TOKYO — If the U.S. and China were to engage in a battle midway between the two countries, where time and geography were irrelevant, the American side still has superiority. But in reality, only a fraction of U.S. forces — roughly 10 to 15% of its naval and air assets — are deployed in the Western Pacific.
If China were to attempt to take Taiwan by force, its geographic proximity and dramatic military expansion make it increasingly likely that Beijing will have an advantage in the early stages of a conflict.
A group of experts have suggested a new strategy of “active denial” to address this shifting balance of power. The key, they argue, is to blunt China’s offensive punch and buy time for the arrival of additional forces that could defeat potential aggression by China.
The authors propose a phased approach, with a focus on resilience at the outset of a conflict. By hardening facilities, such as the construction of concrete aircraft shelters and underground munitions and fuel storage, the effectiveness of an attack by an adversary would be greatly diminished, they say.
Dispersing U.S. forward-deployed forces, mostly to locations farther from China, will also increase resilience, they say. Specifically, the strategy calls for the number of U.S. military personnel in Japan to be drawn down to 44,000 from the current 55,000, while personnel in Guam should rise to 14,000 from the current 8,800 and increase in Australia to 7,000 from 1,160 at present.
The study, shared exclusively with Nikkei Asia, is titled “Active Denial: A road map to a more effective, stabilizing, and sustainable U.S. defense strategy in Asia.” It was led by Rachel Esplin Odell, a former research fellow at the Washington think tank the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, with input from nine other security experts, including war-games specialist Eric Heginbotham, former intelligence officer John Culver and Japan expert Mike Mochizuki.
The argument for countering China through “denial” has been spearheaded by Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force planning and the lead architect of the Trump administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy.
In his book “Strategy of Denial,” Colby argues that the U.S. must defend Taiwan, despite the lack of a formal defense treaty, because failure to do so will allow China to dominate Asia, both because it will signal that the U.S. cannot be relied on and because of the island’s military significance.
Colby calls for the U.S. to form an “anti-hegemonic coalition” that flexibly combines the strengths of allies and partners. “Sustaining that coalition, though, will require denying a Chinese attempt to take over Taiwan by force,” Colby said.
Meanwhile, “active denial” proposed by the Quincy-led study group calls for a more restrained approach, seeking to limit the scope of battle and in a fiscally sustainable manner. The end goal should be “defeating aggression rather than subjugating the adversary,” the authors said.
Colby told Nikkei Asia that his strategy is about denying China its goals, not subjugating it.
The 300-page report offers specific proposals for redesigning U.S. force structure to fit the new concept. Greater focus should be placed on the Navy and Air Force, with substantial cuts made to the Army and Marine presence in the region, the report suggests.
For the Navy, the experts recommend a nimbler fleet comprising smaller ships, most symbolically through a “decisive move away from large carriers,” toward more maneuverable light aircraft carriers. The current U.S. fleet of 11 aircraft carriers should be shrunk to six by 2040 and be replaced by 12 light carriers, which would carry 25 or so F-35B fighters. In the interim, the America-class landing helicopter assault ship already in service could serve as a light carrier, the report says.
Large-deck carriers are not only hugely expensive but also manifestations of national power; the potential loss of one at the outset of a conflict with China would be a significant blow to morale, the authors noted. “Almost as many sailors and airmen could die in the sinking of one U.S. aircraft carrier as U.S. troops have died in all the post-September 11 wars combined,” the report says.
In a proposal that is likely to be controversial, the study group calls for the Army and Marine Corps to cut 26 of their combined 71 brigade combat teams and regiments, and suggests “units least suited to relevant contingencies,” such as most Marine ground troops in Okinawa, be moved to other locations.
In exchange for the reduction of Marines in Japan, the allies can enhance preparation and training at more dispersed military and civilian airports across the country, the report says.
The authors suggest a new deal with Japan that reduces Tokyo’s host-nation support payments to maintain American bases, with the money redirected to base hardening. They forecast that adjusting U.S. force posture in the region will save $75 billion annually by 2035.