Reshaping Perimeter Defense: A New Pacific Island Strategy

By Robbin Laird

Ed Timperlake laid out some years ago how the Marines might spearhead an island leveraging counter strategy to how the Chinese are shaping their military force and coming out into deeper into the Pacific.

That island leveraging strategy focused upon how the new capabilities — the Osprey, the F-35B and the CH-53K, when combined with a new build infrastructure for offensive or defensive missiles located throughout the Pacific — whether U.S. or Allied — could shape new capabilities which would provide for a forward defense built in front of an air-sea operational U.S. and allied force.

Two recent developments highlighted by the Trump Administration and the Pentagon have brought into highlight the importance of that strategy articulated by Timperlake several years ago.

The first is the decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty which now allows the United States to build a new generation of missiles, including hypersonic ones, deployed throughout the Pacific.

But as I argued in an earlier article, the Administration will need to shape a political strategy along with any military modernization strategy to work with allies for reassurance of allies is part of any effective deterrent strategy.

The new Sec Def has highlighted the opportunity to build and deploy a new class of missiles into the Pacific.

U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper said he wants to deploy an intermediate range conventional missile in the Pacific region within months, now that the Trump administration has formally pulled out of a Cold War-era arms control treaty with Russia.

Esper, however, added that it will likely take some time to develop the more advanced land-based missile capabilities. The move is likely to anger China, but Esper said Beijing shouldn’t be surprised by it.

“It’s fair to say, though, that we would like to deploy a capability sooner rather than later,” Esper told reporters travelling with him to Australia on Friday. “I would prefer months. I just don’t have the latest state of play on timelines.”

Another development of note is the focus of the new USMC Commandant on enhanced capabilities for distributed operations and operating from expeditionary bases in the Pacific.

“Expeditionary Advanced Based Operations (EABO) are driven by the aforementioned adversary deployment of long-range precision fires designed to support a strategy of “counter-intervention” directed against U.S. and coalition forces. EABO, as an operational concept, enables the naval force to persist forward within the arc of adversary long-range precision fi es to support our treaty partners with combat credible forces on a much more resilient and difficult to target forward basing infrastructure.”

In Timperlake’s approach identified some years ago, the Marines and the Navy could leverage new missile technologies to put in place an offensive-defensive capability with missiles placed on uninhabited Pacific islands which could form a string of steel to support US and allied forces able to counter the forces of the 21st century authoritarian forces seeking to move their forces further out into the Pacific.

For example, in 2013 interview, Timperlake began to insert this perspective into our work:

“The commanding Officer of the First Marine Air Wing, based in Japan, highlighted this change (how the Osprey allowed use of islands in a deterrent strategy) in an interview he did with us. We discussed with Major General Owens recent exercises which his Marines conducted that presage changes in Pacific operations….

“Question: There is a broader strategic point, which emerges from you exercise…There are many islands in the Pacific. With the flexibility and relocation skills evident by the USMC (e.g. with regard to expeditionary airfields) islands can be a useful compliment to amphibious ships to provide the kind of presence which we may well need in the years ahead. What is your thinking along these lines?

Major General Owens: “This makes sense. We have a relative paucity of amphibious shipping. When I was a young lieutenant and captain, I think we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 amphibious war ships in the Navy inventory.  Right now, we have 28 and they’re spread about as thin as they possibly can be.  We’re running through their lifecycle faster than anticipated, and yet they’re never enough.

“Going back to the whole challenge in this AOR is getting to where you need to be with some capability.  Being able to stretch the legs of the aircraft and operate from austere sites is critical.

“A good case in point is that we just brought a couple of KC130s back from disaster relief in the Philippines, a typhoon rolled through Mindanao and Palawan a few weeks ago.  And we deployed a couple of KC130s to haul relief supplies from Luzon to Mindanao.

“The KC-130J was the aircraft of choice because there was a useable airfield at the southern end, at the affected end.  But had there not been an airfield, which is often the case after tsunamis and typhoons, we could have done the same thing with the Osprey; flown it to Clark Field, operated out of Luzon — loading supplies in Luzon and dropping them to a point landing site in Mindanao supported by KC130s in the air, providing aerial refueling.

“And it’s a capability we’ve never had before, and I expect that within the next couple of years, we’ll have an opportunity to demonstrate that the Osprey may be the only aircraft that can get in to an affected area at the distance that we’ll be required to support from.

“Whether it be from an intermediate staging base, like Clark or flying directly from MCAS Futenma here in Okinawa….”

As we expanded our work to encompass thinking about how Army ADA could be woven into the texture of what we called a honeycomb force deployed and operating in the Pacific, Timperlake expanded ways to think about how to leverage a new island strategy.

On January 7th, 2014, we published this piece by Timperlake:

In our recent book on the rebuilding of American military power in the context of shaping a new Pacific strategy, we highlighted the significance of shaping a new template for the synergy between defense and offense.

With the new multi-mission systems – 5th generation aircraft and Aegis for example – the key is presence and integration able to support strike or defense in a single operational presence capability.  Now the adversary cannot be certain that you are simply putting down a marker.

This is what former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne calls the attack and defense enterprise.

The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create an a grid that can operate in an area as a seamless whole, able to strike or defend simultaneously. 

This is enabled by the evolution of C5ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance), and it is why Wynne has underscored for more than a decade that fifth generation aircraft are not merely replacements for existing tactical systems but a whole new approach to integrating defense and offense…..

By shaping a C5ISR system inextricably intertwined with platforms and assets, which can honeycomb an area of operation, an attack and defense enterprise can operate to deter aggressors and adversaries or to conduct successful military operations.

Our interview with PACAF Commander, General Hawk Carlisle, highlighted a key way ahead is forging various paths towards cross-domain synergy among the joint and coalition forces.

One of the key examples he provided was the role of the first THAAD deployment to the Pacific.

THAAD being fired as part of exercise. Credit: Lockheed Martin
THAAD being fired as part of exercise. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Thanks to a demonstrated rapid THAAD deployment to Guam, the Air Defense Artillery (ADA) branch of the US Army has demonstrated their significant role in US and Allied Air Sea Battle planning.

We followed up on Carlisle’s illustration to interview the Guam commander of the THAAD battery.

And this interview made it clear that ADA capability far transcends moving infantry around the Pacific tying up precious Air Force resources. Army Pacific battle planning was reported as being called “Pacific Pathways.”

In a recent Washington Post article the Senior Army Pacific Commander, General Brooks, a command based in Hawaii, was recently elevated to four stars, and makes a significant point:

“We can no longer afford to build [combat] units and put them on a shelf to be used only in the event of war,” the Senior Army Pacific Commander’s command wrote in an internal planning document.

He is exactly correct and the best answer to General Brooks thinking is very simple: just don’t do it.

There is no need for a large standing army to be built. America has shown the ability to very successful in mobilizing what is often called “trigger pullers.”

In fact The Washington Free Beacon has given a wonderful tribute to the men and women in today’s US Army.  “2013 Man of the Year: The American Soldier.”

With the Afghan transition comes the opportunity to shift from a land heavy mobilization force. Indeed in our forthcoming piece in the Joint Forces Quarterly, we argue that the decade ahead has little in common with the decade behind and that “the force being remade by new technologies ripening in the decade ahead, there are significant possibilities for innovation and re-shaping of the force structure.”

In the decade ahead, it is clearly the time for Big Army demobilization.

The current Chief of Staff of the US Army, General Odierno, West Point 1976, has an appreciation for the combat legacy of the Long Gray Line. As a strong advocate for the US Army, he told Congress and hence the American people that to win a war send in the Army. He was exactly right for the Civil War, WWI and WWII.

Unfortunately, unless he wants to argue to support, equip and train a standing “Big Army” to capture Beijing or Tehran, his vision for Army resources has to be modified to recognize the realities of the potential combat facing America in this half of the 21st Century.

Hussein assumed that Kuwait was his.  Neither Iran nor China should believe that they can make such an assumption about any of their neighbors.

It is American power projection backed by mobilization if necessary which adds a key deterrent quality to Iranian or Chinese thinking. 

America, can mobilize an Army, but the need for ready now survivable aircraft, and air bases and Navy ships with a 9/11 force of US Marines afloat to shape an attack and defense enterprise is the key challenge.

And not funding these forces along innovative lines while maintaining an Army built for Iraq and Afghanistan makes little sense in the decade ahead. 

Our role is to shape global reach and bring power to bear for our allies, which makes any adversary like Iran or the PRC lack certainty that a perimeter attack on one of their neighbors is just that.

Also involved is the challenge of shaping a key understanding of the appropriate tactical and strategic role of the US Army in the Pacific. One just has to look at the geography of the Pacific and ask why just Guam and does a THAAD Battery always have to be moved by truck?

The answer to this question is part of a larger question: how does Army missile defense play in the attack and defense enterprise within the strategic quadrangle?

US Navy and Japanese Aegis ships, THAAD on islands, and “Rapid Raptor” which are a parts of an evolving con-ops that can be proof of concept for F-35 and tankers can make tactical and strategic moves to many PacRim airfields.

The problem is the US Army is not a lift command.  It borrows USAF lift to move around the vast Pacific. And the Afghan war has weighed heavily on the lift and tanking resources of the USAF and its ability to support the joint force.

What is needed is to rethink how to support ADA in the Pacific without overtaxing lift assets.

During exercise Stellar Avenger, the Aegis-class destroyer USS Hopper launches a standard missile 3 Blk IA, successfully intercepting a sub-scale short range ballistic missile, launched from the Kauai Test Facility, Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sans, Kauai. (Credit: USN Visual Service, 7/31/09)
During exercise Stellar Avenger, the Aegis-class destroyer USS Hopper launches a standard missile 3 Blk IA, successfully intercepting a sub-scale short range ballistic missile, launched from the Kauai Test Facility, Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sans, Kauai. (Credit: USN Visual Service, 7/31/09)

An alternative way to think about the ADA approach is to build the support facilities throughout the Pacific whereby THAAD and air defense can be supported. THAAD–globally transportable, rapidly deployable capability to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles inside or outside the atmosphere during their final, or terminal, phase of flight. THAAD Weight launch vehicle, fully loaded 40,000kg=88, 184 lbs or 44 short tons.

The Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of missile battery truck alone is 66,000 lbs.

Now let us rethink how it might be deployed to remote islands as part of a flexible grid.

The CH-53K can take 30,000 lbs internal or sling 36,000 external-range.

The K is air refueable.

The MV-22 human capacity is 24 combat-loaded Marines-range app 700 miles.

The actual missile battery is 26,000 lbs and well inside the lift capacity of a CH-53.

The problem is the mechanics to raise and lower the battery and rearm. A battery lowered from the air sans truck on reinforced concrete pads with calibrated launch points may make sense. A separate modular lift device could be put in place to load and reload.

Consequently, taking apart modules doesn’t appear to be a showstopper, and Marine MV-22s flying in Army ADA troops into any reasonable terrain is absolutely no problem.

The weight of TOC and Radar maybe of concern, and it appears that in todays world there may have been little appreciation by Big Army on using MV-22 and CH-53Ks.

To be very fair the US Vietnam War Army did get it brilliantly by setting up firebases in remote areas with helo lift of very heavy guns.

A THAAD island maneuverability concept is the same in principle but with different technology.

Combine ADA Batteries with the ability to move a floating airfield as needed inside the potential sanctuary of a 200+ KM protection umbrella of disbursed island bases with ADA batteries and power projection of the sort needed in Pacific defense is enhanced.

The targeting and thus war fighting capability of a projected threat from any PLAA2AD becomes incredibility complicated. A distributed offensive defensive grid is an additional factor in the US current PLA or North Korean IRBM kill chain R&D efforts.

The most fundamental point is US technology is already tested. Some weapons already in combat others on ranges. The US does do rigorous testing and has many important ways to share technology with all allies.

In contrast, the PLA has not tested any of their asserted A2AD capability, which is much quoted in US-search, acquisition, launch, guide, and end-game maneuver. So far they have poked a few holes in their land target outlined like a Navy Carrier. This is 1960s stuff.

The involvement of THAAD in an Aegis engagement grid may actually give” Big Army” employing ADA capability both a realistic and important way ahead to for them to make a contribution to the Air Sea Battle within resources available.

Currently it looks like the Army is assuming they can utilize AF lift as their announced right to move 700 troops around the Pacific every three months, which is an incredibly waste of resources and taxing on a lift fleet already stretched to the limit. The Afghan tax on Air Force lift has to be paid back.

The Marines know how to maneuver forces at sea and in the air to protect islands–and also deny the PLA any opportunity for them to go “feet wet” to grab Islands for their strategic use.

The USAF could stage an Army THAAD battery on a runway anywhere around Pacific. The USAF would have no problem doing just that and it sure beats the resource drain on AF heavy lift of moving 700 Army troops around every three months as proposed in their Pacific Pathways emerging doctrine.

The THAAD package could go from the runway to an Amphip, Deck  or directly to  MV-22s and Heavy lift helos to move this capability to a couple of rocks jutting out of Pacific.

The Island Geography around the Pacific Rim is a critical physical reality which such a deployment approach can play to:

Japan is an archipelago of 6,852 islands;

The Philippine archipelago comprises 7,107 islands, of which only about 2,000 are inhabited;

Korea has more than 3,300 islands;

Vietnam has 20 Islands-including their claim on Sprats and Parcels cluster;

And finally, Republic of China islands provide additional deployment options.

The geography of islands inside the Pacific strategic quadrangle can favor moving a THAAD Battery to various pre-planned island launch pads to protect vital runways and harbors.

The Pacific Strategic Quadrangle. Credit: SLD
The Pacific Strategic Quadrangle. Credit: SLD

When combined with Aegis ships and 7th AF maneuverability, cross-domain synergy is enhanced which can then greatly complicate PLA and NK targeting and thereby enhance deterrence.

So much for the  “run-away” A2AD bogy man-especially with F-35 arrival in the region, which will extend significantly the forward reach of the sensor package to work with defensive systems!

Now if the US National Command Authority and Secretary of Defense could just convince the Army to consider accepting a strategic view that cross-domain 21st Century technology (not just boots on the ground for their own sake) can move war wining capability ADA into a strategic battle position inside our Strategic Quadrangle by Air instead of “the caissons go rolling along “

The biggest show stopper could be fighting a tradition from 1908 (date of song)-that has very little appreciation for an Air/Sea Battle–over the expanse of the Pacific OCEAN.

WW II was Island hopping for offensive air power-but first the enemy air threat had to be beaten back, or there would be big holes in runways and destroyed aircraft on the ground.

One could imagine the PLAAF and 2nd Arty surprise if a lot of “rocks” off shore around PRC became fortified shooters linked into Aegis Carrier Battle Groups, the USN/USMC “Gator Forces” and 7th AF air mobility and Pacific strike capability mutually cross linked and reinforced with allied capability into a solid honeycomb of Pacific defense only activated when needed.

The island strategy is part of our overall look at how one might shape a new deterrence in depth approach in the Pacific:

Editor’s Note: The combination of Ospreys, with F-35Bs, and Ks provide the Marines with some key tools to support the joint force in a new perimeter defense strategy. 

In a recent article by Megan Eckstein, the USNI News analyst, highlighted that the Marines are folding F-35B into a New Pacific Island-Hopping concept.

The Marine Corps is learning how to incorporate its new F-35B Joint Strike Fighter jets into its island-hopping concept of Expeditionary Advance Base Operations, with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit rehearsing this concept recently in the Pacific.

The Japan-based MEU was the first to operate with the new F-35B, though its experience with the jet has been quite different than that of the 13th MEU and Essex Amphibious Ready Group, which were the first to deploy with the F-35B from the United States and the first to conduct an operational air strike with the Joint Strike Fighter.

The 31st MEU, unique in being the only forward-deployed amphibious group, has been focused on integrating the new jet into its crisis-response and self-defense missions and showing off the new plane to Pacific allies and partners, MEU Commanding Officer Col. Robert Brodie said today at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. If a conflict were to emerge in the Pacific, 31st MEU would likely be among the first on the scene and would likely use its island-seizing EABO concept – so, figuring out how to conduct this mission with the new airplane was the focus of a recent exercise on a small Japanese island, Brodie said.

On Ie Shima, off Okinawa, 31st MEU conducted a standard raid and seizure: a recon team jumped in to pave the way for a raid force being flown in to seize the island. Once the island was secured, CH-53E heavy-lift helicopters flew in fuel bladders and ordnance to conduct a forward arming and refueling point (FARP) operation with the F-35Bs.

“We were actually able to set up a refueling point, and our 53s were taking the gas from a bladder and filling up F-35s, and then the F-35s were going and flying missions,” Brodie said.

“That’s kind of the concept we rehearsed there. And the key to this is speed: we did not rush through it because we wanted to be very deliberate and we’re in a learning phase, but I think you could do these types of things relatively quickly if you had the right ground.”

Brodie said the Marines could do this type of operation with either the CH-53E or the MV-22B Osprey, but the MEU has found the helicopter works best.

“We find the 53 works out really well with the F-35, it does a great job pumping gas into it. And I think the 53K will be a tremendous asset when we incorporate it in the future,” he said of the replacement heavy-lift helicopter still under development.

“We utilized our CH-53 with aviation ordnancemen; they just rolled [the munitions] right off, put it right in while the 53 was gassing up the aircraft.”

The K part of this is very significant in multiple ways.

Not only can the aircraft lift three times that of an E, it is a much more capable information generating and sharing asset within a force insertion package.

And if the US Army were to buy the K in numbers to support its ADA efforts which would be necessary both to deploy offensive and defensive missiles and their C2 posts, then their would be a clear opening to enabling the approach laid down by Timperlake several years ago. 

Editor’s Note: Baseline K Capabilities to the Mission

  • The CH-53K is aerial refueling capable.
  • Max external load is 36,000lbs
  • Max useful internal load is ~30000 lbs
  • Max of 30 troops or 24 litter patients
  • Endurance without refueling is 4 hours; max range without fueling is 406nm; 550nm with one internal extended range tank installed.
  • The KPP is 27,000 external load out to 110nm from sea level at 103 degrees F to 3000’ at 91.5 degrees F with ability to hold in objective area then return 110nm to the ship with 20 minutes of reserve fuel remaining.