The US Is Out of Position in the Indo-Pacific Region
A truly joint approach is needed, and the Army has several particular roles to play.
The Secretary of State’s recent dismissal of Beijing’s South China Sea claims is just the latest way U.S. officials are calling out Chinese rhetoric and military activity as a threat to a “free and open Indo Pacific.” But from a military perspective, the United States is not well positioned to affect favorable change or moderate Beijing’s aggressive behavior. Indeed, America’s once-unassailable competitive military advantage is eroding, and nowhere faster than in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s area of responsibility. Joint forces there are physically out of position, conceptually unprepared, and lacking leverage in deployed and anticipated capabilities for hypercompetition with China’s ever-improving People’s Liberation Army.
Several months after the January 2018 release of the National Defense Strategy, our group of U.S. Army War College researchers began to look at the role of the U.S. Army in INDOPACOM, drawing upon our earlier study of this hypercompetitive environment. Our research suggests that the Joint Force needs fundamental changes — in strategy and operational concepts, forces and capabilities, footprints and presence, authorities and agreements, and theater command and control — to meet the challenges of what the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning calls the “competition continuum.” In our new report, "An Army Transformed: USINDOPACOM Hypercompetition and US Army Theater Design," we recommend that the service help lead this transformation by assuming four roles: the Grid, the Enabler, the Multi-Domain Warfighter, and the Capability and Capacity Generator.
INDOPACOM, now DoD’s priority theater, is home to the states that present U.S. strategists with the most intense and direct military threats: Russia, North Korea, and particularly China, the United States’ regional pacing rival. Beijing’s effective gray zone resistance and aggressive military transformation increasingly allow it to act as a regional peer to U.S. and partner forces.
The region’s security environment is aptly captured by the concept of hypercompetition: “the constant struggle to achieve temporary advantages,” as Dartmouth Professor Richard D’Aveni put it in the mid-1990s. Adapting the concept in our 2017 study of contemporary military rivalry in the Indo-Pacific, we called it the persistent struggle for transient but exploitable advantage across and within highly contested domains and competitive spaces, including air, land, sea, space, cyberspace, the electro-magnetic spectrum, and strategic influence.
Today, we find that China holds the strategic initiative, thanks to a two-decade erosion of U.S. military position. This stems from the post-9/11 wars, excessive U.S. confidence in its own regional military position, and China’s aggressive military transformation and gray zone maneuver to crowd the United States out of its perceived sphere of influence. The PLA has become a formidable “counter-intervention” force, built to oppose the U.S. Joint Force operating in the region. Strategically, it provides a coercive, cost-imposing regional umbrella beneath which China preys on U.S. risk calculations and pursues predatory actions against vulnerable U.S. partners and interests.
U.S. strategists have been trying to refocus on the Indo-Pacific theater for two decades. The 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, largely written pre-9/11, listed Northeast Asia and East Asia Littoral among its four “critical regions.” Years later, as the Iraq War wound down, the Obama administration made its own attempt to “re-balance” in the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. Trump’s NDS and the Defense Department’s 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy represent a third push. Yet none of these well-meaning initiatives has fostered an effective response to the Indo-Pacific’s changing strategic circumstances, with the result that U.S. forces in the region are profoundly out of position—conceptually, physically, and with deployed and anticipated capabilities.
The United States is out of position conceptually because INDOPACOM and its service components are not yet on a common joint path that transfers greater risk to and imposes outsized strategic costs on China. The problem is not lack of effort but lack of coordination. Each service has its own ideas: Multi-domain Operations (Army), Agile Combat Employment (Air Force), Distributed Maritime Operations (Navy), and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (Marine Corps). We must accelerate the ongoing efforts to unify these concepts of operation into an all-domain Joint warfighting concept.
The United States is out of position physically because its regional posture remains largely fixed in Northeast Asia, predicated on discredited advantage, and positioned for the efficient prosecution of a second Korean war. It is not a posture conducive to persistent hypercompetition with China or, in extremis, a cold-start escalation to armed conflict that might emerge from any one of myriad faultlines pitting China against the United States and its partners in the Indo-Pacific (Taiwan, South and East China Seas, etc). We find that achieving a more distributed and agile posture is currently a high-priority aspiration in INDOPACOM. It should remain so.
Finally, the United States is out of position with deployed and anticipated capabilities. The military is not yet equipped for the large-scale, widely distributed all-domain operations that U.S. senior leaders believe are essential to deterring or defeating China. In particular, power projection and access, Joint command and control, sustainment, protection, and intra-theater maneuver and movement are all challenged by the twin tyrannies of distance and an increasingly capable Chinese military.
Having gained strategic initiative, Beijing will continue to limit U.S. freedom of action unless the United States can make meaningful changes to INDOPACOM theater design. Further, China will continue to manipulate U.S. and partner risk calculations through innovative combinations of gray zone capabilities and methods. The latent threat of prohibitive military cost from an increasingly capable PLA will persistently magnify the reach and effectiveness of China’s gray zone maneuver. Finally, without a commitment to transformational INDOPACOM adaptation, we believe, China will increase its military options over the next decade while U.S. and partner options become increasingly more constrained, cost-prohibitive, and risky. The bill payer will be American interests, as the United States’ ability to project force and protect partners becomes increasingly uncertain and vulnerable.
Four Transformational Roles
A hypercompetitive environment demands a hypercompetitive Joint Force approach, one that gets the most out of each service component by combining their strengths. We suggest INDOPACOM’s unique military problem demands fundamental change in the way Joint and Army forces organize, operate, integrate, and employ capabilities. INDOPACOM commander Adm. Philip Davidson has said this approach should be more “agile and distributed,” should achieve “positional advantage,” and should be “interoperable and compatible” with partner forces.
The implications of this vision for all service components are profound, perhaps most of all for the Army. Toward that end, we recommend that the Army adopt four transformational roles over the next decade. The four roles are the Army as the Grid, the Army as the Enabler, the Army as the Multi-Domain Warfighter, and the Army as the Capability and Capacity Generator. The order matters.
The Grid is a distributed, resilient, and mutually reinforcing theater network of Army-enabled expeditionary clusters, hubs, and nodes serving as a foundation for Joint “all-domain operations.” The grid expands options for Joint Force commanders, it enables effective Joint all-domain maneuver and fires, and, in the process, it complicates rival planning and decision making.
The Enabler sees a Joint-focused Army transformation specific to INDOPACOM animate the grid in the areas of command and control, sustainment, protection, movement, and intelligence and information. The role of enabler is not the sum total of Army responsibility vis-à-vis the pacing threat China. It is, however, the Army’s most comprehensive, taxing, and institutionally disruptive role.
The role of Multi-Domain Warfighter sees the Army – on behalf of INDOPACOM and with sister services and regional partners – create and field a land-based multi-domain warfighting capability with theater-wide presence and reach. Army multi-domain capabilities and forces will benefit from the same agile, resilient, and redundant Army-enabled theater grid underwriting Joint and foreign partners. We caution against an over-commitment to innovation in multi-domain warfighting before taking concrete steps to adopt and institutionalize the roles of “grid” and “enabler” first. Joint Force success overall will rely on the Army prioritizing these upfront. Again, the order matters.
Finally, the Army as Capability and Capacity Generator uses an asymmetric U.S. advantage — a strong network of allies and partners — to enhance traditional regional ground force competencies and expand complementary coalition multi-domain capability. Within a unified Joint concept for competition and conflict, Army forces can be the catalyst for a combined land-based multi-domain network that draws on the unique strengths and competencies of regional allies and partners.
We sense both the need and desire for change in the Army’s Indo-Pacific disposition. However, we argue that the most appropriate, effective, and durable change can only occur within the context of a more integrated and unified Joint Force concept for theater competition and conflict. Restoring a new, more favorable and durable military balance in the Indo-Pacific – as called for by NDS18 – depends almost entirely in DoD, Joint, and Army senior leadership continuing to make risk-informed but bold choices. Leaders must spurn service bias, draw upon service strengths, and ensure that the new theater Joint concept not suffer from compromise that favors service component preferences over real operational requirements.
China is acting with newfound confidence and freedom of action in recent regional activism in Xianjang, the Ladakh border region, the South China Sea, and Hong Kong. American allies anxiously eye Chinese activities hoping to see an effective American counterbalance materialize. This would include transformed military concepts, capabilities, and posture. Without regional military transformation, strategic U.S. failure in INDOPACOM grows substantially more likely. Recognizing the region’s high stakes and adapting to hypercompete with China to re-establish a more favorable U.S. military position would be a first step in avoiding it.
This article draws from insights and material in the forthcoming Army War College report “An Army Transformed—INDOPACOM Hypercompetition and U.S. Army Theater Design” and in the recent Parameters, Summer Edition article, Geo-Strategic Net Assessment: INDOPACOM Through 2030. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Defense, the United States Army, or the United States Army War College.
Col. Elizabeth Martin is a recent United States Army War College graduate. While at USAWC, she was a researcher on the INDOPACOM theater design project.