- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2011

The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific said Thursday that the Pentagon is developing new battle plans for Asia that include adding Marines to better-coordinated naval and air forces in the region where China is expanding its military might.

Navy Adm. Robert F. Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, also said in a speech that U.S. military ties to India are growing and the relationship will be one of the most important for the United States in the 21st century.

On the new AirSea Battle Concept, which the Pentagon is still crafting, Adm. Willard said: “This is a natural evolution, progression for us, as we advance our military capabilities, and I think it will only enhance the capabilities that we present to this region, the Asia Pacific, within U.S. Pacific Command.”

The battle concept calls for a broad range of steps to better coordinate the Air Force and the Navy in the Pacific, said defense officials close to the study. The plans include better joint communications and integrated attack and defense strategies.

Officials said the plan responds to China’s “anti-access” strategy of using ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines and aircraft to drive U.S. forces out of the western Pacific or limit them in aiding U.S. allies.

Asked about China’s new ballistic missile that is designed to kill aircraft carriers, Adm. Willard said the U.S. military’s forward presence in Asia remains strong. “AirSea Battle [Concept] has many aspects to it. I’m excited about the prospects of achieving more out of these two services than we’ve been able to achieve in the past,” he said.

The four-star admiral’s comments were unusual because the study’s details are highly classified. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered the study in 2009 amid concerns that U.S. forces, especially the Navy and the Air Force, were unable to operate closely in a wartime scenario.

“We’ve since integrated [the] Marine Corps into the study and their capabilities, and at the end of the day, this will be an enhancement to our joint force writ large,” he said after a speech to the Asia Society in Washington.

One defense official said later that the Marine Corps was added to the AirSea Battle Concept amid growing assertiveness by China’s military. The concept will call for potentially using Marines in sensitive scenarios, such as ejecting Chinese forces from disputed islands in the East China or South China seas.

“The Japanese and South China Sea states don’t have Marine Corps-type capabilities to stop a Chinese occupation of islands, a U.S. Marine Corps specialty for 80 years,” the official said.

Adding Marines to U.S. battle plans is likely to upset China, whose military researchers have criticized the Marines as U.S. shock troops for imperial aims.

The concept will give the Marines a new role in Asian Pacific strategy.

In recent months, China’s military has triggered alarm in the East China Sea by pressuring Japan to release a Chinese fishing boat captain caught illegally fishing near the Senkaku Islands. It also has taken assertive military steps in the South China Sea, claiming the entire region as its economic zone and last year planting a Chinese flag on the sea floor with a miniature submarine.

One part of the battle plan calls for expanding war games in Asia against simulated Chinese forces, something the U.S. military had been limited in doing in the past. For example, the Air Force will do exercises in protecting aircraft carriers, and the Navy will work on defending air bases throughout the region.

The battle-plan study also is examining a major increase in defenses on the U.S. western Pacific island of Guam that are vulnerable to long-range Chinese missile attacks. Military facilities would be hardened on Guam.

On developing strategic ties to India, Adm. Willard said it is one of the command’s higher priorities.

He noted that India and the United States were distant during the Cold War and military ties were curtailed after India’s nuclear test in the 1990s.

“I sailed past India many times in my career and had little interaction in all of that time,” he said.

However, since 2004, the U.S. and Indian militaries have been working to develop close ties, he said.

Adm. Willard said he is working to develop trust with an Indian military that has questioned U.S. staying power as a reliable ally.

“We’re trying in earnest now to establish the proper strategic relationship between the United States and India, causing me to travel to India pretty frequently,” he said.

The U.S. is planning to sell weapons and advanced aircraft to India as part of the new ties, he said.

“This is a very, very important relationship to the United States in a very crucial part of the world,” Adm. Willard said. “It is likely the most consequential nation in South Asia and a natural partner of the United States, yet we’ve only been acquainted for six years.”

John J. Tkacik Jr., a former State Department China hand, said what Adm. Willard did not say is that “India is crucial to America’s 21st-century strategy of balancing China.”

“Our existing alliance relationships, especially with Japan and Australia, are simply not up to the strain of China’s growing power, and bringing India into the balancing equation will mean the difference between a new century governed by rule-of-law and democratic principles or one dominated by Beijing’s winner-take-all brand of state mercantilism and repressive authoritarianism,” Mr. Tkacik said.

Mr. Tkacik said that recently disclosed State Department cables reveal that China is a serious conventional warfare and nuclear concern among Asian states, “but no one dares say it out loud.”

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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