US Defense Department war games have revealed the startling level of Beijing’s military parity with the US and its allies, with many in the US defence establishment concerned about the outcome of any armed confrontation in the Indo-Pacific.
As the competition between the US and China continues to heat up, with the two powers eyeing each other off from the corners of the boxing ring that is rapidly transforming the Indo-Pacific, Washington is seemingly concerned about Beijing's growing conventional capabilities.
In the Indian Ocean, these two titans continue to jockey for access and primacy over some of the most lucrative sea lines of communication (SLOC) and access to critical markets, strategic resources and of course prestige amid the slowly developing Cold War 2.0 transforming the global and regional balance of power and competition.
By far the most contentious flash point is the heavily travelled South China Sea and the massive land reclamation efforts Beijing has initiated over the past decade to expand its territorial claims and access to resources in the strategically vital SLOC.
Dominating and controlling foreign access to the South China Sea through which approximately US$5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes annually serves as a potent strategic deterrent to potential adversaries and a major extension of their already formidable anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) system as a buffer for expanding China’s designs for south-east Asia.
As part of this, Beijing has launched the growing deployment of force projection capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in particular have prompted increased concern from established regional powers, including Japan, Korea and Australia.
In particular, the PLAN is undergoing one of the largest rearmament and modernisation with emphasis placed on developing conventional maritime-based power projection, sea control and strategic deterrence capabilities to rival the US and the aggregated capability of its regional allies including Australia, Japan and South Korea.
Additionally, smaller regional nations with competing territorial claims and ancient fears of Chinese expansion, namely Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, have all raised growing concerns about China’s militarisation and reclamation programs in the South China Sea.
While the US has made repeated efforts and appeals to Beijing to respect the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order upon which much of the wealth of the Indo-Pacific is built, including its own, it appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
In response, the defence and strategic establishment in Washington has commenced a series of extensive war game exercises in order to evaluate the level of US preparedness and its capability to decisively defeat a conventional peer competitor.
Destablising the Indo-Pacific at the core of Beijing's build up agenda
America's traditional domains of tactical and strategic dominance, namely the global reach, presence and capability of the US Navy supported in large part by its fleet of super carriers are increasingly challenged by Beijing's own, yet still growing, carrier fleet, combined with extensive anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities throughout the region.
Speaking to US-based Breaking Defense, US Marine Corps Director of Expeditionary, Major General Tracy King, has expressed the growing concerns emerging within Washington, saying: "The most destabilising event in the 21st century is going to be when China can achieve conventional parity at a time and place of its choosing.
"These war games are reinforcing that fact. So when they are able to do that, and when they can decide whether or not we’re going or fight or not, that’s going to be extremely destabilising."
In order to prolong the closing parity gap between the US and China, the US has redoubled its efforts to re-establish the technological advantage in the region, embarking on an extensive research and development and modernisation program for both offensive and defensive capabilities and key platforms responsible for maintaining a measure of US supremacy.
Expanding on this, Rear Admiral Paul Schlise, the US Navy's Director of Surface Warfare, added, "The war game, what it’s showing us is that China’s invested in what they call Assassin's Mace, which are weapon systems that are specifically designed to counter us."
Despite this concerted effort by Beijing to counter the traditional strengths of the US and its allies, lessons learned by close studying of the Taiwan Strait Crisis of the mid-1990s and the US-led operations in the Middle East, central Asia and southern Europe, the US retains some advantages according to RADM Schlise who added:
"Our joint force is not built to specifically counter them. What that means is they have an A2/AD capability that is fixed, static, expensive, hard to maintain and really effective in one place."
Distributed lethality will be key
As part of the US response to the focused efforts of Beijing, the US is shifting the restructuring and modernisation of its own forces in the region, seeking to make it harder for Chinese commanders to prosecute attacks, while leveraging what both MajGen King and RADM Schlise describe as a "very confused" first 30-45 days of initial conflict.
In response, the concept of 'distributed lethality' is driving the development and fielding of new operational concepts and capabilities to effectively isolate and overwhelm concentrations of expensive Chinese equipment.
This has seen the modernisation and complete force structure renewal of the US Marines as they change their tactics and platform fielding to counter Beijing, an effort being driven by US Marine Commandant, General David Berger with the recent approval from Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
As part of this focus and force structure overhaul, the Marines are returning to the light, fast and aggressively agile force responsible for the successful Pacific island hopping campaign during the Second World War, albeit with a suite of advanced capabilities, ranging from long-range rockets and artillery, fifth generation platforms like the F-35 and a suite of overhauled infantry models.
MajGen King explained, "We’re gonna have Marines out there sinking ships. You know I’ve even talked to our undersea guys about Marines out there sinking submarines so some of our inside forces can stay hidden and let our adversary worry about me and my hundred guys running around crazy on some island, instead of these capital assets that are really the heart and soul of the joint force."
This is all being conducted in conjunction with the Navy as that force adapts to the changed operating environment, particularly one that directly challenges the backbone of the fleet and America's undisputed maritime dominance, the super carrier and its supporting strike group.
For RADM Schlise, despite public protestations and conversations about the demise of the carrier as a 'fundamental input to capability', the aircraft carrier is apparently here to stay, with its capability, survivability and lethality enhanced by the introduction of manned and unmanned systems.
"The Carrier Strike Group remains the premier fighting unit of the Navy, and that force structure is gonna be around for a while. The value of some of the manned/unmanned force packages that we’re talking about, but also the value of our legacy forces," RADM Schlise explained.
Each of these combinations will also see greater allied contributions with regional partners including Australia and Japan both developing niche capabilities and acquiring interoperable platforms designed to seamlessly integrate within the US 'distributed lethality' operating concept.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the long-standing strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political and strategic leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's strategic approach to our regional partners.