The likelihood of a U.S. military conflict with China over Taiwan in the next decade continues to increase. Over the past two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has underinvested in critical strategic logistics and sustainment capabilities to deploy, fight, and win in the Indo-Pacific. In her February 2022 message to the force, Secretary of the Army Christine E. Wormuth stated, “We stand ready to deter and defend around the globe, as the tip of the spear in Europe and the backbone of the joint operations in the Indo-Pacific.” Examining the strategic deployment of forces during World War II is critical to understanding how the United States should invest in the future logistics and sustainment capabilities in the Indo-Pacific. This article argues that due to the contested environment in the Indo-Pacific, the United States requires increased forward presence, additional Army watercraft, and modernized Army pre-positioned stocks (APS) to deter or defeat a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Contested Logistics in the Indo-Pacific
Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission of China, has stated since 2012 that the Chinese dream is for China to become a fully developed nation by 2049, which will be the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC’s position is Taiwan has been a part of China since the Republic of China ceased to exist in 1949. To forestall intervention by external forces in a conflict over Taiwan, China has invested heavily in developing and employing anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) weapons in the Indo-Pacific. The purpose of A2/AD weapons is to deny, by air and sea, the deployment of forces that would threaten China in a conflict.
During World War II, logistics in the Indo-Pacific were challenging for two reasons: first, the requirement for dispersal due to modern weapons like enemy attack and long-range aviation; and second, the underestimation by Army and Navy planners of the logistics required to support numerous dispersed locations. As a staff officer for the Service Force commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, from December 1943 to December 1945, Henry E. Eccles was the officer in charge of the Advance Base Section and was responsible for developing and directing the establishment, administration, and logistic support for constructing and maintaining all Central Pacific Ocean Area advanced base units. Eccles wrote that modern weapons like attack and long-range aviation had created a need for tactical and logistic dispersal, demanding greater decentralization. The downside of greater decentralization was, of course, increased logistics requirements. Army and Navy planners initially underestimated the logistics required to support numerous dispersed Central and Southwest Pacific locations. These logistics shortfalls resulted in the leapfrogging or island-hopping military strategy used by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his air and sea commanders, Gen. George Kenney and Adm. Chester Nimitz, in the war against Japan.
Like the Japanese Kamikaze attacks from World War II, the current A2/AD threat in the Indo-Pacific is challenging the DOD’s ability to project power around the globe. In 2021, the Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman discussed in a press conference how the DOD had developed a new concept called expanded maneuver to deter China and Russia from possible future aggression. The vice chairman described the four functional battle areas within expanded maneuver as contested logistics, joint fires, all-domain command and control, and information advantage.
In response to the DOD’s expanded maneuver concept, the services, notably the Army and the Air Force, are developing new solutions to conduct logistics in a contested environment. In the DOD, the Army is the executive agent for common user logistics in support of the joint force, interagency, and, when appropriate, allies and partners. In this role, the Army’s Combined Arms Support Command leads efforts on three joint logistics enterprise modernization projects to support the joint force in a contested environment. The Army aims to deliver a calibrated force posture to sustain and project force during multidomain operations through three lines of effort: resilient and integrated sustainment mission command and control, assured joint power projection, and the ability to sustain in a distributed environment.
In 2019, a RAND Corporation study recommended the Air Force develop three types of bases for implementing sustainment operations in a contested environment: a stay-and-fight base that has significant passive and active defenses and robust sustainment, a drop-in base with fewer defenses and more limited sustainment capabilities, and austere forward arming and refueling points that would open for hours and close before the enemy could detect them.
In the Pacific during World War II, the services experienced the challenges of executing logistics in contentious environments. The evidence is clear: China’s current A2/AD threat in the Indo-Pacific challenges the DOD’s ability to project power. The DOD and the services are developing new strategies for conducting logistics in a contested environment. In particular, the Army and the Air Force are developing new joint operating concepts for logistics to enable them to fight and win together in such environments. The DOD and the services are moving forward, but are they planning for enough logistics forces to support greater decentralization due to operating in a contested environment in the Indo-Pacific?
The Army’s positioning in the Indo-Pacific
The United States requires the increased forward presence of forces in the Indo-Pacific to deter or defeat a Chinese attack on Taiwan. What role should the Army play in the Indo-Pacific? Some argue the Army should position forces in the first or second island chain as a tripwire or be prepared to be a decisive land force, while others say that if China conducts a cross-strait operation to attack Taiwan, the Army must be positioned to support a credible land force as an enabler to the joint force.
A 2020 report from the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute found the U.S. military is misaligned in both strategy and deployment capability for dealing with a changing PRC. Additionally, they found the current U.S. posture concentrated in Northeast Asia is positioned to prosecute a second Korean War and would not be conducive to effective hypercompetition with an increasingly capable PRC. Hypercompetition is defined in the study as an ongoing struggle to gain, hold, and exploit transient military advantages. The study recommends the Army adopt and adapt to four transformational roles in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility: the Army as the grid, the Army as the enabler, the Army as the multidomain warfighter, and the Army as the capability and capacity generator. The purpose of the grid is to provide options to joint force commanders conducting effective multidomain maneuvers.
While some argue that stationing brigade-sized or larger Army units in the Indo-Pacific would deter future conflict with China over Taiwan, another option is creating multiple overt or covert pre-positioning and forward operating locations to deter China. These locations throughout the Indo-Pacific would allow the Army to support the joint force and simultaneously create multiple potential locations for basing land forces, creating a dilemma for the PRC. If China conducts a cross-strait operation to attack Taiwan, the Army must be positioned as a grid to support a credible land force to enable the joint force.
The role of Army watercraft in the Indo-Pacific
Logistics planning failures on behalf of the Army and Navy in the early years of World War II resulted in underestimating the small ships and vessels required to support MacArthur’s operations in the Southwest Pacific. China’s current A2/AD threat in the Indo-Pacific necessitates a new look at the number of Army watercraft required to support multidomain operations.
The Army faced some of the most challenging sustainment problems of the war in the Southwest Pacific. Long distances and the lack of transportation assets in theater complicated MacArthur’s plans to resume the attack on Japanese forces in New Guinea in 1942. The problem was the Navy could not support MacArthur’s operations in the Southwest Pacific until 1943, so MacArthur took action. In March 1942, MacArthur appointed Brig. Gen. Arthur R. Wilson, the quartermaster general and assistant chief of staff, G-4, U.S. forces in Australia, to the project and tasked him to build a small ships capability. On July 14, 1942, the Army formally announced the formation of the U.S. Army Small Ships Section. The newly formed team assembled a fleet of small watercraft by traveling throughout the region, procuring small commercial vessels suitable for military use and capable of operating in the shallow coastal waters of New Guinea.
On October 18, 1942, the Allies conducted the first landing on New Guinea using ships never designed for amphibious operations. MacArthur’s small ships section filled the critical shortage caused by the planning failures of the Army and Navy in the Southwest Pacific. The Army operated an estimated 127,793 vessels, compared to the 74,708 vessels operated by the Navy. The Army afloat was primarily a transportation organization, while the Navy was primarily combatant.
The Army has approximately 132 watercraft in inventory and has considered courses of action to reduce its inventory further. Although the newest Army watercraft are capable, the Army must look to the challenges of past conflicts in the Southwest Pacific during World War II to determine the correct size of the Army watercraft fleet required to fight another island-hopping military strategy if China attacks Taiwan.
The Purpose of APS in the Indo-Pacific
Throughout history, pre-positioned stocks have enabled freedom of maneuver and the element of surprise in warfare. As tactics and weapons evolved, so did the strategies used to pre-position stocks. Modernized and forward-deployed APS will be a decisive factor for success in multidomain operations and supporting the joint force in the Indo-Pacific.
The APS program consists of pre-positioned unit sets of equipment, operational project stocks, Army war reserve sustainment stocks, and war reserve stocks for allies. When considering APS, most think about pre-positioned unit sets consisting of equipment configured into mission-driven sets and positioned ashore and afloat to reduce deployment response times. There are five APSs located around the world. Due to previous regional conflicts, most pre-positioned stocks supporting the Indo-Pacific are in northeast Asia.
APS within the first or second island chain would be required in a contested environment to deter or defeat a Chinese attack on Taiwan. The first chain of major archipelagos from the East Asian continental mainland coast is commonly called the first island chain. It includes the Kuril Islands, the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the northern Philippines, and Borneo. The second island chain is formed from Japan’s Bonin and Volcano Islands, the Mariana Islands, the West Caroline Islands, and western New Guinea. Although important, APS is only one leg of the strategic mobility triad.
The strategic mobility triad is defined as strategic mobility, strategic airlift, and pre-positioning. Changes in the strategic situation and the development of game-changing weapon systems have occurred in the past and will continue occurring in the future. Both have impacted how the Army uses pre-positioning to achieve strategic objectives as part of the strategic mobility triad. Navy Capt. Jack E. King wrote about the effect the fall of the Berlin Wall had on the decisions and strategies Air Force planners considered when planning the future disposition of war reserve materiel (WRM) in Europe.
Air Force planners considered removing all the WRM from pre-positioned locations in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Similarly, China’s current A2/AD weapons threat in the Indo-Pacific warrants rebalancing the strategic mobility triad away from Northeast Asia. A2/AD weapons threaten strategic airlift and sealift, resulting in a needed change of strategy for APS. The Army’s strategy requires a great deal of relationship-building with more countries to configure APS for the Indo-Pacific.
A thorough examination of contested logistics, the Army’s positioning, the role of Army watercraft, and the purpose of APS are critical to understanding how the United States should invest in the logistics capabilities required in the Indo-Pacific to deter or defeat a Chinese attack on Taiwan. A look at the challenges the services experienced in the Southwest Pacific during World War II illustrates the difficulty of conducting logistics in a contested environment. History must guide understanding of the mistakes that were made in the past to inform future strategies. Due to the contested environment in the Indo-Pacific, the United States requires increased forward presence, additional Army watercraft, and a modernized and dispersed APS strategy to deter or defeat a Chinese cross-strait operation to attack Taiwan.
Col. Gabriel W. Pryor serves as commander of McAlester Army Ammunition Plant, McAlester, Oklahoma. He previously served as a Marshall Scholar at the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and as the commander of the 47th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss, Texas. He was commissioned as a lieutenant of the Ordnance Branch from Gonzaga University, Washington. He earned a Master of Policy Management from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., and a Master of Arts and Strategic Studies from the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
This article was published in the Winter 2024 issue of Army Sustainment.