President's Commentary: Now Is Not the Time to Overlook the Asia-Pacific Region

November 1, 2014
By Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.)

The United States acknowledged a long-evolving trend when it initiated the strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region. For many years we have needed to place increased emphasis on that vast and dynamic area, and the rebalance has set a course for that important goal. But we are in danger of losing the benefits of the pivot to the Pacific in several ways.

The Pacific Command (PACOM) clearly is one of the United States’ most important regional commands, but the strategic importance of its mission is being overshadowed by high-profile challenges currently dominating the headlines. The multiple crises in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, especially the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are garnering much of the attention in the global security community. Russia’s moves in Ukraine also have been in the spotlight over the past few months.

However, the lack of headline-grabbing news from the Asia-Pacific region does not lessen its importance or its potential for sudden crises. In a time of declining defense budgets, the United States should continue to increase resources to that vital region.

More than half the world’s population resides in the Asia-Pacific region, and many of the largest U.S. trading partners and allies also are there. This includes the world’s most populous Muslim nation—Indonesia. Much of the world’s vital ocean commerce passes through the Straits of Malacca, where piracy remains a problem. Some of the largest and most powerful militaries reside in or abut the region—China, Russia, India and, of course, North Korea, for example. Territorial disputes fester among several countries, and they could erupt into conflict, especially over disputed island or reef groups that may sit atop substantial oil reserves.

Many of the dozens of nations that constitute the region view their neighbors in a guarded manner. To most of them, the United States serves as an honest broker with—and through—whom they can work for regional security. Lacking an overarching treaty organization such as NATO, PACOM serves as the linchpin for regional security among these diverse nations. From a strategic perspective, the PACOM commander and his components are the face of the United States across the entire theater.

The time in which we live today may be the most dangerous era we have faced in my entire lifetime. I am concerned about the current drawdown in defense spending and our ability to continue to meet our global commitments and the security vacuum it creates. Our partner nations must contribute in support of global security, of course, and the PACOM commander is engaging with Asia-Pacific nations to provide a stable environment in which peace, trade and diverse economies can flourish.

But to ensure the success of PACOM’s mission, we need to continue to dedicate the appropriate resources into the Asia-Pacific theater. For example, one of the eternal challenges facing Pacific operations and security is the tyranny of distance. Moving forces over half the globe is difficult enough, but keeping them connected and resourced is an ongoing challenge.

Proving a resilient and diverse command, control, communications and computers (C4) infrastructure to support the PACOM commander’s mission is critical. During the Cold War, the United States had multiple command and control (C2) facilities spread across the region ready to respond whenever serious threats emerged. Many of those sites and facilities have been closed with the end of the Cold War and the advent of new communications technologies. These sites provided robustness and diversity for long-range C4 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and basing.

While technology has made the world closer, a focused reliance on a small suite of technologies introduces a potential vulnerability that often is not readily recognized or even accepted. For every leap we take in technology, a small and inexpensive counter to that technology emerges. We must be mindful of potential threats that detract from our technological advantage and understand how to mitigate those consequences if our use of the technology is denied.

Because of the expanse of the region and the vastness of the ocean it involves, communications and the C2 infrastructure tend to be concentrated in few areas. It would be wise to look at how to break away from that concentration and enable more diversity among C2ISR assets. As an example, providing in-theater, interconnected data centers or cloud computing capabilities would be a major step forward in providing the needed resiliency. Developing this strategy must include identifying single and in some cases dual points of failure and whether the risks that these concentration points provide are acceptable.

Putting our C2ISR capabilities into a narrowly focused geographic location increases their vulnerability. It may be time to revisit those old Cold War C2 sites and determine if they might be viable options. They could serve a vital role in support of the PACOM commander’s future engagement plans. They may have been shut down for efficiency reasons, but efficiency and cost savings do not necessarily equal effectiveness. PACOM’s current heavy reliance on satellites and undersea cables, especially commercial systems, actually equates to a fragile infrastructure that could be an unwanted vulnerability in the future. Resources should be planned for and allocated now to the PACOM commander’s regional strategy.

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