"We're not at war. Sailors don't need to die," wrote the captain of the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was infected with the novel coronavirus while on a mission at sea in March, in a letter to the Navy's leadership asking for permission to isolate the bulk of his roughly 5,000 crew members on shore. The U.S. Navy dismissed the captain for unnecessarily spreading the sensitive letter, while more than 1,000 crew members, including the captain himself, have been confirmed infected and one has died. In the meantime, the acting chief of the Navy, who had inappropriately criticized the dismissed captain, was forced to resign, and the command and control of the military has been brought into question in the midst of the pandemic of COVID-19.
The spread of the new coronavirus could also affect the new force employment initiative of the U.S. military. The Trump administration's National Defense Strategy of 2018 prepares for great power competition with China and Russia, and, instead of rotational force deployment, seeks a "Dynamic Force Employment" (DFE) which aims to make the military force "more agile and less predictable." The DFE concept emphasizes the enhancement of combat readiness. In other words, the U.S. military appears out of nowhere and disappears into thin air, nullifying the strategic objectives and military plans of potential adversaries, while creating favorable conditions for the U.S. However, the military is vulnerable to infectious diseases. For example, the Spanish flu, which was prevalent during World War I, hit the U.S. military three times a year, undermining its combat readiness. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining its readiness will be a major challenge for the U.S. military, at least until vaccines and treatments are developed.
The DFE concept is primarily concerned with more efficient operation of carrier strike groups. But the coronavirus has already disrupted the operation of aircraft carriers. USS Theodore Roosevelt is currently at anchor in Guam, and the most of its crew members are in quarantine on land while there is no prospect of its return to duty. In addition, three aircraft carriers, USS Nimitz and USS Carl Vinson, based on the West Coast of the United States, and USS Donald Reagan, forward-deployed in Yokosuka, have been confirmed to have infected crewmembers. As Theodore Roosevelt has become incapable of carrying out operations, no aircraft carrier is currently on an operational mission in the Pacific. By June, Reagan will be on a regular Western Pacific patrol mission, but the immediate challenge for the DFE initiative is whether USS Nimitz will be able to head to the Western Pacific on behalf of USS Theodore Roosevelt. USS Nimitz isolated the crew on board for two weeks and, after confirming that all tested negative, began final training for deployment on April 27.
Behind the introduction of the DFE concept is a decline in the operating rate of U.S. aircraft carriers due to prolonged deployment. The US Navy operates ships in a 36-month cycle, with 16 months for maintenance and training, followed by a seven-month deployment, then 13 months of sustainment training, with the carrier ready to execute a surge deployment if required. However, the protracted war on terrorism in the Middle East and the operation against ISIS, as well as China's maritime expansion and North Korea's provocations, have made carrier strike groups operate for 7-9 months. As a result, a vicious cycle has been repeated in which sufficient maintenance cannot be performed, and if the operation is performed as it is, subsequent maintenance takes longer than necessary. The carrier USS Dwight Eisenhower, for example, was scheduled for six months of maintenance in August 2017, but the actual work took 18 months. The DFE initiative is expected to reduce the deployment period of aircraft carriers, ensure sufficient maintenance and training periods, and improve their readiness.
However, insufficient budget and capability for maintenance have also decreased the operating rate of U.S. aircraft carriers. In addition, as economic activities in the United States are suspended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus infection, there is growing concern that it will become difficult for commercial companies to maintain their maintenance and shipbuilding capabilities, resulting in the weakening of the defense industrial base. Although defense-related companies are regarded as critical infrastructure and not subject to suspension of operations, in reality, it is considered inevitable that their business performance will deteriorate due to economic stagnation and that the defense supply chains will stagnate. Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic could make it more difficult in the long term to maintain the readiness of the entire U.S. military, including not only aircraft carriers but also strategic ballistic missile nuclear submarines, one of the pillars of nuclear deterrence.
With Asian countries swamped with response to the pandemic and no U.S. aircraft carriers capable of operating in the Pacific Ocean, there are growing concerns about China filling the power vacuum. In fact, China deployed its aircraft carrier in the East China Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and the South China Sea in April. So far, however, China's behavior has not changed significantly before and after the outbreak. For example, it is a regular exercise for the Chinese aircraft carrier to operate in the Pacific in spring. The number of Chinese government ships around the Senkaku Islands and the frequency of intrusions into Japanese territorial waters remain unchanged. The number of scrambles by the Air Self-Defense Force against Chinese aircraft was almost the same as in the same period last year. With or without the pandemic, China continues to flex its muscle vis-à-vis its neighbors.
That said, China will constantly test and probe the response of neighboring countries in a pandemic and the readiness of U.S. forces to deal with the situation, while trying to determine their long-term impact. If infections spread within the U.S. military and the defense industry becomes unable to provide sufficient maintenance, China might seek to fill the power vacuum and move to alter the status quo in the Senkaku Islands and Spratly Islands and even with Taiwan.
Therefore, whether the U.S. military can maintain its readiness through the introduction of the DFE is an important factor for the peace and stability of the region. While no aircraft carrier operating in the Pacific Ocean, an amphibious assault ship carrying F-35 with its expeditionary strike group patrolled in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, conducting combined exercises with allied forces, including Japan and Australia. In addition, U.S. naval ships continued transit in the Taiwan Strait, and a littoral combat ship patrolled in the South China Sea. Furthermore, USS Nimitz is preparing for a quick deployment to the western Pacific under the DFE. In addition, the U.S. Air Force has discontinued the constant deployment of bombers to Guam switching to irregular operation from the U.S. mainland. In fact, a bomber that flew from the U.S. mainland to the western Pacific immediately after the U.S. withdrawal from Guam conducted combined exercises with the Air Self-Defense Force counterparts. This is a practical example of DFE by the U.S. Air Force.
How will the introduction of DFE affect the Japan-U.S. alliance? As the 2018 National Defense Strategy prioritizes the Indo-Pacific region in pursuit of strategic competition with China, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is expected to receive highly capable forces under the DFE, which is beneficial for the alliance. Plus, as DFE shortens the preparation time for combined exercises, the Japan Self-Defense Force will be required to improve its readiness as well. In this way, DFE can be expected to provide opportunities for further deepening alliance cooperation.
On the other hand, as it emphasizes readiness, DFE might lead to a reduction in forward presence. The reduction of U.S. peacetime presence operations could be a cause for concern for Japan and other allies. In other words, as President Trump continues his America First policy, both U.S. allies and China might misinterpret the reduction of U.S. military presence as a signal that the United States is withdrawing from the world. If this happens, the stability of the region will be adversely affected. The Pentagon is also considering cutting aircraft carriers while introducing smaller unmanned or lightly manned ships. Ideas like this make sense in terms of overcoming China's anti-access/area-denial threat or preventing infection on board as long as reduced aircraft carrier fleet is operated by DFE. Nevertheless, small vessels are not suited for presence operations, and the reduction of aircraft carriers could undermine power projection capability.
In addition, the new coronavirus could further reduce the U.S. military presence in the region. The U.S. military has already postponed or canceled combined exercises with South Korean and Philippine counterparts, and it cannot be denied that similar measures will be necessary with Japan and the United States. The cause of the spread of the disease aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt is unknown, but there is some speculation that its port call in Vietnam triggered the infection. Therefore, security cooperation activities, such as strategic port calls to strengthen ties with friendly nations, might be curtailed.
Presence and readiness are inherently trade-offs in maintaining deterrence. Can the DFE initiative provide the optimal balance to this dilemma? How does the current pandemic affect the solution? These are important issues for the future security of Japan and the region. Even amid the pandemic, the United States and its allies need to have strategic dialogues to discuss the implications of the new U.S. force employment and the impact of the pandemic. There must be no social distancing between allies.
(Dated May 15, 2020)