When the Obama Administration announced in January 2012 that the U.S. defense posture would be “rebalanced” to emphasize the Asia-Pacific region, that was not good news for the Army. America’s preeminent land force had largely abandoned the region after the Vietnam War, leaving almost no soldiers stationed west of the International Dateline outside the Korean Peninsula. If Asia was to be the main locus of U.S. strategic concerns, that implied the Army might end up “last among equals” in the competition for money and missions.
The geography of the Western Pacific region (which is what Washington really means when it says “Asia-Pacific”) seems tailor-made for the capabilities of air- and sea-based forces. Distances are vast, and access to land bases is limited. Most of the Army units dedicated to the region are stationed many thousands of miles from likely trouble spots – mainly in Alaska, Hawaii and Washington State. And while the 29,000 U.S. soldiers in South Korea are deployed right where they need to be to deter aggression from the North, that makes their redeployment to other contingencies problematic. Besides, nobody in Washington wants to think about waging a land war in Asia.
However, recent developments on the Korean Peninsula may be bolstering the case for a broader Army role in the Western Pacific. Exhibit A in that case is an Army-operated combat system called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, that the Pentagon wants to deploy in South Korea so U.S. troops can be defended against the North’s growing arsenal of medium-range ballistic missiles. The idea is being vigorously criticized by both China and Russia, which contend any such deployment would be a threat to their nuclear deterrents and thus undermine regional stability.
But THAAD isn’t designed to intercept the kind of long-range missiles that China and Russia use for nuclear deterrence, which raises the interesting question of what they really fear. The U.S. deployment, if it occurs, would be aimed squarely at countering a North Korean missile attack against the South, especially against U.S. forces stationed there. It might also be useful in defeating a North Korean missile strike on nearby Japan. But with a maximum effective range of about 125 miles, THAAD’s interceptors would be no match for Russian and Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles developed to traverse distant trajectories through space en route to U.S. targets. So what’s really worrying Beijing and Moscow.
What’s worrying them is that the agile, easily-deployed THAAD presents a challenge to their own medium-range missiles, which could play a central role in any campaign to diminish U.S. influence in the Western Pacific. The U.S. strategic shift to Asia was driven in part by growing evidence that Beijing is pursuing an “anti-access/area-denial” strategy aimed at excluding U.S. military forces from the region – eventually resulting in Chinese dominance. Moscow too would like to see U.S. regional power diminished, and since its invasion of Ukraine last year has been pursuing a closer relationship with Beijing that will work to America’s disadvantage.
To date, China’s pursuit of regional hegemony has relied mainly on economic tools. For instance, China has become South Korea’s biggest trading partner, and Beijing is using the trade relationship to pressure Seoul into blocking deployment of THAAD batteries. But there is also a military component to the Chinese strategy: countries that cannot be seduced by economic considerations into taking Beijing’s side in disputes with America might still be cowed by the growing firepower and reach of the Chinese military. Medium or “theater-range” missiles are especially useful in implementing the military aspects of an anti-access strategy because they are harder to defeat than aircraft or warships…