Us defense Transformation: Implications for Security in the Asia-Pacific Region

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US Defense Transformation: Implications for Security in the Asia-Pacific Region

December 1-3, 2004


Defense transformation and the corresponding information technologies-based Revolution in Military Affairs (IT-RMA) has preoccupied the U.S. Defense Department for over a decade. Defense transformation means much more than the “mere” modernization of one’s armed forces – it is the promise of a paradigm shift in the character and conduct of warfare. Correspondingly, transformation means more than simply overlaying new technologies and new hardware over existing force structures; it requires fundamental changes in military doctrine, operations, and organization. For all these reasons, therefore, transformation has major implications for the future course of US defense and security policy.

As the United States continues to transform its forces, this process will have particular effect on defense and security in the Asia-Pacific region. Issues of concern include the possible impact on bilateral alliance relations, including interoperability and coalition operations, prospects for multilateralizing regional alliance relationships, the impact on regional great-power security relationships, the prospects for expanding security cooperation with ad hoc coalition partners, and, finally, how US defense transformation may affect collective efforts to combat pan-regional security threats, such as terrorism and proliferation.
To examine the impact of US defense transformation on the region, the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies held a conference on “US Defense Transformation: Implications for Security in the Asia-Pacific Region,” from 1 to 3 December 2004. The conference brought together government and military officials, leading academics and researchers, and business representatives concerned with defense transformation to discuss various topics in connection with the overall issue of defense transformation and in particular how it may affect militaries and security in the Asia-Pacific region. The conference consisted of three sections: current US efforts to transform its forces and how Washington perceives this as affecting security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region; how Asia-Pacific nations – allies, friendly non-allies, and great-power states – perceive and respond to US transformation; and special issues in defense transformation that the United States might consider in helping promote transformation as a peace- and confidence-building measure. Thirty-four delegates representing ten nations (Australia, Japan, South Korea, India, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and the United States) as well as the NATO alliance participated in this conference.

Among the major findings of this conference:

  • Defense transformation is seen by many of its proponents as a loose doctrinal and organizational concept, almost by necessity. Most transformational models, however, are centered on the information technologies-based Revolution in Military Affairs (IT-RMA) and the promise of a significant shift in the character and conduct of warfare. Consequently, defense transformation is fundamentally a process of discontinuous, disruptive, revolutionary change rather than incremental, sustaining, evolutionary change.

  • Defense transformation, according to the US Defense Department’s Office of Force Transformation, is also a continuous process, as opposed to a start-stop modernization process with a definite endgame in mind. Defense transformation is also much more than just defense – more than being reactive and punitive, more than stopping discrete actions around the world that threat national security; rather, it is a process for keeping the world system up and running.

  • China is perhaps the critical factor in pressing US transformation in the Asia-Pacific region. The concern that a peer competitor could arise in Asia to challenge US predominance in the region has been a major driver of US transformation efforts. Without this security challenge, some argued that it would be much harder to press the strategic rationale for US transformation.

  • China, in fact, is responding to US defense transformation by pursuing its own RMA, by seeking to further mechanize and “informatize” its armed forces and gain asymmetric advantages over the United States. In so doing, China is trying to leap forward and skip some generations of research and development, but this is a risky strategy that could end up with a “double emptiness,” i.e., failure all around.

  • Overall, US defense transformation has the potential to greatly affect the security situation in the Asia-Pacific region, as it entails significant changes in the ways US forces will operate in the area. These changes include the future basing and deployment of US military forces, where and how they will operate, what kind of equipment they will require, etc. The focus will be on capabilities and effects, not numbers.

  • How US forces will operate in the Asia-Pacific region in the future will have particularly significant implications for US allies and ad hoc partners in the region. The United States will continue to need coalition partners and basing rights to operate in the region, but the requirements of both will change. In particular, the US military will have increased need for interoperability with allies and friendly states when it comes to such emerging military requirements as counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, counter-proliferation, maritime security, and missile defense.

  • Conference participants noted that this increased need for interoperability will put allies and friendly states at a growing disadvantage as the United States continues to modernize and transform its armed forces. There is a genuine concern about a growing gap in military capabilities – in particular, a growing “digital gap” when it comes to harnessing information technologies for military effectiveness – between US and other military forces, and as such, allied and friendly states may find it increasingly difficult to make an effective contribution to mutual defense and joint operations.

  • Some respondents drawn from the Asia-Pacific region were critical of current US transformation efforts on a number of grounds. US strengths in transformation were seen as being in the realm of ideas, innovation, and technology, but this had a tendency toward “faddism,” that is, a love of technology for its own sake. At the same time, they argued that US defense transformation relied too much on advanced technology that most local armed forces could not hope to match. Allied and friendly states are viewed to be at a particularly distinct disadvantage, as they lack the economic and technological resources to keep up with US transformational efforts. Finally, some participants argued that US transformation was too “technologically exotic” and therefore not suited to low-level threats, particularly terrorism or counter-insurgency operations.

  • Another difficulty complicating regional militaries when it comes to coping with US defense transformation is that the US Defense Department remains unclear as to its own vision of transformation and how to implement it. Some participants saw US transformation plans as ambitious but ambiguous, an argument only accentuated by the fact that many American defenders of transformation had difficulty defining and delineating their conceptualization of what transformation was organizationally and operationally. Finally, since transformation is about consolidating and reinforcing US military supremacy, some felt that this process could have inadvertent negative repercussions in the Asia-Pacific region.

  • Nevertheless, there appeared to be something of an air of inevitability about US defense transformation, and the sooner the leading militaries in the Asia-Pacific region come to grips with it as a concept and as an operating principle, the better it will be for all. Consequently, some participants noted that many allied and friendly states in the region are increasingly focused on fulfilling critical niche capabilities in partnering with the United States. In addition, others noted important ways in which the United States could help promote transformation and interoperability, via focused arms sales and increased cooperation in areas such as missile defenses.

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