Source National Interest

WASHINGTON, US: It’s a truism that the Pacific is an amphibian theater. Just look at your map and behold! the oceanic region’s majestic vacantness. That being the case, it takes amphibian forces to seize, hold, and defend terrain, chiefly though not exclusively along Asia’s first offshore island chain. Warfare in the Pacific promises to be an all-service, all-domain, and allied endeavor. Waging it will demand the utmost not just from naval forces but from fellow services that operate from dry earth.
No Pacific war will be a strictly naval war.
In fact, armies and air forces are sea services as surely as navies and marines are. So it was during World War II, when legendary U.S. Army general Douglas MacArthur commanded one of the twin offensives island-hopping toward the Philippines and imperial Japan. So it is again. Residents of the Pacific enjoyed a few quiescent decades after the Cold War. Now, though, a domineering China and its crummy little toadies Russia and North Korea have stormed back onto the Asian geopolitical scene. Their power and ambition mark a return to the region’s martial past—including at sea.
That’s where we find ourselves. What to do? Well, holding land features in the Western Pacific is an intrinsic good in itself. The first island chain is made up entirely of U.S. allies, notably Japan and the Philippines, and of quasi-allies such as Taiwan. Holding territory upholds friends’ sovereignty.
Island-chain defense is of the essence on those terms alone.
Beyond that, though, islands make excellent firing platforms. Holding ground opens up offensive vistas for allied forces. Think about it. Bodies of missile-armed troops on Asian islands could work with aircraft roaming overhead, and with surface and subsurface craft prowling adjoining waters, to make waters and skies along the island chain into a no-go zone. Close the straits that separate the islands comprising the island chain and you bar access to the Western Pacific for China’s air force, navy, and merchant fleet.
Having corralled China’s military, friendly ground, air, and sea forces could loft ordnance westward against targets within the China seas. China would have a bad day owing in large part to soldiers treading dry land.
U.S. and allied militaries confront two challenges in Pacific competition: wartime and peacetime. In wartime, of course, the challenge is to field forces able to defeat a foe in open combat. Each combatant tries to stage enough military might at the time and place of action to overpower the other in a struggle for control. Control is the point of military strategy according to the classics in the field.
Oftentimes rival forces duel over control of a physical object such as a well-situated piece of ground. Prime real estate is scarce in the emptiness of the Pacific Ocean. Demand for it—chiefly for island redoubts—will be that much fiercer amid the clangor of war. Hence the importance of soldiery able to seize, hold, and defend terrain by force of arms. Humanity lives on land, so land is where wars are ultimately won and lost. Naval, air, and space forces are what the Pentagon calls “supporting” elements—a.k.a. enablers—for groundpounders, the “supported” and decisive element in any fighting force.
A soldier of lasting renown, imperial Germany’s Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder), explains how to wage war in this environment. Moltke champions fellow strategist Carl von Clausewitz’s claim that tactical defense constitutes the strongest form of war, but he gives Clausewitzian logic a twist. Or rather, he adds a layer to it, contending that the strongest form of war is strategic offense followed by and consolidated through tactical defense.
What that means in practical terms is this: if commanders espy some key parcel of territory that happens to be undefended or lightly defended, they should wrest it from the enemy at minimal cost. That’s the strategically offensive part. Then they should defend it tenaciously, daring the enemy host to break itself against entrenched occupants. That’s the tactically defensive part.
The best offense is a stout defense.
In military affairs as in everyday life, possession is nine-tenths of the law. It’s easier by far to hold onto something you already possess than to wrench it from a dug-in foe. In other words, Moltke exhorts commanders to embrace an enterprising, offensive spirit on the field of battle. Grab and hold.
A century ago the English naval historian Julian Corbett imported Moltke’s concept into the saltwater realm, noting that the German soldier “held that the strongest form of war—that is, the form which economically makes for the highest development of strength in a given force—is strategic offensive combined with tactical defensive.”
The precondition for harnessing Moltkean wisdom, says Corbett, is “that we are able by superior readiness or mobility or by being more conveniently situated to establish ourselves in the territorial object before our opponent can gather strength to prevent us. This done, we have the initiative, and the enemy . . . must conform to our opening by endeavoring to turn us out. We are in a position to meet his attack on ground of our own choice and to avail ourselves of such opportunities of counterattack as his distant and therefore exhausting offensive movements are likely to offer.”
Molon labe.
Control of adjacent maritime space is a must when transposing such land-warfare precepts seaward. Writes Corbett: “Assuming, as in [the Royal Navy’s] own case we always must assume, that the territorial object is sea-girt and our enemy is not able to command the sea, such opportunities are certain to present themselves . . . .” It’s up to friendly naval forces, then, to command nearby waters. At a minimum they must deny maritime command to a hostile force bent on occupying the contested turf.
Corbett, Moltke, and Clausewitz ably assess the dynamics of open war on sea and land. But what about strategic competition short of war? If the ability to seize, hold, and defend terrain is decisive in wartime, it’s the perceived ability to seize, hold, and defend terrain that determines success and failure in times of uneasy peace—times such as our own. Peacetime strategic competition is virtual war. To prevail a fighting force must shroud itself with an aura of invincibility, convincing allies and antagonists that it would be the odds-on victor—and its opponent the loser—should some international quarrel come to blows.
It’s human nature: people love winners. Why not side with the stronger contestant and partake of the winnings? By contrast, few rally to likely losers. They know that if they make common cause with the weak and lose, they will share the bitter wages of defeat.
This martial posturing is what the strategist Edward Luttwak calls “armed suasion.” The tenor of official statements and much of the commentary on U.S. strategy implies that peacetime strategy is purely about deterrence. The idea being that one potential combatant disheartens another by displaying military capability and the willpower to use it under certain circumstances. It convinces rival leaders they cannot win because their position is hopeless, that they lack the resources to win, or that they can’t win at a cost they care to pay. A rational opponent should stand down—letting deterrence prevail.
No one takes on a forlorn hope. QED.
And there’s nothing wrong with that way of thinking about deterrence. It’s about conveying capability and resolve to make antagonists believers in our capability and resolve. Luttwak, like fellow scribes such as Henry Kissinger, reduces complex psychological and military dynamics to a simple formula: “. . . the effect that armed forces induce in others depends on their perceived strength multiplied by the perceived will to use that strength. And if that will is believed to be absent, even the strongest forces, whose strength is fully recognized, may not dissuade or persuade at all.”
Look at the keywords: perceived, perceived, and believed. All subjective terms. Luttwak’s algebra is simple. Even the biggest number multiplied by zero is zero. The most forbidding capability driven by the most unquenchable resolve avails little if the adversary disbelieves in either component of our strength.
But deterrence is just part of armed suasion. If deterrence involves displaying forces to convince an adversary not to do something it wants to do, coercion means convincing an adversary to do something it prefers not to do. Moreover, armed diplomacy isn’t aimed solely at prospective foes. Reassurance constitutes a third mode of suasion, meant to convince friendly powers that you can and will keep your commitments to them.
You deter or coerce a Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, or Kim Jong-Un, or the armed forces and societies over which they preside; you reassure a Fumio Kishida or William Lai, or the societies over which they preside. And that’s what peacetime strategic competition is all about.
Luttwak laments the common tendency to regard deterrence and other genres of armed suasion as something we do, or to reduce suasion to weapons and sensors wielded by our forces. Persuading others is not all about us or our widgets. For instance, he considers it a misnomer to describe forces as “deterrent” forces. These are implements, whereas deterrence, coercion, and reassurance take place in the minds of human beings. They—not we—decide whether they’re deterred, coerced, or reassured by our shows of capability, competence, and resolve.