Japan, US must deter 'creeping aggression' at sea

Japan, US must deter 'creeping aggression' at sea

In this second instalment of an interview series on Japan's diplomacy and military strategy in East Asia, Jim Thomas, vice president and director of studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in Washington, discusses China's anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) strategy.

Over the past 15 years or so, the People's Liberation Army has undertaken a significant military modernization programme. A large portion of this modernization has centred around a counter-intervention strategy-that is, developing capabilities and forces that have the wherewithal to prevent or to make it very costly or difficult for an outside power to intervene in the Western Pacific area, and at the same time make it very difficult for such a power to operate at all in that same area over time.

This is less of a threat than it is a military challenge that has to be addressed. And I would say that, while much of the focus when it comes to anti-access and area-denial rests with China, this is not simply about China. It is a broader military phenomenon that is occurring on a global scale.

Power projection for the United States over the last several decades has been relatively easy. We've been able to transit the oceans unimpeded. We have been able to operate aircraft from bases close to potential opponents and to steam our aircraft carriers and other large surface combat vessels right up to the coastlines of other countries.

This pattern of military activity may be more difficult in the future, as we're already seeing today with the debate over Syria and the military challenges that are posed by its anti-ship cruise missiles as well as its advanced air defence systems, and we may see it in other parts of the world as well.

These same capabilities could be just as easily used by our friends and allies around the world to better defend their sovereignty. That is, countries like Japan could create their own anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) perimeters or envelopes to better defend their sovereignty and their inherent right to self-defence.

To address the shifting military balance in the western Pacific, there are a handful of steps Tokyo and Washington should consider.

The first is to shore up our collective ability to operate inside the A2/AD perimeter of a potential adversary. This requires dispersal plans for our aircraft and diversification of our air bases and ports. It requires the hardening of some facilities and increased emphasis on passive defences, as well as increases in both our sea denial capabilities and our ability to achieve air superiority over air space inside the A2/AD perimeter of a potential adversary. It also requires continued improvements in our ballistic missile defence.

The second step should complement the first. The United States must improve its ability to operate from outside of a hostile A2/AD perimeter and to conduct long-range missions-either from the air for surveillance and strikes or from undersea or from space or cyberspace. The ability to act at long range and penetrate into the A2/AD perimeter of an adversary is especially important for deterrence.

The third step should be encouraging allies and partners to develop their own A2/AD envelopes, especially with air and sea denial capabilities so that they can better defend themselves and so that they can provide a sanctuary from which US forces can effectively operate and conduct combat operations in their defence if they are attacked.

The fourth step involves the ability to conduct operations on the periphery, beyond the range of a potential adversary's A2/AD capabilities, where the United States and its allies will continue to maintain a large degree of domain control-sea and air control-and could impose severe costs on adversaries in the event of war.

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