Defense One Radio, Ep. 115: Preparing for conflict in the Indo-Pacific

An Army two-star general explains his proposal to send a multi-domain task force to the region.

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  • U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Joel “JB” Vowell; Commanding General of the United States Army Japan;
  • Maj. Kevin Joyce is an Army Strategist and the strategy branch chief at U.S. Army Japan.

Find a transcript of this conversation below.

Watson: Right now, the U.S. military has about 55,000 troops stationed in Japan. It’s America’s largest forward-deployed force anywhere in the world. And it’s been this way since the Second World War, which of course means well before our current time with nuclear-armed North Korea launching a record number of rockets as it did just last year, and an expansionist Chinese military with its island-building in the South China Sea and almost daily air and naval drills just off Taiwan’s coasts. Today we’re going to speak to the general who commands the U.S. Army in Japan. His name is Major General “JB” Vowell. And he teamed up with Army strategist Maj. Kevin Joyce in a commentary published recently on Defense One. It’s called “The US Army Can Be the Joint Force's Contact Layer in the Pacific.” Major General Vowell and Maj. Joyce, welcome to Defense One Radio.

Vowell: Thanks, Ben. Thanks for having us.

Joyce: Good morning, sir.

Watson: Very good. So the two of you have an idea. And it involves adding what's known as a multi domain task force to the region, and you propose for it to be based where you guys are there at U.S. Army Japan. These task forces are about the size of a battalion, which I believe to be around 1000 soldiers or so. The Army has one of these in Germany, and has a second in Washington State, and has a third that was added to Hawaii in September. You refer to your proposed Task Force as a contact layer for U.S. and allied forces arrayed along what's called the first island chain, which sort of formed the borders of South and East China Seas, heading south from Japan toward Taiwan and the Philippines. So I want to start our discussion with this idea of contact layers, which you write are as old as war itself. Can you share some examples of these contact layers from decades past? And maybe it'll kind of help us understand some of the thinking that went into all of this.

Vowell: Yeah, thanks, Ben. I'll start. I think maybe an easier, more recent historical example was our support to the German defense plan, particularly in the 70s and 80s coming out of Southeast Asia and our experiences in Vietnam. Now, we had been there since World War II ended, occupied West Germany after the Soviets occupied parts of Berlin, and wanted more of Germany. Obviously, that ended in a kind of a frontline trace between the Soviet Union and the Western powers after World War Two. But if you fast forward to the 70s, and 80s, we had forces right up along the border facing potentially East German and Soviet armored forces. And if you look at Berlin, with the four quarters of the cities, between the U.S., the Soviet, the French and the UK quarters that were in Berlin, that was a contact layer. That was where the frontline trace of containment policy can be seen between East and West. But that was designed to be there—a forward presence to forward deter, hold down the fight if it were to happen, and be ready to allow the conditions for the forward projection of combat forces from the continental United States to reinforce the fight in Germany [to] buy time. That contact layer was there to receive the brunt of the initial attacks, buy time and space for the rest of the NATO forces to mobilize, U.S. forces to mobilize and power project from the continental United States to reinforce that. And we rehearsed that in the 70s and 80s through something called REFORGER, or return of forces to Germany. Ironically, today, we've kind of done that in spirit based upon 2014—and of course, with last February's invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation where we've supported NATO and deployed more forces back into the region. And so there's two examples in that one theater over time where forward presence, if not deters action—you can argue yes or no, did we help deter what Russia was really trying to do in Ukraine recently—but we could respond better. We could galvanize the forces; we could rally the flags to pose and we could get the resources to contain what's happening. And in this case, recently support the Ukrainians to defend themselves. What Kevin and I articulate is, there's no substitute for forward presence. The tyranny of distance in the Indo-Pacific alone rationalizes an argument to be forward, to be in that contact layer; to see, sense, understand, provide indications and warnings. And we argue, bottom line, our organization has the DNA in this region, in this country in this fight, to be that force, and then be capable of bringing, just like I talked about the return of forces to Germany, forces into the Indo-Pacific in a crisis, or in a conflict. 

Joyce: I will go back a little further in history. Another example really briefly is just under the Roman Empire. There was a time when the far periphery of the Roman Empire extended all the way into modern day Europe, where the Gauls made contact with that frontline trace. And they established their own contact layer out there in modern day Europe. Because the Roman Empire was so large and vast at the time, they really struggled with how do they see sense understand along the periphery? And then how do they reinforce where they end up getting, or making contact with the enemy? And that's exactly what they did. They built towers, and they use local nationals to assist with that. And as soon as contact was made, they would flex a legion or plus out to that location, effectively trying to do similar thing that we're trying to do here.

Watson: It raises a sort of a curious question to me. You write that the Navy, Marines, and Air Force aren't really best suited for this job. What do you think that the Army is?

Vowell: There are a couple reasons. There's there's some decisions about the future growth of MDTFs. And so what we wanted to do is resonate with an audience, mostly internal, about why a stationing of an MDTF forward with us makes the most sense. The MDTF is obviously designed as something that supports the joint force. It is a theater and combat and command enabling organization; that's the theory of the case. It works for a joint task force. It doesn't work for a service component. It has capabilities to have dominion over multiple domains. It fractures the anti access area denial problem because it sits within that bubble. It sees senses, understands, divides—this is the operational property of the environment all the time. So when there's authorities and a crisis, it's sitting inside and holding it at risk through lethal and non-lethal means an adversary's capital ships, their C5ISR systems. And so it's the, for lack of a better analogy, it's the breach force. But it's the breach force that's already sitting inside the obstacle. And so that allows the Navy, the Air Force, and the Marines to maneuver through. So we offer that the MDTF’s reason for being is to be deployed forward; not sitting back to deploy forward, but to be here, with all these intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance capabilities tied to the targeting process with lethal and non-lethal fires, that in a crisis, you know, provides the baseline foundational focus for the joint force and allowing them to to maneuver. So the Marines aren't really in this discussion, nor should they be a designing organization that supports the whole JTF. They're doing what they need to do—their core function of supporting the maritime component. The two other examples I'll give you is the Navy focusing on their maritime operations center air ops, and their carrier strike groups, they need to have the freedom of maneuver and not be fixed by position or location or terrain. They need to hold risky terrain and Indo-Pacific, and either maneuver themselves—deny through sea control and sea denial, capital and other adversaries surface and subsurface combatants to allow maneuver to happen. They can't be something that the MDTF is, which is going to be somewhat fixed. And they can't be that contact layer; they've got to be able to maneuver, and the same with the Air Force. The Air Force needs bases, spaces, [and] locations from which to project combat power. They need sustainment for refuel in the air; they need munitions diverse and dispersed across the Indo-Pacific. So they can't be located all on the first island chain waiting to be targeted with their fifth-generation fighters because those are high value targets—airfields and fuel and fifth-gen fighters. And the Air Force is not interested in sitting inside the first island chain waiting to have missiles come upon them, and to launch their strike capabilities for counter-land counter-air missions and defensive counter air. Only the Army is developing an organization to take care of this problem. Only the Army is developing multiple organizations for multiple theaters. We provide a capability that complements the services other services capabilities, but we do it as a baseline so they can maneuver more in the area.

Joyce: Mobility is really the strength of the Navy and Air Force. They do not want to endure multiple missile strikes. While in contrast, in the Army we have something that the Air Force and the Navy don't have, which is cover and concealment in the form of dirt and man-made cover, man-made obstacles, and underground facilities. Those things allow the Army to withstand attacks and remain survivable. And I think that's one of the key aspects that allows us to have that staying power that we refer to in the article.

Watson: To what extent did the U.S. force presence in Korea and the relationship with Seoul factor into the formation of this idea?

Vowell: If the North Koreans were to attack into South Korea, to be able to have the indications and warnings of those kinds of attacks, what they would use from a ballistic to short range missile program—those are all kind of the same problem sets, right? So the MDTF is not designed to go after intercontinental ballistic missiles. We have other assets from the Army, uniquely the Army's contribution to the joint force and to national defense—Theater High Altitude Air Defense, Patriot missiles—that complement the Navy's ballistic missile defense as well. And there's a layering of the theater protection mechanism for homeland defense. We remind people that America's homeland begins in Guam; America's day begins in Guam. There are territories out here, they are United States territories in the Indo-Pacific, that aren't part of continental United States that are protected. Guam being another one. So that's not a specific case for the MDTF. The MDTF does account for what could potentially be joint maneuver on the Korean peninsula as well. We're just more—we're looking at all of the joint force in the first island chain having this capability forward matched to our headquarters. You don't have to spend any more resources on command and control bringing that in to do that. We're here. All we need is the MDTF to help us stay forward and support a defense of Japan and support the defense of Korea if need be, or other crises or contingencies in this region.

Watson: I had spoken to an academic from Singapore back in August, named Collin Koh. China was of course at the time going through its big saber rattling around virtually all of Taiwan in the wake of the then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit. Collin emphasize that from his perspective, one thing outsiders like me here in the states may not fully appreciate is the degree to which no one in the region wants a conflict with China. It's like an obvious point, but he was just emphasizing it. What sort of things, if there are any at all, have you said to folks who may have had a similar perspective or a kind of reluctance to maybe posture perhaps more proactively in the months ahead?

Vowell: Yeah, great point. And he's not alone. If you go around the ASEAN nations, heck, even Australia, just three years ago, previous administration was heavily leaning towards their future, a lot of their politicians, a lot of their academia are leaning towards China and writing about that, that the winner of this century from political economic standpoint was going to be China and they were leaning that way. And I think everybody recently—between the response from China to COVID, to some of their statements—just give them the microphone; the stuff that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, their spokesman says just belies what they're really all about, which is regional domination and potentially global aspirations to upend the rules based order in their favor. I mean, right now, strategically, we have the house odds, right? The U.S. Bretton Woods, and beyond; the World Bank, IMF—those are Western institutions. We have the house odds; but we helped build that system. China has become the great nation that they are—always a great culture, great civilization—but they’ve become a prosperous nation, bringing a lot of people out of poverty just in the last 20-30 years in this network. They want to change that because they're not happy they don't own [it]. And this is just me reading the stuff that's out there from people like Collin; they want to change that. But there's an economic dependency in a lot of these countries, especially on countries about China and, and we know the United States government policies not to have to make a choice on us versus them. That's not our policy. And China is not our enemy by policy. They're a competitor, a global strategic competitor. My concern where I stand and where I sit is the power of their military instrument, combined with the rhetoric that's coming out of their political leadership, combined with what they're saying at think tank conferences, what they're saying at actual events and their behavior—and there's an audio video mismatch. There absolutely is. And so there's not the full trust in the military instrument, because why would you build all this capacity, expand your nuclear arsenal many times over what they need, just for deterrence? Why would they be doing this buildup if they didn't want to use it? And they're claiming they want to reclaim all the old territories—the Taiwans, the Tibets, the Nepals, parts of Russia that were given back in the 19th century—they want all that back, and they're serious about it. They want the Senkakus in Japan. So you asked, What am I hearing and what are we talking about? The first is with our Japanese counterparts; we agree we want no war, bottom line. No war. We all agree on that. But how you get to no war doesn't mean that you're not ready to fight one. That's where the deterrence theory is extremely important. That forward posture plus the capabilities that represent the signaling of what that capability can do, and that's where we do exercises with our partners and allies in the region. And then the last part of that, that equation, the will and resolve, that's your modern deterrence; that hasn't changed from [Cold War-era scholar Thomas] Schelling. So if we have the capabilities, we have the military instrument for it, if we have the signaling and resolve that shows what it can do, and we think our potential adversaries know that we can do that, know that we we're a tough fight, if they picked us, that means that maybe in the minds of the leadership of some of these countries—[North Korean dictator] KJU, Russia, PRC—potentially, they look out their window, say, ‘Hey, today is not our day. And next week is not looking so good, either.’ That's great. I think that's a win. That's how you define success in this. We don't want a military war; we can economically compete—we do that with the European Union. We can have competition on technology. I think we all understand that. From the military perspective, we’ve got to be ready to fight. Because if we want to play games and work through, you know, a lot of soft power only, we're gonna get taken advantage of, and we'll have an unintended conflict or crisis, because we weren't ready.

Joyce: I would just accentuate the government of Japan just doubled their defense budget. So this is not just the United States like aware of this situation. And they have also committed to investing in counter-strike capabilities. So I think many nations are aware of what's going on out here. And we can see that through the policies that are being made.

Watson: So my last question, given the time we have left; it's a well worn question. So you sort of have months of answers to pick from. But what has the war in Ukraine prompted you to think differently about in your region?

Vowell: Yeah, good question. And think about every day, there's a lot of things that are transportable from lessons observed right now between what's happening with the Russian Federation and Ukraine, NATO's involvement, the United States government's involvement, and here. So I'll paint a picture for you from what I've been told by my counterparts in Japan. I mentioned earlier here in the podcast that a couple of factors have caused a lot of countries to shift their position to one of weariness with China's goals. I'll just leave it at that, depending on which country you are out here. But particularly Australia, Japan, the Philippines the last few years, it was the COVID issue. COVID vaccine diplomacy, which was coercive in nature—‘We’ll give you vaccines if you don't recognize Taiwan.’ That was particularly some of the oceanic countries that were still recognizing Taiwan in the region. And that was seen as less-than-friendly. Let’s let China talk about their aspirations. And what they're actually saying is what they're trying to do. And it's it's really, it's kind of alarming. But three in the last, you know, almost a year now, it's been the Ukraine issue. And so what the Japanese talked about is in the last year, and why they had momentum with their national security strategy that was just released—national defense strategy just released—and their programmatic review, which is all their investments and programs and what to build out with their budget, those were all released in December [and were] heavily informed by observations and concerns about what Russia is doing to Ukraine and the character of war that's changing. And so their lens is, okay with what's happening in Ukraine, Japan sees itself as Poland. Japan sees Taiwan as Ukraine. Japan sees the People's Republic of China as the Russian Federation and maybe the Philippines could be Romania, another NATO country from which we're helping to train, advise [and] assist offset from Ukraine. They see the same problem set, a similar lens. Now we can argue if that's really the same one to one, cause-effect or good analogy. There's differences. I think it's a useful, useful tool. Not for the case of scaring people straight or to rally against the cause, or ‘China's evil.’ It has everything to do with a Taiwan situation, a territorial dispute in the Senkakus, the Scarborough Shoals, Mischief Reef, the Philippine territory that the Court of Arbitration in 2016 awarded the Philippines—not China, but China is ignoring. And so there's a lot at stake in this region with territory being claimed subtly or very provocatively by China—sovereign territory in countries now. There's a couple other lessons I'm looking at here that concern me. We're in an age where nuclear deterrence is extremely useful. The United States and NATO did not establish air supremacy, which is basic to our doctrine, in Ukraine for the risk of you would have to strike targets in Russia to do that, which would vertically escalate the problem into the nuclear realm, period. Nobody wants that. And so just being sober here, the response by the Western military powers in this has been a lot less than that. It's been to help train [and] provide billions in aid, and support from afar a small country being invaded by a more aggressive and capable country, at least at the outset. And so Japan's worried about U.S. commitment for extended deterrence and our nuclear guarantees because they're a non-nuclear country, just like Ukraine—and how easily a country like China and North Korea, who's launched, as you mentioned, over 70 missiles last year, more than twice the highest number they've ever launched in a year, because they're really trying to be aggressive with their future nuclear, coercive and deterrent program. That concerns me, because that limits military freedom of action when there's a chance that tactical and operational actions can have strategic consequences for vertical escalation. I think we saw that in Ukraine. Optimistically, the fact that NATO came together, [and] it's gonna grow now with two Scandinavian countries that don't want to join NATO. Putin had the opposite effect of disaggregating and fracturing NATO; he's caused it to coalesce. That portends and bodes well here where we do not have an alliance mechanism in the Indo-Pacific; we have alliances. Five of the seven alliances the United States government has with countries or organizations in the world or in the Indo-Pacific; three are right here with me—the Republic of Korea, Philippines and Japan—our treaty ally countries, and they're all on the first island chain. You cannot do a deterrence effect, and you cannot support a lesser power without an alliance or coalition mechanism; and so we're seeing that. It sounds like the obvious case, but what people forget is we don't have that out here in the Indo-Pacific; it's a lot of bilateral partnerships. And bringing those bilateral into multilateral partnerships and exercises will help us. Those are a couple, just off the top of the head things that we talk about from experiences in Ukraine—tactical issues. You're in an era of persistent surveillance; if you're going to be seen, you're going to be dead. So at the tactical level, how do you break contact from the enemy's UAVs or UAS systems? Well, that's really hard when you're always under the targeted eye of your adversary. So we've got to figure out ways to counter take away and strip away the enemy's eyes, their counter recon fight at the tactical level is decisive. You have to confuse; you have to disaggregate; you have to deceive, and you'd have to degrade to deny his ability to see you. And in this age, your adversary can see you everywhere. And I think that's going to be a challenge for our tactical formations going forward, including our allies.

Watson: Major General "JB" Vowell is the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Japan. Major Kevin Joyce is a strategist at U.S. Army Japan. You can find their essay, "The Army can Be the Joint Force's Contact Layer in the Pacific" on Defense One. Thanks so much, gentlemen, for speaking with me this morning where you are this evening where I am. I really do appreciate it.

Vowell: It's been a pleasure having us on.

Joyce: Thank you, sir.