Power Players on the Rim of Asia

Nov. 1, 1987

The Romanov czars extended their rule eastward to the Pacific Ocean more than 300 years ago. Russian explorers went on to claim Alaska and establish settlements as far south as California, but Imperial Russia was never a real power in Pacific affairs. Neither, until re­cently, was its revolutionary suc­cessor state, the Soviet Union.

As late as the 1950s, the Soviet military presence in the Far East consisted of coastal and home de­fense forces. These units, typically undermanned and equipped with hand-me-down weapon systems, were incapable of power projection.

It was the Sino-Soviet rift of the 1960s that finally triggered change in a big way. Moscow reacted by building up its forces in East Asia to secure its borders against its former clients and allies, the Red Chinese. Once the buildup was under way, though, it kept rolling relentlessly on, and there is still no sign of a letup.

Today, the USSR stations about a third of its military forces in Asia. The Soviet Far East TVD (theater of military operations) commands fifty-seven divisions—up from twenty in the mid-1960s-15,000 tanks, 1,300 tactical aircraft, and a major naval force. These units have top-of-the-line equipment. A sub­stantial share of this force is pinned down by defensive duty along the Chinese border, but there is plenty left over for the Kremlin to pursue its firm intention of making Soviet influence felt in the Pacific. Accord­ingly, air and sea elements of the Far East TVD operate routinely on mis­sions that reach far out into the big ocean.

“The Soviets are also paying more attention to the Pacific island nations,” says Gen. Jack I. Gregory, Commander in Chief of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF). “They can’t exert themselves in the Pacific economi­cally, so they do it with military force.” In a July 1986 speech at Vladivostok, Soviet General Secre­tary Mikhail Gorbachev declared that “our interests in Asia and the Pacific are no less important than in Europe.” Gorbachev may have been laying it on a bit thick, since Europe is still the top priority in Soviet military thinking, but there is no doubt that Asia has assumed a higher importance than it once did in Soviet eyes.

Where Power Intersects

Concurrent with the Soviet mili­tary buildup, other significant changes were taking place in the Pa­cific scheme of things. Japan arose from wartime devastation to make itself the world’s second-ranking economic power. The stature of South Korea, a poor nation just twenty-five years ago, increased as well. Its economy, which grew at a rate of 12.5 percent in 1986, is cur­rently developing more rapidly than any other in the world. The South Koreans are doubling their real in­comes every eleven years, the Japa­nese every nine.

Asia has moved resoundingly into the mainstream of international commerce. US trade, in particular, has expanded steadily in the Asia-Pacific region. Last year, Japan dis­placed Canada as the number-one US trading partner. The oil tankers that steam through Asian waters add another dimension to regional importance, as do raw materials from the Southwest Pacific, many of which are used in the production of aircraft engines and aerospace com­ponents.

The United States is allied for­mally with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, and Aus­tralia and has informal arrange­ments with several more Asian na­tions. On the other side are Vietnam and North Korea, rated respec­tively as having the fourth and sixth largest military forces in the world. Vietnam moved into the Soviet camp at the end of the Southeast Asia war, but that was offset when the US made a peace of sorts with mainland China, which it had pre­viously regarded as the foremost military threat in Asia. In a category by itself is Taiwan, cut adrift by the United States but pumping along with a $75 billion GNP and 424,000 men under arms.

Taken together, these events have transformed the Asia-Pacific rim into a region where the interests of an extraordinary number of strong nations intersect. Matters are com­plicated still further by a lack of po­litical cohesion. Unlike NATO Europe, where allies work in a com­bined command structure, the de­fense of the Pacific must be held together by a network of bilateral American treaties and agreements. This adds to the responsibility of US Pacific Command, which not only provides military forces but is also the only real means by which US allies—who aren’t allied with each other—can coordinate their ef­forts.

Pacific Command itself is the sin­gle strongest element in the allied lineup. US forces under the control of the CINCPACOM, Adm. Ronald J. Hays, include two Army divi­sions, a Marine amphibious force, and the Pacific Fleet, to which about half of the US Navy’s strength is assigned. The fastest reacting and most flexible warfighting assets in PACOM, however, are the five tac­tical fighter wings of Pacific Air Forces. All are stationed well for­ward on the Asia-Pacific rim, two wings each in Japan and Korea and the fifth one in the Philippines.

Two-Part Strategy

Flexibility and the long reach of airpower work in both directions, of course, and PACAF is much con­cerned about the newfound capabil­ity of Soviet Far East air forces to project power, disrupt sea lanes of communication, and threaten allied territory. On practice and training missions, these forces simulate at­tack profiles against Japanese bases and other targets as distant as Guam.

“We see a Soviet peacetime strat­egy in which they are exerting them­selves farther and farther out into the Pacific,” PACAF’s General Gregory says.

“We see longer-range aircraft and larger ships that keep enabling them to project forward.”

Hand in hand with this military power projection, Soviet emissaries are courting island states in the South Pacific to seek fishing trea­ties, ship repair rights, and other concessions. “The Soviets plan to fight without a logistics tail,” Gener­al Gregory says. “They want to be self-sustaining when they project forward, and they need warm water port facilities.”

The Soviets already have one su­perb warm water port at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. They have im­proved facilities there steadily and appear to be settling in perma­nently. Soviet warships work effec­tively from Cam Ranh, as do Soviet bombers, which are able to operate beyond the Philippines without re­fueling.

Virtually all of the Soviet first-line aircraft are active in the Far East. That includes MiG-31 and Su-27 interceptors and more than 200 Su-24 Fencer fighter-bombers. Long-range power projection is pro­vided by G and H models of the Tu-142 Bear bomber.

“In the event of hostilities, we be­lieve Moscow intends to protect the approaches to [its] homeland by controlling the Seas of Japan and Okhotsk and the area off the Kam­chatka peninsula while carrying the battle well out into the open ocean,” General Gregory says. “This would allow safe haven for sea-launched ballistic missile submarines close to shore and assure access to the open ocean for the rest of the fleet.”

Meanwhile, Pacific Command has peacetime and wartime strat­egies of its own. The “peacetime” part of the strategy recognizes that security concerns in the Asian com­munity are varied. They range from insurgency in the Philippines and Vietnamese border incursions into Thailand to the classic standoff in Korea and the theater-wide threat of the Soviet Union. In its planning and decisions, PACOM makes a point of remembering that the secu­rity problem does not look the same from all points of view.

The peacetime strategy also tries to compensate for the absence of a well-defined structure of theater al­liances with programs of support, solidarity, and reassurance. The vigorous schedule of international exercises—although designed above all to improve combat compe­tence—has the side benefit of bring­ing together airmen from various Pacific nations. As an example of the diversity of the peacetime strat­egy, a civil engineering team from Hickam AFB, Hawaii, used a two-week training exercise last Febru­ary to help citizens of the Cook Is­lands rebuild two schools and an­other facility that had been wrecked by Cyclone Sally.

PACAF’s Posture for War

The wartime strategy concen­trates on those situations in which US forces might be engaged directly in the fighting. PACOM would count on one or more of US allies to take part in any such conflict, but under­stands that only the United States is committed to the defense of the en­tire theater. PACOM also recognizes a global responsibility.

“We’ve had a change of mindset in the Pacific from the days when the focus was exclusively on Ko­rea,” General Gregory says. “To­day, our focus is broader. For exam­ple, how best can you take pressure off Western Europe by applying pressure to the other side?” Further­more, it is inconceivable that the Soviet Union would enter a shoot­ing war involving the United States in either Europe or Asia without also moving out in the other theater, so PACAF war plans have definite global overtones.

PACAF is small for a combat command and has been since the Vietnam War ended. Its aircrews are impressively trained, however, and they are well mounted for their assigned missions. The command has 300 fighter and attack aircraft. These include F-15s and F-4Es in roughly equal denominations for air superiority, F-16s for ground at­tack, and hard-shooting A-10s to handle tanks in Korea.

With such small numbers, PACAF realizes that if war should come, the command cannot go it alone and would look for a coalition effort from its allies. The command works this doctrine daily in all that it does. “The Air Component Com­mand in Korea is the finest example anywhere in the world of two allies working close together on a daily basis,” General Gregory says. “The staff is fully combined between the ROKAF and USAF. The command­er is dual-hatted as Commander of Seventh Air Force and of the Air Component Command, and his dep­uty is also the Commander of the ROKAF Combat Air Command. We also have a close working rela­tionship with the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force. We fully expect a coalition effort among friendly air forces in a crisis in the Pacific.”

Because of an organizational doc­trine that calls for certain assets to be controlled centrally rather than parceled out to theater commands, some forty percent of the Air Force people in the Pacific belong to major commands other than PACAF. Among these forces are SAC’s B-52 heavy bombers on Guam and TAC’s E-3 AWACS aircraft, which fly out of Okinawa to provide deep-look battle management for US and al­lied air forces. It is no exaggeration to say that for all of these airmen hung out on the far edge of a very wide ocean, SAC tankers and MAC airlifters constitute a critical lifeline without which no operations would go on for long.

PACAF forces themselves have benefited noticeably from con­tinued upgrade and modernization. Misawa AB in Japan has already traded its F-16As for F-16Cs, and a similar conversion is occurring at Kunsan in Korea. The supply of spare parts and wartime stocks is up, and as a result, readiness and sustainability are better, too. Air­crews, who averaged eight sorties each per month in the 1970s, now get to fly fifteen or sixteen. The combat wings will take two more big jumps ahead with deliveries of the Low-Altitude Navigation and Tar­geting Infrared for Night (LAN­TIRN) system and the AIM-120A Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-­Air Missile (AMRAAM).

Like other combat commanders, General Gregory does not have enough precision-guided, or “smart,” munitions to cover all of his high-value targets. The presence of F-16s makes up for some of the gap. “The F-16 bombing platform allows us to do doggone good work without a guided munition,” he says. “It gives a better probability of kill with the stockpiles of standard Mark 82 and Mark 84 bombs we have here. If we’re going after a very important bridge complex and I need a ninety percent probability of kill, I can get it with a couple of F-4s and guided munitions. It takes a couple of F-16 flights with stan­dard munitions to get the same probability—but it may take twice as many F-4s to do it with unguided bombs.”

An especially keen requirement is for an air-to-surface missile to use in maritime operations. Harpoon missiles can do a good job, but only B-52s carry them. “We need some­thing indigenous to our force, some­thing we can hang on an F-16,” Gen­eral Gregory says. “To reach our targets in some scenarios, we will need to fight through a picket line of ships that are armed with surface-to-air missiles. We need the capabil­ity to put a couple of fighters up front to blow a hole through that defense so the rest of the strike force can get through.”

Insurgency in the Philippines

The diversity of Asia is reflected by the range of concerns among PACAF’s three numbered air forces—the Thirteenth in the Philip­pines, the Fifth in Japan, and the newly formed Seventh in Korea.

Thirteenth Air Force at Clark is 740 miles east of the Soviet strong­hold at Cam Ranh Bay and is well positioned to defend the southern air and sea lanes. Clark also has the best training ranges in the Pacific. All of the PACAF fighter wings come here for the highly realistic Cope Thunder training program, and so do many of the allied air forces (see “Thunder at Crow Val­ley,” August ’87 issue). By virtue of running Cope Thunder, Thirteenth Air Force sees an especially wide cross section of Asian forces. Par­ticipation is not limited to formal allies. Liaison is closest, however, with the host Philippine Air Force.

The Philippine government has serious internal security prob­lems—a series of attempted coups by dissidents in the armed forces as well as continuing insurgency by the New People’s Army—and is strug­gling with a $28 billion foreign debt. It does not have much attention to spare for an external military threat that is not already on its doorstep. The priority for the Philippine Air Force is to support the army in counterinsurgency. It emphasizes helicopters and attack aircraft and fields only a squadron of F-5s for air defense.

The future of the US bases at Clark and at Subic Bay is unsettled. Earlier, President Corazon Aquino had declared that the basing agree­ments would not be renewed when they expire in 1991, but now says she will keep her options open. PACOM is not talking publicly about any possible alternatives to Clark and Subic Bay.

“The upcoming negotiations to renew the bases agreement may be tougher than they have been in the past, but a majority of Filipinos rec­ognize the benefits of these bases to their own interests and endorse our presence,” Admiral Hays said in testimony to Congress in April.

Outside speculation about rebas­ing has suggested Guam as a possi­bility. But even if Guam could ac­commodate Thirteenth Air Force’s fighters, it is 1,500 time-consuming, gas-eating miles farther from the Asian landmass than Clark is. PACAF already has an aerial refuel­ing shortage, so such a move would most likely be ruled out because of the excessive demands it would put on tanker support.

If Thirteenth Air Force left the Philippines, that strategically lo­cated nation—which has very lim­ited capability to defend itself—would be vulnerable to Soviet de­signs and expansionism. This con­sideration will surely weigh heavier on Philippine thinking if the activity out of Cam Ranh Bay persists at the present level or accelerates.

Confrontation in Korea

In Korea, the situation is different in almost every respect from that in the Philippines. US and South Ko­rean forces operate on a wartime alert footing and under combined command against a clearly per­ceived external threat. North Korea, bellicose and unpredictable, keeps sixty-five percent of its armed forces mobilized along the demilita­rized zone. It strips a weak econo­my to spend more than twenty per­cent of its GNP on its armed forces, and it could throw 800,000 troops into the invasion it threatens peri­odically to launch.

The North Koreans have been ac­quiring MiG-23 fighters from the Soviet Union since 1985 and now have forty-six of them. They have also added considerably to their helicopter fleet, which they would use to transport their large com­mando force across the border. Co­operation with the Soviet Union is increasing, too. The North Koreans and the Soviets have exchanged vis­its by aircraft and naval vessels and in 1986 held an unprecedented com­bined naval exercise off the Korean coast.

While the South Koreans are out­numbered by their northern adver­sary, their forces are professional, well-trained, and motivated. The Republic of Korea spends between 5.5 and six percent of its GNP—or about thirty percent of its national budget—on defense. Its air force consists largely of F-5s and F-4s, but the Koreans have already taken delivery on eighteen F-16s out of a total of thirty-six they are buying from the US.

PACAF’s Seventh Air Force is equipped with F-4s for air defense and F-16s for interdiction. It main­tains a forward operating location at Osan for F-15 fighters that could de­ploy quickly from Okinawa. Its northernmost element is a squadron of A-10s at Suwon to provide close air support for Korean ground forces and the US Eighth Army.

“A major responsibility of that squadron is a twenty-five-by-fifty-­mile rectangular sector north of the city of Seoul,” General Gregory says. “Our national command au­thorities—US and Korean—have agreed that we cannot allow Seoul to fall if the North Koreans invade. The key thing I ask of those A-b aircrews is that they know that stretch like the backs of their hands. That’s where they train and prac­tice. The A-10 is well suited with its gun to slow the armor moving from the north. We need A-10s in that area as long as we have A- 10s in the Air Force inventory. It doesn’t have to go very far. As soon as it gets airborne, it’s in the battle area.”

The free world’s biggest military exercise, Team Spirit, is held an­nually in Korea. It features massive airlift of troops and cargo, tactical forces deploying from the United States, and combat-oriented prac­tice that includes fighter operations from specially prepared highway strips.

US units from Korea also go elsewhere in the Pacific for exercises. In a selection that shows a nice histor­ical touch, PACAF has for the past two years sent F-16s from the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Kunsan to participate in the Cobra Gold exer­cise in Thailand. During the Viet­nam War, the 8th Wing flew with distinction out of Ubon, Thailand, under the likes of Robin Olds and Chappie James.

Pressures on Japan

The situation in Korea is basically an intensified version of the same confrontation that has existed for thirty years. By contrast, the Japa­nese are searching with some an­guish for new defense policies to meet Soviet pressures that were not present in Asia until recently.

Soviet activity near Japan now averages, by Japanese count, more than 500 naval movements and about 350 military aircraft incur­sions annually, scrambling the Japa­nese Air Self-Defense Force some 850 times a year. The Soviets have also beefed up their forces in the Kuril Islands, which they seized from Japan in 1945. In a report re­leased in August, the Japanese De­fense Agency said that Japan should bolster its military capabilities promptly in response to the growing Soviet threat. That proposal is sure to be controversial, both in Japan and in other Asian nations, where Japanese rearmament is still viewed with suspicion.

Following World War II, the Japa­nese quickly rebuilt their destroyed cities and created a much stronger economy than anything that had ex­isted previously. The psychological recovery from the war, however, brought a sweeping change in Japa­nese attitudes toward military force. Japan had never before lost a war, and its traditions held that sur­render was dishonorable. Even after atomic bombs had fallen on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the deci­sion to capitulate was difficult. Ja­pan’s ultimate acceptance of the in­evitable—and its unique experience of nuclear destruction—led to a deeply rooted pacifism that still per­sists.

Japan’s limited rearmament met with considerable domestic opposi­tion, and current policy continues to restrict the nation’s role in armed conflict. “Japan will initiate defensive operations only when she her­self is attacked by a foreign power or powers, and even then the scope of military operations and the level of the defense forces to be mobilized will be kept to the minimum re­quired for self-defense,” the Japa­nese Defense Agency says. Nuclear weapons are proscribed.

This year, Japan’s defense budget broke slightly above one percent of GNP, a ceiling the Japanese had im­posed on themselves since 1976. To­tal defense spending has increased from $12 billion in 1983 to $22.5 bil­lion in the current budget. The de­fense program for 1986-90 will see growth in the naval force and a tran­sition by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force to a strengthened interceptor fleet of F-15Js—replacing F-104Js—­and F-4EJs. Japan also plans to ac­quire a replacement for its Mitsubi­shi F-is in air defense and ground attack. It is currently evaluating candidate US fighters as well as a new, indigenously developed air­craft for this role. Japan agreed some time ago to work toward a ca­pability to defend sea lanes and air­space out to a distance of 1,000 miles.

Japan’s defense program will give it one of the more impressive mili­tary forces around, but its defense burden is still relatively light for a ranking world power. The United States spends 6.9 percent of GNP on defense, and the expenditures of the major NATO nations range between 3.3 and 5.2 percent. There is a widespread perception in the United States that Japan enjoys the benefits of global protection with­out shouldering its fair share of ei­ther the cost or the responsibility. This, along with tension over im­port policies and trade, casts a shad­ow on relations between the US and one of its most important allies in Asia.

One consequence of the Soviet buildup in the Kurils is that Fifth Air Force now has two squadrons of F-16Cs at Misawa AB on the tip of Honshu. For fifteen years prior to this deployment, no American fight­ers had been based on the Japanese main island. The JASDF keeps a squadron of F-1s at Misawa as well. Japan regards the Kuril Islands—Kunashin, Etorofu, and Shikotan—­as an integral part of its territory. The Soviets there, whose troop strength is estimated to be the equivalent of a division, are equipped with Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters and 130-mm cannon. About forty MiG-23 Floggers are deployed at Tennei Airfield on Etorofu.

Kadena AB on Okinawa is a cen­tral location for a number of special US capabilities. In addition to PACAF’s F-15s and RF-4s stationed there, tankers, RC-135 aircraft, and the E-3 AWACS operate from Ka­dena. PACAF is in the process of decentralizing the functions of its intermediate maintenance center at Kadena. Between now and 1990, much of the capability will be dis­persed to operating locations of the fighting wings to speed up compo­nent repair, especially turnaround time of electronic line-replaceable units.

The Flying Is Good

Aircrews in the Pacific say that “the flying is good here” and obvi­ously take satisfaction from their as­signments. Pilot retention rate for the command was eighty-nine per­cent last year and eighty-four per­cent this year, far better than the average for other tactical air forces or the US Air Force overall. PACAF’s goal is to have a ratio of at least sixty experienced pilots to each forty new guys in its aircrew force. The mix is currently running better than that.

One related problem, however, is that Korea is still a short-tour area. Aircrews barely have time to settle well into their assignments before their year on station is up. General Gregory says that it would improve operations in Korea a great deal if facilities and housing were available to allow conversion of about 600 manpower spaces in Seventh Air Force to a long-tour basis.

When aircrews say the flying is good, according to General Gregory they mean not only that they are getting an adequate amount of cock­pit time but also that the missions themselves are meaningful. There isn’t much flying around the flag­pole in the Pacific. Each year, PACAF forces participate in about sixty realistic exercises, more than ninety percent of which are con­ducted jointly with other US ser­vices and sixty percent of which in­volve allied airmen.

The combined force that the US and its allies can field in the Pacific is modest in numbers but improving in quality. Soviet muscle-flexing in the region has, among other things, helped focus the concentration of several nations on their security re­quirements. The rising threat may also have contributed to a more vig­orous spirit of cooperation among some of the major allies.

All signs are that the power strug­gle on the Asian rim will intensify still further and that new confronta­tions lie ahead in this increasingly important part of the world.