instances stand out. First, President Trump continues to downplay the importance of North Korea’s short-range missile launches, even though these missiles threaten Japan’s and ROK’s survival and security. Second, bickering over trade deals and troops cost-sharing underscores Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy and skepticism of alliances writ large. Third, adopting North Korean lexicon and calling defensive military exercises “war games” is not just a diplomatic gaffe, but an insult to men and women in uniform. Put together, these blunders create a dangerous situation and invite aggressors to test our will to defend allies, particularly on the sub-conventional level.

As we are upgrading hardware, Trump unwittingly inserts malware into the trilateral relationship. Particularly unhelpful has been “public-shaming” of South Korea and its contributions for military cost-sharing. Koreans are already overly sensitive when it comes to the U.S. troops and the move to Camp Humphreys. Fueling the anti-American sentiments in the South facilitates North Korean long-held strategic thinking that once the U.S. troops out of the peninsula, South Korea will be ripe for reunification on the DPRK’s terms. Undoubtedly, Kim Jung Un is enjoying the new reality show.

TTX was designed to discern how the U.S., ROK, and Japan would react and respond to Beijing’s and Pyongyang’s coordinated assault on the rules-based international order. Japan and South Korea correctly calculated that the adversaries were seeking to alter the status quo, and that the situation merited a strong response. To demonstrate firm resolve and commitment to the alliance structure, all allied states, in fact, expressed willingness to “escalate to de-escalate.” Moreover, a component of the final move was North Korea’s wielding its nuclear card: a nuclear explosion in the Pacific Ocean as well as a missile launch over Japan. Allies unequivocally conveyed that they will watch the reaction and comments from the White House closely, and that their subsequent steps will be guided by what they observe.

Relatedly, neither Japanese nor South Korean delegates raised issues with Trump’s style of diplomacy, and only a handful of American experts acknowledged Trump’s malign effects on the U.S. standing in the world. One participant alluded that we need to brace ourselves for the partial or complete U.S. troop withdrawal from Korea, given Trump’s intransigence with cost-sharing and his record. The fact that the U.S. credibility was not openly questioned is perhaps a good sign. However, Trump’s foreign policy track record was the elephant in the room. (Remember Paris Accords? JCPOA?).

The extended deterrence framework has played an essential role in ensuring peace in Northeast Asia, but currently it is undergoing major shifts. Allies have a decent understanding of an appropriate response to revisionist states’ attempts to overthrow the status quo. However, Japanese and Korean participants (American as well, for that matter) remain unsure how to deal with self-inflicted wounds. Explicit signaling needs to be a priority; there should be no doubt in Beijing, Moscow, or Pyongyang that regardless of the domain and intensity, the United States and allies will respond and inflict unacceptable damage on the adversary’s forces. More hardware in the region will certainly alleviate some allies’ anxieties. However, returning to basics-updating the software and protecting it from malware-will deliver more bang for the buck.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.