Initial Steps Towards a Right-Sized, Targeted Approach to Maritime Stability in the Western Pacific, Part 2
Posted by Bill R. French
Last week I began to outline some initial steps available to the United States to encourage greater maritime stability in the Western Pacific. The overriding sense was to examine immediate, near-term options that were both ‘right-sized’ and ‘targeted.’ Emphasizing ‘targeted’ approaches calls for actions to address instability associated with ongoing disputes specifically. This should seem obvious but is in contrasts to the approach taken by some conservatives who treat maritime stability as a 'trickle-down effect' of regional balance of power and American military presence. Emphasizing ‘right-sized’ approaches calls for being mindful of the potential consequences of overreaction and escalation – a case I’ve made elsewhere while critiquing the official GOP proposal for dealing with Chinese assertiveness.
This is not to say ‘hard’ measures cannot be useful, only that they must be smart. To be sure, exploring smart approaches to maritime stability in the region is particularly timely given the administration's extensive use of hard power in the Pacific -- recently summarized by Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter -- and the continued standoff between Japan and China over disputed territories in the East China Sea.
The three recommendations proposed last week work in that direction. However, depending on Chinese behavior after the leadership transition, stronger measures may be worth considering. Should Beijing continue or increase its assertiveness, it may be constructive to signal that more assertive behavior will come at higher costs designed specifically to undermine the effectiveness of such strong-armed strategies.
Targeted military and security consequences are one way to affect Chinese calculus in this way. For American policymakers, this creates the problem of having to carefully balance the strength of the signal with the risks of stoking the fears and insecurity of Chinese decision makers. A potential solution to this problem is outlined below as a fourth recommendation:
Of the conceivable security consequences that Washington could create for Beijing, greater military assistance to American partners both demonstrates commitment without inserting the United States into the disputes too strongly. The U.S. is already shifting in this direction. For example, in the midst of the Chinese-Philippines standoff over the Scarborough Shoal, Washington announced doubling military aide to Manila to $30 million annually. But to achieve clear signaling, assistance itself must be targeted in a way that corresponds to Chinese maritime assertiveness more directly.
A reasonable way to this end would be to bolster the ability of American partners to execute what is called “area-denial operations.” The Pentagon defines “area-denial” as “those actions and capabilities, usually of shorter range, designed … to limit its [the enemy’s] freedom of action within the operational area.” That is, by being able to effectively target specific key enemy platforms – like ships or planes in the case of the Western Pacific – at some distance, even a more powerful adversary can either be denied or forced to assume enormous risks for operating within a geographic area.
For a number of reasons, ‘Area-denial assistance’ would appear as a strong ‘right-sized’ candidate:
The Advantages of Area-Denial Assistance
From a military point of view, the most basic appeal of this option is its efficiency. Area-denial capabilities present a grossly cost-effective way to counter expensive power projection forces of an adversary, such as those being developed by Beijing in its near seas. In a maritime context, the advent of standoff precision guided munitions, especially relatively inexpensive anti-shipping cruise missiles, allow a smaller force to inflict disproportionate losses on the expensive surface vessels of an opposing navy.
From a political point of view, limited American area-denial assistance to partner militaries benefits from the likelihood of being perceived by Beijing as measured compared to other alternatives. Chinese strategists consider their own area-denial capabilities – which are quite robust – in terms of “counter-intervention operations” intended to prevent a superior military from intervening in its security affairs. Hence, ‘area-denial assistance’ is predisposed to communicate restrained intent focused on bolstering allies' defensive capabilities.
Targeted, Incremental Approaches to Influence Chinese Calculus
Of course, these benefits depend upon the specific approaches pursued. And those approaches, of course, in turn depend upon the foreign partner in question. In each potential case, however, assistance should be applied incrementally and pegged to Chinese behavior. This communicates clearly that U.S. area-denial assistance is directed at Chinese maritime activities, conditional upon those activities, and can be lessened or aborted entirely depending on choices made by Chinese policy makers. The result is affecting Chinese calculus by sending a clear signal about the type of consequences that Beijing can expect from the United States as they consider various options in pressing their claims in the region.
While there has been some prominent discussion on the value of greater U.S. area-denial assistance to Japan, the Philippines is a a better illustrative case because of its lack of existing suitable capabilities.
With an annual defense budget of only $2.9 billion, the Philippine armed forces are in a sorry state. For example, Manila determined it was unable to afford even a squadron of refurbished U.S. F-16s as part of its attempt to develop a “minimum credible deterrent.” The Philippine Navy likewise is uncertain it will be able to meet its 15 year modernization goals. Yet, a ‘minimum credible area-denial deterrent’ can be achieved affordably with minimal financial assistance from Washington.
As an initial step, the Philippines could acquire a modest stockpile and delivery capability of American produced Harpoon II anti-shipping missiles. The Philippine Navy is already preparing to equip two Hamilton Class Coast Guard cutters supplied by the United States with Harpoons, which would constitute its most capable naval assets. Of course, such measures will almost certainly fail to meet the threshold of minimum credible deterrence against the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) South Sea Fleet of 11 destroyers and 8 frigates. To help the Philippines work towards that threshold, the United States could supply Manila with land-launched Harpoon variants to be deployed on cheap, mobile ground-based launchers.
The acquisition of Harpoon II and a modest number of mobile launchers offers a number of important advantages. With a surface-launch range of ~140km, a coastal defense force of Harpoon missiles would be a significant improvement for the Philippines, allowing its armed forces to contest PLAN surface activity within range. Deploying Harpoons on relocatable, mobile launchers would ensure this capability is survivable and prove a significant challenge to neutralize. Coincidentally, a land-based missile force would be a logical follow-on to the U.S. agreement to provide the Philippines with long-range radar to monitor nearby littorals which would be required for effective targeting.
Moreover, this kind of land-based area-denial force has particular characteristics that make it a ‘right sized’ response to Chinese behavior. First, such a force would be essentially defensive in nature given that its usefulness would be limited to nearby littorals – very similar to how the Chinese perceive their own area-denial capabilities as tailored for “counter-intervention” operations. Second, the Harpoon’s range of ~140km prevents land-launched variants from reaching Chinese vessels around the Scarborough Shoal – the focal point of Beijing and Manila’s territorial and maritime disputes – which is some 200km to the west of the Philippines. That is, land-based Harpoons would not empower the Philippines to unilaterally enforce their claims vis-à-vis Beijing, only to defend their even more immediate maritime areas. This would further reinforce the signal that the United States has selected a restrained response, limiting the attendant risks.
However, as argued above, for area-denial assistance to be truly effective, there must be a number of incremental future steps that are left open and conditioned upon Beijing's decisions. Here, there is no shortage of subsequent assistance that could be given: air-defense systems, additional radars to increase maritime awareness and targeting, financial assistance to better support the Philippines military modernization programs -- especially fighter aircraft -- or providing longer range anti-shipping weapon systems to create a layered area-denial capability that reaches deeper into disputed areas.
Whatever additional steps under consideration should be evaluated cautiously. But by communicating these potential measures to Beijing, the calculation of Chinese decision makers will be forced to recognize the possibility of eventually facing substantial area-denial challenges in their periphery. Whether that reality materialized, of course, would be up to Beijing.