Small Wars Journal

Interview with Jim Thomas: Collective Defence in the Age of Anti-Access Bubbles

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What is going to be the future of expeditionary COIN in the US military? Were the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan institutionalized?

While there may be less appetite to conduct large-scale counter-insurgency or stability operations, I think that irregular warfare will be an enduring feature of the security environment.  The US and its allies simply do not have the luxury of turning their backs on irregular warfare.  Increasingly, though, it is in our interest to place greater emphasis on early, preventive applications of force to stop crises from worsening into full-blown conflicts.  There is great merit, too, in taking a more indirect approach.  That is, wherever possible we should strive to work with local partners operating under the rule of law to address common security challenges.  We have an interest in a world that minimizes “security deficits” and ungoverned spaces.  But wherever possible, we should work to enable other countries to more effectively govern and police themselves rather than taking on the job for them.

Over time, you have emphasized that we are going to see less permissive operating environments and that projecting power in traditional forms will become more difficult. Why is that and how did we get here?

Throughout history, it has always been difficult for countries trying to project power, whether it is by land or by sea, in the face of determined countries seeking to block them. The history of the US military through much of the 19th century was really focused on building an American anti-access complex. The American army in the 19th century was focused on coastal defenses. The US Navy focused largely on coastal defenses, albeit with some long range naval operations to counter navies, combat  piracy,  and exert freedom of navigation.  But during this period, we were really focused on continental defense. It was really not until the early 20th century when the United States  started to think about large-scale transoceanic power projection -- first in WWI and then in WWII. Following the Second World War, the US remained in Europe and in North East Asia and established a robust peace time presence as a vital part of our deterrence.  We maintained a nuclear umbrella, and the ability to reinforce our conventional forces both in Europe and North East Asia on short notice. Following the end of the Cold War the threats that we faced for the longest time receded, particularly with the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the last two decades, we could largely take power projection for granted. We were able to project power  transoceanically without great risk or challenge.  We could operate from a network of bases that we built up during the Cold War and operations were relatively easier than they had been in the past. But all of this is beginning to change.  What we have seen over the past decade that countries and non state actors are developing the means to challenge us in two ways: they are going in the more irregular direction trying to challenge us in ways that our forces are not well suited for dealing with such as terrorism or insurgency; or they are going to the high end trying to acquire nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons, capabilities to attack our computer networks, or precision guided weapons which can be used to deter us from entering the theater and from operating effectively in that theater. So, I think this is really the big change as we look ahead. It is going to be much more difficult for the United States to project power in the next two decades than it has in the last two decades.

Should we understand the fix US bases in Europe and East Asia as a new sort of Maginot Line of the 21st century?

I don’t know if I would describe them as a Maginot Line. I mean, if we take the right precautionary steps, we can avoid that outcome. I think we can do that in several ways. First, we want to avoid putting all our eggs in a very few number of baskets; the more we can diversify the bases from which we can operate the better off we and our allies will be. Second, we should get away from the types of bases we had during the Cold War where we had very large US-run operating bases (where they had their own schools, their own stores – they became mini-US cities fenced off from the host countries) and they had very large signatures which could make them in the future more vulnerable to attacks. I think looking ahead, what we are going to want to do is emphasize a couple of things: we want access in as many countries as we can gain access to and we want shared facilities.  We want to work side by side with the militaries of the host countries to develop habits of cooperation and interoperability but also to reduce a lot of our footprint. We only want forces that are really combat capable operating in those countries while reducing our vulnerabilities. We are also going to want to operate from the  rimland of the Eurasian land mass: both the first and the second island chains in the Pacific, from Japan to the Australia. Cocos and Keeling islands, Diego Garcia and also islands like Seychelles will be increasingly valuable.   Regarding Europe, I think there is enduring value and it is in the mutual interest of the US and its NATO allies to maintain access to the widest number of bases not only for the defense of Europe, but also for thinking about how we might have to deal with threats further afield.  Once you lose access or bases, it is very difficult to ever gain it back.

What does the new normality in a “post protectorate era” mean for the traditional allies of the US?

The pattern of the past it has been that the US provided the lion’s share of the nuclear deterrent and the US also provided the lion’s share of the conventional defenses. As we look ahead, I think that it makes good sense for the US to maintain its alliance security guarantees through extended nuclear deterrence. In terms of conventional deterrence, I think there has to be a new division of labor. We know how difficult power projection will be and that for the longest time we have encouraged the Europeans to build up their own capabilities for projecting power. I think an honest and candid assessment would come to the conclusion that this has not been a great success. It remains difficult to project a significant number of forces beyond European area. So, I think America has a choice: to continue hectoring the Europeans about doing more out of area, while realizing that NATO’s own defense posture in Europe is diminishing over time. Or, we could recalibrate our thinking and say we will continue to provide nuclear capabilities to deter aggression or coercion against NATO, as well as reinforcing conventional capabilities and many of the critical strategic enablers for conventional defense.  But increasingly, when it comes building up Europe’s own anti-access complex to ward off aggression that really should be a European responsibility. The US should encourage its allies to assume greater responsibility for the initial defense of their sovereign territories by building their own keep-out zones. The US can be an “Arsenal of Democracy” and can assist Europe in providing key technologies and some of the critical enablers. The United States should become a systemic enabler of a more distributed network of allied defenses. But, European states should play greater roles in their own conventional defense.

Do you see the doctrine emerging in Libya-“leading from behind”-as a future pattern of the relationship between US and Europe?

I hate the term leading from behind. The analogy I like for the US is “Lloyds of London”: that we are the reinsurer for security not just in Europe and Asia but on a global basis. What we want to do is to encourage primary insurance providers in all of these areas, whether European states or Asian allies such as Japan and Australia, to play greater roles in their regions with the US able to swing its forces on global basis to reinforce its allies. The problem is that we have lost some of our global agility, especially when we take on the role of being a security first provider. And quite frankly, we lost some of our agility through deployments in protracted wars. As we look ahead, I think there will be less appetite on the part of the US to intervene perhaps.  There is going to be a greater desire on the part of the US to maintain its global agility to be able to reinforce and provide capabilities that only US can provide. To sum up, probably NATO will put less emphasis on out of area operations in returning focus on collective defence. And that implies a greater reliance on nuclear weapons.  Despite all the talk about Global Zero, I think nuclear weapons may become more indispensible in the future to keep the peace, not less. At the same time in order to maintain a credible military posture to deal with a wide spectrum of threats, the Alliance cannot simply rely on nuclear weapons alone.  NATO will also have to maintain strong conventional defences. I think that here the European states are going to have to play far greater roles, especially the frontline states in Central and Eastern Europe in terms of their own territorial defence.

In what way will the build up of the anti access-complexes will affect the US commitment to the security of their allies?

The goal of US and its allies is to maintain the credibility of our security commitments. That it requires a couple of things. It requires maintaining the credibility of our extended nuclear deterrence over time. In the conventional domain it does require more of a division of labor and in many cases it is an opportunity: if what we are really concerned about is hostile power projection then we need essentially to build up countervailing anti-access/denial postures on part of our allies in Asia, in Europe, even in the Middle East so that these countries to look more like porcupines- like an animal that you don’t want to touch or try to grab because it is going to be too painful. What we are really talking about is essentially full spectrum deterrence from being able to stop creeping aggression and small-scale incidents like fishing vessels bumping into each other during the night in territorial waters  from escalating, all the way up to very robust threats of land invasion or sea invasion through conventional and nuclear deterrence. 

Where do you see evidence of building-up keep out zones?

We see a couple of examples. In East Asia, the People’s Liberation Army of China has been building up an area denial network for the past 15 years or so with the intent of denying any country trying to project power in the region for being able to operate militarily, and that increasingly will make it more difficult for other countries to operate or maintain freedom of navigation in the coastal waters near the Eastern Coast of China. China is the first manifestation of this trend of countries, and even non-state actors developing  “anti-access bubbles”. We also see other countries like Iran developing this kind of capabilities and we see that its approach is not “cookie cutter.” The Iran’ capabilities are in fact very different than the kind of capabilities that China is building. It’s placing more emphasis on certain capabilities such as small attack craft boats that can be used for swarming against larger combatants and oil tankers. Anti-Acess Bubbles will likely be tailored and differentiated by region, by culture, by military necessity. We’ve also seen non-state actors developing anti-access capabilities. Hezbollah demonstrated the ability to conduct anti ship cruise missile attacks and in the future should it acquire greater access to the means of precision those attacks would only increase in their lethality.

Do you see the evidences of building up an anti-access complex also in Russia?

Russia’s posture is interesting in a couple of respects. One is the degree of emphasis that the Russians have placed on the tactical nuclear weapons on their doctrine. The other is that they continue to maintain very robust cruise and ballistic missile development programs. These are programs that are looking for arms sales abroad so many of these technologies, even if Russia doesn’t use them directly, indirectly may show up in other regions of the world potentially. We do see that Russia is putting greater emphasis on building a reconnaissance strike complex which has the ISR to be able to identify targets and strike them with great precision. And Russia has been deemphasizing some of the traditional elements of its forces by reducing the size of the land Army and it has curtailed a lot of its naval programs.

Is forward deployment and expeditionary conventional deterrence in a Cold War sense out dated?

I think that our concepts of foward presence are going to have to change a bit. We used to write in official US policy documents that we maintain approximately 100.000 troops in Europe and 100.000 troops in Asia as a sign of our commitments. I don’t think that the quantitative number of soldiers you have in a country is a relevant metric and in fact you may actually be presenting a vulnerability rather than a strength. What increasingly will matter is how robust is your nuclear deterrence and how robust are your conventional capabilities. Can you operate effectively and project power despite the presence of robust anti-access networks?  Do you have the ability to help allies to repel attacks on their territories and home waters? Can you launch retaliatory attacks which hold out the prospect of punishing potential aggressors to an extent that any gains that they will foresee are greatly outweigh by the costs?

What is going to be the role of the missile defenses in this effort of recalibrating the US global posture?

Missile defense is a critical dimension of the coming military competition between power projection and anti-access. What we want to see, in a variety of theaters, is not only the ability to protect US forces as they enter and operate in the theater, but also the ability to extend missile defenses to safeguard our allies and friendly nations around the world in crisis. And missile defenses employed in this way are inherently stabilizing. This is not a capability that is being used offensively against countries but it is one that can provide a stabilizing presence in many areas. The issue we are going to have is the costs that are associated with the systems. Over time missile defense will be a growth area not only for the US, but also for a number of other countries in the world, both allies and potentially adversaries. But we have to think how we change the costs exchange ratios. We have to come up with cheaper modes of missile defense, perhaps using directed energy and other non-kinetic means, as we look ahead.

Jim Thomas is Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). Prior to joining CSBA, Jim served for thirteen years in a variety of policy, planning and resource analysis posts in the Department of Defense, culminating in his dual appointment as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Resources and Plans and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy. In these capacities, he was responsible for the development of the Defense Strategy, conventional force planning, resource assessment, and the oversight of war plans. He spearheaded the 2005-2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), and was the principal author of the QDR Report to Congress. An expanded view of his thoughts is presented in From Protectorates to Partnerships.

Octavian Manea is the Editor of FP Romania, the Romanian edition of Foreign Policy.    

The interview was conducted in Prague, on October 27th, during the 3rd meeting of CEPA’s US-Central Europe Strategy Forum.

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.


Move Forward

Sun, 11/20/2011 - 1:30am

In response to the question: <i>"Is forward deployment and expeditionary conventional deterrence in a Cold War sense out dated?"</i>

Mr Thomas answered: <i>"I don’t think that the quantitative number of soldiers you have in a country is a relevant metric and in fact you may actually be presenting a vulnerability rather than a strength."</i>

Incorrect. Is it a relevant metric that Taiwan's Army has five armored brigades and three mech infantry brigades of ground force and the PLA is estimated to have only a single division worth of amphibious assault capability? Plus because of those brigades and US assistance, most of the PLA division would never make it to shore. Estimates are there is only sufficient amphibious capability to take one of the smaller disputed islands...not the Taiwan main island.

ROK and US Army forces in Korea are also a very relevant metric. So are 2500 US Marines in Australia and whatever could get to Taiwan's shore via MV-22 from amphibs and via Army airborne forces. The ROC Army wants 1000 Hellfire missiles for a requested 30 Apaches. That sounds like quite a few left over for any American AH-64s and Cobras that could get to Taiwan.

What we appear to have is a transference problem. Airfields, ports, and perhaps carriers are vulnerable so an across the board assumption is being made that forward-deployed ground forces are equally vulnerable. They are not. Ground forces were not substantially targeted at Pearl Harbor and it would be equally difficult to target them today with long range missiles.

In the most recent 400 page assessment of China, we see a lot about area control problems facing the Navy and Air Force. Yet little is mentioned about lack of amphibious enhancements to get the PLA across 100 miles of open water. The threat from missiles is described on page 193:

<i>Dr. Cliff provided an example of a target set that Chinese defense
writings discuss when mentioning striking an opponent’s logistics
system. Such targets could include, at a minimum:
* Air bases, especially runways * Transport and aerial refueling aircraft * Naval ports * Naval troop transports
* Fuel, munitions, and other storage facilities
* Tankers and underway replenishment ships
* Fuel pipelines * Railroads
* Support facilities *Bridges</i>

Notice that little mention is made of targeting forward-deployed ground forces. If naval troop transports are vulnerable, that and the Pacific distances involved argue for more forward deployment, not less. The North Korean Navy and Air Force would not pose a major threat to ground reinforcements by ship. The PLA would face a substantial threat trying to cross the Taiwan Straits. Why is there so little mention of that fact? If the PLA can't accomplish that crossing, it kinds of makes the whole anti-access/area denial argument irrelevant because the scenario never occurs.

If the PLA cannot get substantial forces across 100 miles of open ocean, how would they do it into the South China Sea 600-900nm away? Who has the bigger anti-access challenge?