Army secretary, top general push for bigger role as China tensions surge

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Senior Army leaders insist they’re not spoiling for a fight with China, but want Congress and the American people to know they have an important role to play in the Pacific if hostilities break out with Beijing. 

General Charles Flynn, commander of Army troops in the Pacific, argues that the Indo-Pacific Command, the Pentagon’s joint military command in the region, is named for two oceans. The most hotly contested parts of East Asia are traditionally thought of as an area more suited for naval and air combatants: Save for a two-week interregnum in 2007 when a general served in an acting role, the INDOPACOM has been led by an unbroken string of Navy admirals dating back to its formation in 1947.

But with bragging rights and budget dollars at stake as China emerges as what the Pentagon’s 2022 National Defense Strategy calls America’s “pacing challenge,” the services are quietly — and not so quietly — making their pitch to play a role.

The Indo-Pacific “is not only an air and maritime theater,” General Flynn said Monday during a talk at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. “This is a joint theater. It’s got joint challenges and joint problems and it requires joint solutions.”

The Army has steadily ramped up its presence there since the declaration of America’s strategic pivot to Asia during the Obama administration.

“Our goal is to avoid fighting a land war in Asia. We want to lower the temperature in the relationship with China,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said. “But, we have to obviously prepare. We have to be prepared to fight and win.”

While Congress may be supportive of a greater Army role in Indo-Pacific military operations, service leaders may have a harder time convincing the American public to support their cause. A recent Rasmussen poll of likely U.S. voters supported tough economic sanctions on China if Taiwan was attacked and majorities of more than 60% favored deploying the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force to defend the island.

But support fell off sharply when respondents were asked about using American ground troops to help repel a hypothetical Chinese invasion — just 42% were in favor while 46% were opposed.

Gen. Flynn has been observing China’s military development for several years based on several deployments to the region, including a stint commanding the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. He said Beijing’s military development has been nothing short of extraordinary.

“They are rehearsing; they are practicing; they are experimenting. They are preparing their forces for something,” General Flynn said. “You don’t build up that kind of arsenal just to ‘defend and protect.’ You probably are building that for ‘other purposes.’”

Despite China’s stepped-up rhetoric, Ms. Wormuth and Gen. Flynn said they do not believe a Chinese ground invasion of Taiwan is imminent or easily carried out. The general called such a mission “highly complex” and said it couldn’t be done with bombers and submarines. The People’s Liberation Army would first have to assemble ground troops, configure them into a combat force, move them into position and then load them onto a ship. 

“That’s just to get off mainland China. Then you would have to cross an 80- to 100-mile strait,” General Flynn said. “Then, you’d have to seize, hold, defend and consolidate gains on Taiwan.”

The Army has been shifting its attention to the Indo-Pacific region since the Obama administration announced the pivot to the Pacific following two decades of bitter fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, a pivot that has been complicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the need to bolster Kyiv’s ability to defend itself. Skeptics of the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy such as Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, have argued that the land war in the heart of Europe is distracting the U.S. military from its real challenge, China.

“The Chinese Communist Party understands that if our resources are tied up in Ukraine, those are resources we can’t use to deter a Taiwan invasion,” Mr. Hawley argued in a speech to the Heritage Foundation last month. “As Napoleon said, ‘If you want to take Vienna, take Vienna.’ China wants control of the Indo-Pacific, and we must stop them there.”

Getting ready

Ms. Wormuth and General Flynn laid out a number of steps the Army is taking to ensure its combat readiness. That includes setting up supply depots in countries such as Australia which would lie beyond the range of most Chinese missiles in a conflict.

H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s former national security advisor, once asked now-retired Admiral Harris Harris what he needed from the Army troops who were assigned to what was then called U.S. Pacific Command, which he led from 2015 to 2018.

“I told H.R. that I’d like to see the Army’s land forces sink a ship, shoot down a missile, and shoot down the aircraft that fired that missile — near simultaneously — in a complex environment where our joint and combined forces are operating in each other’s domains,” Admiral Harris said in a 2017 speech to the Association of the US Army.

The Army said it will soon be deploying long-range hypersonic weapons in the Indo-Pacific region that can travel at five times the speed of sound. Members of the service’s first hypersonic weapons battery are now training at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Seattle.

“By this fall, we will have our first battery of long-range hypersonic weapons,” Ms. Wormuth said.

The Army’s 5th Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) is focused on teaching military tactics to local soldiers in the region. Pentagon officials said the SFAB trained foreign troops from 12 different countries last year. Every year, Army troops take part in a number of exercises hosted by foreign militaries.

“Our goal is to have Army forces in the Indo-Pacific seven to eight months out of the year,” Ms. Wormuth said. 

The Army will have several core functions to carry out in the event hostilities with China break out. It will be their job to establish, build up, and secure staging bases for the Navy, Marines, and Air Force. Soldiers also will provide long-range artillery power and provide counter-attacking forces if necessary.

Other U.S. military services are making their own pitch for money and resources in the face of a rising China.

Navy Secretary Carlos del Toro told a National Press Club luncheon last month China is building up a significant lead over the U.S. in the number of ships it can build and deploy, while targeting a far smaller patch of water in the South China Sea compared to the U.S. Navy’s global mission.

“They got a larger fleet now so they’re deploying that fleet globally,” Mr. del Toro warned. “We do need a larger Navy, we do need more ships in the future, more modern ships in the future, in particular that can meet that threat.”

U.S. strategists say China’s military arsenal is primarily focused in the Pacific on defeating air and maritime capabilities and secondarily, on degrading and disrupting an adversary’s space and cyber abilities.

“It is not, however, designed to ‘find, fix and finish’ mobile, networked, dispersed [and] reloadable ground forces who are operating among allies and partners in the region,” Gen. Flynn said. “This is an important point.”

Beijing recently constructed 12 airfields, each the size of the Washington area’s Dulles International Airport, in an area of South Asia with 10 billion people that roughly coincides with China’s Western Theater Command. Military leaders also dispatched two full army corps to the unofficial “Line of Actual Control,” separating India from China. Beijing has choked off fresh water to Vietnam’s Mekong River and muddled around in Myanmar and Pakistan.

Lawmakers in Washington aren’t hostile to the idea of Army troops taking on a larger than expected role in the Indo-Pacific theater, Ms. Wormuth said.

“They don’t see us as ‘not relevant.’ They often are just more used to thinking about the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps,” she said. “The burden of responsibility is on us to demonstrate what exactly is the Army’s role and how we continue to be part of the joint force.”

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