A Slavish Devotion to Forward Presence Has Nearly Broken the U.S. Navy
Think Differently about Naval Presence
Absent from the excellent series about the costs of forward deployment has been a discussion of the military and political implications of this strategy. Forward deployment locates one’s forces closer to a possible adversary, which can be good if the plan is to strike first. But it also results in the adversary being closer to you, providing him with a significant “home field” advantage. In late 1941, the United States had its Asiatic Fleet and Army Air Force assets based in the Philippines. These were insufficient at both deterring the Japanese and countering their advance, primarily because they used their Formosa (Taiwan, then a colony of Japan)-based bombers to attack the U.S. naval forces at Cavite Naval Yard and U.S. air forces at Clark Field. Any naval base or airfield that comes under sustained attack is not tenable, nor is losing ships at anchor or aircraft on the ground.
China has large numbers of accurate ballistic and cruise missiles that could easily reach U.S. military installations in Japan and Korea. If the United States and China end up in a conventional war, repeated attacks on U.S. bases within range of Chinese weapons should be expected. Yokosuka and Sasebo could be the modern analogues of Cavite, while Kadena Air Base could become the new Clark Field.
Showing the flag with forward-deployed forces can be politically advantageous in peacetime, but in times of war, tactical considerations may call for withdrawing forces from untenable positions. But the political realities of keeping allies may cause ships and planes to remain in place even though it could result in their ultimate destruction. If U.S. bases in Japan were under continual Chinese missile fire, for example, would the U.S. Navy sail away?
But with limited fleet numbers, the military argument for the Navy’s forward deployment is increasingly questionable. Combined with the negative impact it has had on readiness, clearly a rebasing of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific needs to be given active consideration.
Great Power Competition
The conversations about great power competition need to be reframed. China and Russia are discussed as “near peer” threats, but this belays certain inalienable truths, namely, that in some domains—such as hypersonic weaponry—they may be our superiors. To consider this would be to abandon preconceived notions of U.S. superiority and instead look at the U.S. strategic position as that of renegades. If we did this, we could learn from our prior adversaries. We could formulate better strategies based on insurgent warfare and deny the field to the enemy until such time as we were able to strike effectively at a place of our choosing. The U.S. field of view needs to be expanded so that alternative positions are possible—especially that we may be overmatched. To do otherwise is to court disaster.
—LCDR Scott A. Wallace, MC (FS/FMF), USN