‘Not Enough Being Done’ to Counter China’s Growing Aggression, US Military Officials Warn
“We have been trying to convey in Washington a sense of urgency,” said one of two senior U.S. military officials, as the Biden administration reviews Pentagon plans.
PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — More must be done to counter China, which may soon build on its Hong Kong crackdown with military aggression toward Taiwan, India, and other neighbors in the coming years, leaders of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command say.
“Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions,” INDOPACOM commander Adm. Philip Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”
Davidson’s testimony followed even stronger words from other frustrated senior military officials last week.
“We have been trying to convey in Washington a sense of urgency,” one official told reporters traveling with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. “We are optimistic that a new administration will do even more, but frankly there’s been less walk than talk” on the issue for several years. Taiwan, perhaps Bhutan, and possibly even India, which has a border dispute with Beijing, are all potential targets for Chinese expansion, argued the senior military official.
To the Chinese government, “these are all Chinese territories. They’re coming after them,” said a second official.
China has a broad strategy to “resolve,” or absorb, Taiwan in the near future. Chinese President Xi Jinping has set a deadline of 2049 to absorb the island country and other territories that the Chinese government considers historically Chinese. Recent events may have accelerated that timeline, said the U.S. officials.
“There’s enough evidence that there’s a real concern here in the 2020s about China’s motivations in Beijing to try and resolve something, potentially using military capability” said the first official.
To better deter China, the U.S. military is looking to change where it puts troops in Asia and how it fights. The United States historically has kept thousands of troops stationed around the Pacific region, in places such as Japan, South Korea, and Guam. The officials described the way forward as “fewer bases, more places,” as in a strategy of rotating troops to more countries to better cover more area. It’s somewhat similar to the approach that the military is taking in Europe, moving more troops toward Poland but on a rotational basis.
“We’re working a strategy to find more of those places,” the first official said. China conducts fewer exercises with regional players, although it has been conducting more exercises with Russia.
“When you’re more diffuse and more expeditionary, you’re less easily targeted and you have more conventional deterrence. That’s the main point,” said the first official. “If we are static and they are dynamic, it’s not going to work,” said the first official.
In a separate interview, Milley said that such considerations were a part of a broader review that the U.S. military was conducting about where to place forces for best deterrence effect.
“There clearly needs to be modifications, there's no doubt, because our global footprint, in fact our domestic footprint, is a derivative of World War II,” he said.
The military has also highlighted a new approach to operations, better linking across service branches and warfare domains to neutralize Chinese anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles and other forces.
“They have a lot of archers, a lot of arrows,” said the first official.“The military concern we have in the United States is that if they do something to Taiwan or if they do something to Japan, we won’t have the ability to react fast enough to stop it because they’re going to keep us out. So we have to figure out how to fight much faster inside of that. That’s what [Joint All-domain Command and Control] is all about.”
Special units trained and equipped to conduct multi-domain operations, using long-range precision missiles as well as cyber effects to destroy adversary missile capabilities, will play a large role in the strategy to deter China from attacking its neighbors. The Army is building out what it describes as a Multi-Domain Task Force, or MDTF, to lead those efforts and potentially penetrate Chinese area defenses, if China were to mount them between the so-called first and second island chains, as part of a Taiwan takeover strategy.
“The MDTF is designed to fracture that. We would love for it to sit in Japan as part of the deterrence force, episodically through the Philippines, episodically through the exercises. It's got long-range fires, sensors, [electromagnetic warfare] space and cyber, those things you’ll need to attack [People’s Republic of China] networks to allow our forces in. We look at that at INDOPACOM as a theatre enabling command. It enables maneuver for the other forces,” said the second official.
The Army’s MDTF conducted proof-of-principle exercises in Guam, Japan, and Australia during the last 18 months. “Normally the Army doesn’t do this; they build and then test. They’re building their airplane in flight,” said the second official.
China, too, has been building its multi-domain capabilities, including in cyber and in the maritime sphere. “The difference is they are trying to find their butt with both hands to be joint and interoperable on those things,” said the second official. The official said U.S. forces already conducts operations jointly, and the services are working to improve the communications interlinks between them to allow for that to happen more quickly and effectively.
“Guess who is trying to mirror and mimic what we do? The [People’s Liberation Army of China], trying to become a more joint, interoperable force. We see that in the exercising that they do. We see it in the domains of space, cyber, surface and subsurface and the things that they’re doing. They’re trying to get there. They are behind.”
The first official cautioned against taking Chinese capabilities for granted. “We’re worried about the speed of growth. We’re worried about quantity having a quality all its own. And the number of platforms, even if you operate them poorly, are still highly lethal. So when we talk about a free and open Indo-Pacific that should have the right amount of support for rotational forces and more places not bases and going expeditionary, not enough is being done.”