A Black Hawk helicopter with the U.S. Army Aviation Battalion Japan participates in a First Flight rehearsal with Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members near Yokohama, Japan, on Dec. 16, 2018.

A Black Hawk helicopter with the U.S. Army Aviation Battalion Japan participates in a First Flight rehearsal with Japan Ground Self-Defense Force members near Yokohama, Japan, on Dec. 16, 2018. U.S. Army / Winifred Brown

The US Army Can Be the Joint Force's Contact Layer in the Pacific

Team a multi-domain task force with U.S. Army Forces Japan to keep tabs on China, boost deterrence, and—if necessary—fight until reinforcements arrive.

In preparation for large-scale combat operations with the People’s Republic of China, the Joint Force requires a formation that is persistent, survivable, and capable of providing command and control over a full range of warfighting functions. The Army is uniquely suited to fill this role. By combining U.S. Army Japan with a multi-domain task force in the first island chain, the U.S. would present the PRC with a dilemma that is not easily resolved, and thus increase credible military deterrence.

The concept of a contact layer is as old as war itself. Garrisons and outposts on the edge of friendly territory have long been used to see, sense, and understand adversaries—and to serve as the first echelon of defenses against invading forces. To be effective, a nation’s contact layer must be persistent: present in competition, ready ahead of crisis, and survivable in conflict. 

This is especially relevant as China continues to threaten the international status quo and play a dangerous game of chicken with U.S. forces in the first island chain—the “barrier formed by Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and maritime and peninsular Southeast Asia,” as a CSBA report put it. 

The question then arises: who “gains and maintains contact” in the first island chain? Not the Navy or Air Force. The PRC’s sophisticated munitions and deep magazines represent a grave threat to locally based maritime and air assets, whose best defense is dispersal beyond weapons engagement range before the missiles start flying. The Marine Corps, while a highly capable tactical ground combat force, will certainly be challenged by any scenario in the theater to command and control at scale, project deep fires, protect joint force formations, and manage the significant sustainment activity that any expanded confrontation would require. Only the Army has these capabilities, plus the “staying power” that comes with man-made cover, underground facilities, and modern concealment techniques. 

The Army can serve as a contact layer, survive an initial strike, and fracture the enemy’s anti-access and area-denial network, allowing follow-on joint forces to reach the theater and maneuver without having to fight their way in. It can do this because for much of the past decade, the service has been testing and building an “organizational centerpiece” for just such a problem set: the multi-domain task force. MDTF-1 was established in 2017 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; MDTF-2 in 2021 in Germany; and MDTF-3 four months ago in Hawaii.

Such a team, combined with the U.S. Army Japan, as a contact layer in the first island chain, would provide fires, protection, sensors, command and control, sustainment, and security cooperation. The team would facilitate theater opening and sustainment for the joint force by reducing the efficacy of the PRC’s anti-access and area denial system across all phases of the conflict—helping to solve the Joint Force’s A2/AD predicament. It would also minimize China’s advantage of interior lines and present its leaders with multiple dilemmas.

And by supporting integrated deterrence and unequivocally signaling the will of the United States in the region, the Army team would decrease the likelihood that a crisis will erupt at all.

Next steps 

Time is, of course, ticking, which begs the question of how to achieve this quickly. Some might suggest sending a corps—the highest level of command that can provide operational direction for actual combat—to the first island chain. But the Army has just four active corps, making forward-stationing neither feasible nor operationally desirable in competition.

But there is already a headquarters in the first island chain, one with decades of command-and-control experience in theater, key relationships with local governments and forces, and substantial responsibility for sustainment of the joint force in conflict: U.S. Army Japan, or USARJ. 

Japan is a long-time ally—indeed, our “anchoring” ally in the region. Possessed of a robust defensive military of its own, Japan can provide assured access to key terrain, reliable basing and overflight, and a mobility corridor in and through the theater. And USARJ has a close relationship with the Japan Self-Defense Forces, fostered through decades of combined training exercises. 

Pairing a multi-domain task force with USARJ completes the package by providing multi-domain intelligence, information, protection and a full range of fires capabilities, along with the experts to plan for and employ those capabilities, all while drawing on USARJ’s years of bilateral coordination, sustainment, and protection planning experience. Access for MDTF fires assets is a critical challenge, and USARJ is the Army’s expert on access in Japan. Pairing these organizations would enable a persistent presence and interoperability through bilateral exercises, which supports the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, while simultaneously setting the theater.   

Given the acute urgency of the current problem set, Japan is the place to test and employ the concept of a land-based contact layer that would provide the Joint Force commander with eyes, ears, and kinetic weapons inside a potential adversary’s near abroad, while also allowing larger warfighting formations to remain uncommitted and flexible. As the 2022 National Defense Strategy aptly directs, we must “act urgently.” Pairing USARJ with an MDTF achieves this quickly and at a lower cost than other options.

Major General J.B. Vowell is a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army, currently serving as the Commanding General of United States Army Japan.

Maj. Kevin Joyce is an Army Strategist, and the strategy branch chief at United States Army Japan.

The views expressed are the authors' alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.