Deterrence and Military Strategy in the Indo-Pacific: Time to Revitalize Strategic and Operational Concepts

Deterrence and Military Strategy in the Indo-Pacific: Time to Revitalize Strategic and Operational Concepts

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Deterrence and Military Strategy in the Indo-Pacific: Time to Revitalize Strategic and Operational Concepts

After an eventful December and January, the defense and security policies of the United States and Japan are being upgraded, and look to be solidly set for the pacing threats of the era. In December, Japan formally published its new National Security Strategy. It was accompanied by a new National Defense Strategy and an ambitious Mid-Term Defense Buildup Program (now called the Defense Buildup Program, or DBP). These documents explain in detail plans for a major defense budget increase—the start of a process to bring Japan up to the NATO standard, which calls for a commitment of two percent of gross domestic product to defense. This program will represent a doubling of Japan’s resource commitment to defense in the next five years. Consequently, the security and defense policies—and budgets—are now in a much better place for the United States, Japan, and Taiwan—but there is still more work to be done.

The Enhancement of the US-Japan Defense Posture in the Pacific Region

January became known as “Japanuary” in Washington, reflecting the extraordinary number of Japanese visitors for policy and strategy discussions. It was capped by the latest “2+2” meeting of the defense and foreign policy secretaries and ministers of each country, ratifying the work done by their subordinates over the past year. A summit meeting between Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Joseph Biden provided the capstone to an extraordinary month (and year) for the Japan-US alliance.  

Japan will chair the meeting of the G7 this year, and host the G7 Summit in Hiroshima from May 19 to 21. In preparation, Prime Minister Kishida has visited France, Italy, Great Britain, and Canada prior to the summit meeting, marking Japan as a policy leader and active manager of global crises.  

Other allies’ and like-minded countries’ security and defense policies—and budgets—will be similarly affected, but this discussion will focus on Japan, Taiwan, and the United States. With strong policies set, the armed forces of these countries are obligated to develop and implement strategies and operational concepts to support the new policies. Just as policies have changed to meet current and emerging challenges, now the armed services must meet the same challenge.  


Image: Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada (left), Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi (center left), US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken (center right), and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (right) appear for a joint press statement at the Security Consultative Talks (or “2+2 Talks”) in Washington, DC on January 11, 2023. (Image source: US Department of Defense)

The Need for a Shift in Military Strategy

Our doctrines and practices of the past must be critically examined to meet the massive changes wrought by force development and expansion in Russia and China, as well as other states of concern, including North Korea. The US “baby boomer” generation grew up in the Cold War with the assumed birthright of unchallenged air and sea superiority throughout the world: we could sail where we wished and project power ashore at will. That freedom of maneuver is now gone. Challenges abound, from land-based missile systems and China’s rapidly expanding People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). 

However, our own command structures and force postures are essentially unaltered.  

Not all of the “old ways” will disappear. Hand-to-hand combat, dating back to the description in the Book of Genesis of Cain slaying Abel, is still with us in the modern world. As described long ago by the famous Prussian theorist Carl Von Clausewitz:

 [C]onflict and war will retain its goal of the destruction of enemy forces, whether by death, injury, or any other means—either completely or enough to make him stop fighting. The complete or partial destruction of the enemy must be regarded as the sole object of all engagements. Direct annihilation of the enemy’s forces must always be the dominant consideration. 

In modern warfare, civilians and civil infrastructure are not spared: they remain primary targets to compel surrender. It has always been so. Look no further than today’s war over Ukraine. However, the previous status quo is gone. Today’s threats are compounded by new capabilities, drawn from the profound effects of advancing technologies that enhance expanding force structures. To cite just a few: 

  • pervasive surveillance coupled with guided weapons accurate at distance; 
  • autonomous (or uncrewed) systems in the air, on land, at sea, and undersea, as well as in the space domain; 
  • artificial intelligence applied to data analysis; and
  • information warfare in its various manifestations.

Change is difficult for any large organization, be it governmental, civil, naval, or military. But it must be done. Adapting and prevailing will require bold leadership and hard work.

This is not an argument against “jointness,” as understood in the United States. Armed services exist, or are brought into existence as recently shown with the newly created Space Force, to meet challenges in their respective domains. The art of “jointness” is the adroit combination and management of various service competencies in support of deterrence, and in military campaigns as necessary.  

In the US system, the individual services are charged in Title 10 of the United States Code with “providing forces trained and equipped” as required to support national policy. This is where requirements and budgets must be balanced. Therefore, the various services must make a compelling case to the Congress and the people of the United States for their support. As with your family budget, a number of competing, seemingly limitless demands must be considered within the available budget. If “strategy” consists of balancing ends, ways, and means, it follows that the budget is the clearest statement of our strategy. This is where limited resources are devoted to selected requirements. This is difficult in the best of times, and exponentially harder in eras of rapid and destabilizing change.  

The Need for a “Strategic Concept” for Naval and Other Forces

Fortunately, we have some history to guide us. The emergence of the atomic (and later, nuclear) era in the 1940s brought into question the roles, missions, and the very existence of forces as previously understood. We created the Department of Defense, and slashed service budgets while undergoing a rapid demobilization. Geopolitical tectonic plates moved, as the Soviet Union went from ally to enemy, subverted several Eastern European countries, blockaded East Berlin, and exploded its own atomic device. The China we knew as a World War II ally became an enemy following Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) successful Communist revolution. 

The early Cold War was a highly charged political and military time, which involved both inter-service rivalries and disputes over budgetary priorities. Comments made then (which would not be out of place today) reflected those clashes, in the armed forces equivalent of trash talk. As reportedly said by a US Army Air Corps general in 1946:

You, the Navy, are not going to have anything but a couple of carriers which are ineffective anyway, and they will probably be sunk in the first battle. Now, as for the Marines […] a small, bitched-up army talking Navy lingo. We are going to put those Marines in the Regular Army and make efficient soldiers out of them […] The Navy is going to end up only supplying the requirements of the Army Air and the Ground Forces…

A young political scientist, Samuel P. Huntington, took to the pages of the US Naval Institute Proceedings in its May 1954 issue to explain the Navy’s problem, and to point the way to a solution. His simple conception was that the fundamental purpose of a military service lay in its role in implementing national policy: its overall strategic concept. Huntington identified three core elements of this: 

  1. the resources, human and material, necessary to implement that concept; 
  2. the public support necessary to secure those resources, requiring a well-defined and compelling strategic concept; and 
  3. an organizational structure that can readily take those resources and apply them efficiently and effectively to the concept. 

The US Navy apparently heeded this advice, and overcame the fact and perception of conflicting and confusing goals. It did not happen instantly. The “Maritime Strategy” of the 1980s, begun in the 1970s when resources were strained, provided a compelling strategic concept, and garnered substantial resources to support it. In this same era, the Army brought forward “Air Land Battle.” The US Air Force and NATO produced the ”Follow On Forces Attack” doctrine to similar deterrent success for NATO.

It is hardly too early for the United States, Japan, and Taiwan, both singularly and together, to develop new strategic concepts to meet today’s challenges. A simple place to start could be to list the changes in technology on the left side of a paper or screen, and the results on the right side: e.g., satellites mean seeing more targets, weapons accurate at distance mean hitting more targets, etc. The catch is that these “seeing and hitting” advantages accrue to the enemy, as well—and our forces are also within range now. There is a long list of things to be done.

Whither “Asymmetry” in Indo-Pacific Defense Reforms?

Working out what to do about all this is where the conversation will get exciting. If this sounds simplistic, throughout history effective doctrinal change has been honored more in the breach than the observance. The French determined that their loss in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was due to a lack of offensive spirit and doctrine. In response, they made relentless attack a doctrinal principle. In the meantime, technology brought forward a number of capabilities, such as mass production, standardized artillery calibers, machine guns, and barbed wire that made the battlefield deadly for maneuver. These advancements contributed to the slaughter in the trench warfare of World War I, which nearly ruined Europe.  

The result of that tragic experience was a doctrine concentrated on fixed defensive positions. The magnificent Maginot Line stood as the premier example of this. But maneuver came back with a vengeance in Germany’s interwar army and air force, thanks to efficient internal combustion engines, the maturing of aviation, wireless communications, and other technologies. Rapid maneuver outflanked fixed fortifications, and disaster ensued again. Beware of permanent conclusions, and continually question them.

A final note for this concept development process has to do with the often-abused concept of “asymmetry”—a term invoked repeatedly in discussions surrounding Taiwan’s defense posture, in particular. Weapons are not inherently either “symmetric” or “asymmetric”—it all depends on how they are used, which in turn depends on well-crafted operational concepts. Forces exist in the space, land, air, sea, and undersea domains. (Cyber, for its part, is a special case that seems to be everywhere.) These forces exist in one of four aspects. First is production, where manufacturing, recruiting, training and such take place. Then there are logistics concerns: fixing, fueling, supplying, etc. Third is operations, or the movement of forces to combat. Finally comes tactics, where the gathering of intelligence, tactical maneuvers, and shooting takes place.  

Symmetry is easy to describe. It is where airplanes in the tactical aspect shoot at enemy airplanes in the tactical aspect. Similar dynamics occur with ships confronting ships, soldiers facing off against other soldiers, etc. Forces in the tactical aspect can also attack dissimilar forces in a different tactical mode (airplanes attacking ships, for example). This is straight-up combat, like ritual dueling at ten paces, or the jousting of knights on horseback with lances. It is often the costliest form of combat.  

Asymmetry occurs when forces in the tactical aspect take on similar enemy forces still in the production, logistics, or operational aspects. This is where forces with the master arming switch on can attack forces not able to shoot back. Surprise attacks often seem to demonstrate this advantage, as with the German submarine that sank the battleship HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow port in 1939. 

Active, fighting “shields” can and must be used to protect forces—and civilian populations—during those times when they are in one or more of the non-tactical situations (production, logistics, operations). One such example might be the use of the Royal Air Force against German bombers in the Battle of London. Another might be the escort ships safeguarding convoys of merchant ships delivering supplies, as in the Battle for Malta in the Mediterranean Sea from 1940-1942.  

Today Japan, Taiwan, and the United States face the challenge of enhancing deterrence to maintain their safety and security near hostile powers. Strengthening deterrence under today’s and tomorrow’s threat conditions— and prevailing if deterrence fails—requires revitalized strategic and operational concepts and capabilities. That begins with solid planning and concept development.   

The main point: Faced with a rapidly advancing China, it is imperative that the United States, Japan, and Taiwan work together to develop new military concepts in response to their evolving common challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. In doing so, they could significantly enhance their deterrent capabilities.